Climate change conversations: how to have them without everyone walking out of the room

by Don Marshall and David MacQuarrie

2019 Salon on Climate Change Conversations

The Suzuki Elders presented a Salon on February 28, 2019 on climate change conversations. The important byline was “How to have them without everyone walking out of the room”. Attended by 33 participants, the Salon was essentially a pilot exercise to explore the task of helping people gain skills in having conversations with others when disagreement or conflicts arise. The stated goal of the Salon was “to provide participants with basic guidelines and tools to ensure that varying points of view regarding contentious issues in a climate change conversation are heard and acknowledged”.

We have become aware that toxic discourse in public and political spheres are creating divisiveness that prevents logical discussion of how to deal with the world’s important problems, including climate change. As members of an Elder group and of society we want to be able to converse effectively with leaders in politics and industry and with others on how to resolve these issues. This requires the ability to dialog with each other rather than debate, hopefully with more positive results.

In the Salon we examined what happens when we get into a conversational conflict and how we can not only avoid that but also develop an understanding of other positions and still maintain a cordial relationship.

The first part of the Salon (available at this link) was an overview based on some of the conclusions found in Jim Hoggan’s book “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot” :

  • Good people strongly disagree for good reasons;
  • Democracy only works if reasoned debate is possible – it must be constructive contention;
  • People can disagree, however they do need to agree that the only way forward is together;
  • Facts are not enough, something is missing;
  • The initial approach must be inquiry, exploring what truly matters to people (the emotional energy.

We explored the psychological dynamics in a conflicted conversation and how to get around and beyond that dynamic. It was clear from the presentation that in order to avoid conflict over an issue and preserve whatever relationship existed, it was important to stay in the narrative so that each person could speak from their own experience – “I remember ……”. This is difficult because we are so wired to immediately go to whatever we think the solution is, and if the listener has a different view then we get into a debate about who is right.

We developed some thoughts on conflict and how narrative can help:

  • A well-crafted narrative helps tear down barriers;
  • Narrative allows shared reality and both people can track their experience;
  • Narrative opens the possibility of doubt – the humility of uncertainty (How did I come to my conclusion? Whom/what do I trust?);
  • Narrative allows us to listen to each other!

We proceeded to some concluding thoughts:

  • We are capable of cooperation and can influence others;
  • Toxic conversations occur because we confuse relationship with conflict;
  • Arguments usually surface as conclusive statements – and when they differ from what we believe, we can interpret them as criticism, and we push back;
  • Describing our experiences engages others in sharing reality, and opens the possibility of our exploring how we create reality, which invites cooperation rather than conflict;
  • This Salon is an exploration of how to engage;
  • Agreement is not necessary; working together is!;
  • Today is an exploration: talking so as to listen, exploring so as to continue”.

Participants were asked to follow these guidelines:

  • Be humble;
  • Listen, listen, listen:
  • Be specific and personal;
  • Keep it short; Wonder;
  • Describe your gut reaction;
  • Avoid final conclusions.

Participants were divided into triads and requested to choose a contentious issue and have a conversation about it by telling stories and remembrances to each other while staying away from any conclusions about the issue. The triad rotated as one person stood aside and acted as referee to keep the other two from stating conclusions.  This was a very difficult process for most participants.

Salon participants then sat down in groups of 9 to have a “normal as possible” conversation on the topic “We need to care for the environment while continuing to use fossil fuels” Participants were encouraged to stay with remembrances and stories and not go to conclusions.  At the end of the round-table discussions, groups were asked for feed- back on the process and what could be a better or different approach.

We received excellent feedback on the post-salon evaluations, and 20 people expressed interest in going deeper into the subject. Most participants ‘got’ the concept of the value of engaging with others using stories and how that feels different, and indeed Is different, from a straight-up confrontational conversation. They also got how hard it is to not jump to conclusions.

Many people left with the intention to try telling stories to engage in creative conversations, i.e. they went home with a newfound (or re-found) skill to practice, however carefully! They also left knowing they needed to look for and find their own stories.

We are aware of some glitches in the exercises and that it was very hard work for everyone to stay with the process. However, the process is workable, needs some massaging, and should be presented again.

The Next Step

The Salon was an exploration of a skill that (hopefully) reduces toxic discourse. We are aware, though, that it has been a practice session in a staged format. The exercises were done are in an artificial environment; the real world is not built like this Salon.

How do you ease into conversations with people in the “natural world” when you want to connect and maybe have an influence? The required skill here is to act as an investigative reporter — curious as to story, but not caught in any particular viewpoint, and willing to put a personal agenda briefly aside to engage in authentic conversation, even a one-sided one. It is also important to use non-confrontive exploratory questions.

Pointers to having more effective conversations

Dealing with hard conclusions by others

We offer the following suggestions when hard conclusions are stated by others.

  • A sampler: “Wow! I can see/hear/feel that as a possible resolution. I’m truly curious though as to how you came to that conclusion. Would you be willing if we explored it further?”
  • Indicate to the other party that you are not interested in argument, rather to explore possible options. Ask if they are willing to do so too.
  • Ask with authentic curiosity how the others arrived at their conclusion.
  • Ask if the other is willing to listen to an alternative experience.
  • Tell the other that you have some sense of how you came to a different conclusion, and then ask the two of you could talk further so as to gain greater understanding.

In all cases, we suggest validation of the conclusion of the other as one possible approach to life’s difficulties — it sets the stage for others to listen.

Opening conversations (perchance leading to conclusions)

Here are some Initiating phrases that will make it easier to get past those awkward but important moments when beginning a connection or in the middle of a conversation when you need to connect more deeply.

  • I am curious about ……?
  • What sense of purpose, mission, or duty guides your life?
  • What are you doing when you feel beautiful, or happy, or secure?
  • How do you trace the seeds of your passion and interest?
  • How would you explain your concern/position/passion to a child?
  • How can we get into a dialog without aiming to win?
  • How has your experience informed your ideas about ……………?
  • What is possible here? Why do you care?

Thoughts to consider in seeking an authentic engagement

  • What values or principles might you find useful to you in a challenging conversation?
  • What questions/concerns come up as you think about engaging with others in conversation?
  • How do you feel when a conversation gets stuck? What needs to change?
  • What do you do/feel when in a conversation you find you may be wrong about something?


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