8 tips for becoming (and remaining) an effective climate communicator

I remember watching the anger boil in his face as he took the question from the audience. He was a distinguished scientist and climate researcher fielding a technical objection to some recent research. But the technical details were not really the issue. "Your missing the point!" he blurted, then apologetically back-stepped into a technical answer that did, ultimately, answer the man's question. But this battle was already lost. The audience member nodded vapidly at the response, and then likely went on denying this most recent piece of the climate solution. What he needed was not a technical response, but to have his doubts recognized,  and responded to. This exchange, as with every exchange on climate change, is as much about the latent content between each party as it is about the details.

There is latent content behind every climate change exchange. On the surface, we may be discussing one detail or another--the pros and cons of solar proliferation, storage and transport challenges, or the latest climate research and its implications--but beneath that surface content there exists a heated, unconscious dialogue between two unique individuals, each with their own conscious and unconscious mental constellations. Drawing from my work in relational dynamic psychotherapy, here are a 7 things to keep in mind as you undertake the important, noble and often challenging task of communicating about climate change:

1) That person is a part of you. It's impossible to talk to someone without accessing parts of our selves that they remind us of. You too might have once denied climate change. You too might have once said: "Yeah, so what can I do about it?" How you relate to that part of yourself is how you relate to them. Know thyself. Love that part of yourself that is embodied in the person you're about to argue with. If you're going to be effective you need to embrace who you are, were, and might have been, all at the same time. Do not elevate yourself above them because you feel you know something that they don't. People hate that and if that's your approach, they will hate you and the ideas you're espousing. Accept them and their ideas as your own and be respectful about your differences of opinion, which there are sure to be.

Anger is a tell-tale sign that you may benefit from checking in with yourself. Figure out why this person makes you angry and you will be one step closer to achieving your goal. The person who most ignites your anger is a person you have something to learn from. Perhaps they are a younger version of you? Another stubborn old man, just like your father? How intolerable! Find the source, and you will find mastery.

2) Manage your aggression. Sometimes, it might seem warranted to want to reach out and shake a person and say "Why don't you get this!?" Don't do that. You could be arrested. Aggression is an important piece of the climate change mentality--the mentality that is causing climate change. It's insidious, unconscious forms are largely behind our predominant relationship to the environment. You need to understand how aggression works. Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? How do you relate to anger and aggression? Pay for good psychotherapy. It's worth every penny and it will make you much more effective at the challenge of communicating about climate change and sustainability.

3) People's defenses are there for a reason. Defenses provide us shelter from something we simply cannot tolerate. It's often not effective to try to break someone's defenses down all at once. In fact, it's often impossible and could be psychologically dangerous. Learn the function of their defenses and teach yourself to empathize with why they exist. See the fear that brought them to life and acknowledge this in what you say and how you say it. Honor their defenses and welcome them into your conversation. Defenses are like a finger-trap, once you've been drawn in, the harder you struggle the worse it gets. Don't try to break it or force it.

4) Don't break what you can't fix. If you're going to help someone work through their defenses about climate change, you need to give them something to replace them with.  If environmental collapse is too terrifying, offer them the way out with specific steps they can take to join you in your quest to save humanity from climate change. Articulate your solution and have it neatly packaged and ready to deliver. If you fumble, they might not take it. In the same vein, stop needing them to change. If you need a certain outcome from a conversation, say, convincing someone that they can help stop climate change, any indication that things aren't headed in that direction stands to throw you off course. Keep it a a goal, but do not need or expect the outcome. People can feel that and they hate it.

5) Be sure of what you're saying. If you believe yourself, so will they. It is the unfortunate reality that self-assuredness is appealing, even if what we're "sure" about is completely wrong. It is seductive, like Bernie Madoff in a black nighty, until you realize that it's Bernie Madoff in a black nighty. Don't be Bernie Madoff. There is substance behind what you say. Be familiar with the research. Be clear on your facts and their sources. Be sure of yourself and damn sure about why you feel that way.

6) Walk the walk. Literally. Authenticity has a certain ring to it. If you're talking about reducing carbon footprints, transitioning to renewable energy sources, local food, or whatever you're working on communicating about, start first with yourself. Much of my work as a psychotherapist involves helping people make the leap from talking about things "out there" (i.e. not within themselves) to working on them "in here", in the therapeutic dynamic and in themselves. It's easy to point outward at things that need to change and you're probably right about those things. But this should not displace your responsibility to work inward.

The various forms of projection are one of the most common psychological defenses and we all employ them on a regular basis, in some way or another. Own your carbon footprint. Nobody else can take responsibility for the food you eat, the car you drive, or the air you breath. Your impact is yours. If you're asking people to work on theirs, work on your own. It will make you much less likely to become angry, frustrated or disillusioned by this work. Working on yourself will make working with others drastically easier. Effortless, almost. It is often the case that our need for others to change is tied to our unconscious wish that we, ourselves, could be different. Break the projective cycle. Again, good psychotherapy can go a long way here.

If you're curious, yes, I bike most places, grow my own vegetables and am installing solar electricity in my home, among other efforts to reduce my personal contribution to climate change. Even these efforts are merely the tip of the iceberg. But we all have to start somewhere. Start where it makes sense for you.

7) Know why and how you came to this work. Feel it in your bones. Taste it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the spirit of communicating authenticity, it is vital to understand how you came to be aware of climate change and how that relates to the rest of your life. You don't have to share this with everyone or even anyone. But there is a certain ring to the words of the select few who have embarked on this journey. Make yourself one of them. Know your own truth and it will set you free.

8) Perform regular maintenance. Rehearse your speeches and one-liners. Hone your communicative craft. Participate in discussion groups and talk with your peers. This will help you stay sharp and up to date. Don't let the latest piece of compelling evidence slip through your grasp. Perhaps make a list of bookmarked and reliable sources that you reference and update it each quarter? Staying fresh will prevent you from sounding like the climate change version of a Tickle-me-Elmo. If you start to become repetitive it will show. Mindless repetition is not a becoming color on you.


Benjamin White, LCSW is the founder of The Climate Within, and practices psychotherapy in Lafayette, Colorado. He welcomes your contact at ben@benjaminwhite.us