How to have better conversations about climate change

Rosemary Randall will be running a workshop at this year’s CAT conference from the 5th to the 7th of October on how to make our conversations about climate change more fruitful and less conflictual. Here she explains some of the ideas behind her approach.


I started thinking about this subject some years ago when some of my own conversations about climate change went wrong.

Statements that I thought were merely factual were met not with interest or curiosity but with indifference or indignation. Some people felt I was accusing them. Others thought that I was being depressing or had become obsessed.

It was clear that I was upsetting other people and feeling quite upset myself in the process.

I began to think about how my own profession – psychotherapy – might help to understand this and whether it could offer some tools to help people communicate more easily about this difficult subject.

Understanding the process of a conversation

Psychotherapy emphasises the process of a conversation as much as the content. Its focus is on the way people say things, the feelings they experience, and the perceptions (often faulty) which each person has of the other.

Are people speaking enthusiastically or knowledgeably for example? Do they sound worried, sad, or joyous? Is there an unspoken demand behind the words, for example that you should agree with them or look after them, back off or leave them alone?  Does their body language match their words or tell a different story? And what is each person imagining about the other? Are you, for example, right to see me as a self-righteous preacher and am I right to see you as a lackadaisical layabout? How has the conversation ended up with one of us behaving like a disappointed parent and the other like a rebellious child?

Defences and resistances

Psychotherapy also assumes that when a subject is potentially upsetting people will adopt defensive strategies – from changing the subject, cracking an irrelevant joke, idealising the status quo, to accusing the other person of all manner of unlikely sins.

“You want to convert everyone to your way of thinking,” and “You’re just doing this for the money,” were two which I heard flung at activists patiently trying to explain some troubling statistics.

Activists themselves may react in like fashion, constructing recalcitrant members of the public as the enemy or dismissing them as too old, too stupid or too useless to engage with.

Learning skills from psychotherapy

The skills of psychotherapy cannot be learnt in a short workshop but understanding the defences which we all use under stress and being able to attend to the different levels of a conversation can be a tremendous help. Pinpointing where a conversation came unstuck and exactly why can be quite a revelation.

In the workshops we move on from this to practise four key skills – listening, developing empathy, supporting self-efficacy and working with resistance.

If you want someone to listen to your arguments, alter their lifestyle or get involved politically you also need to listen to them – not in order to rebut their arguments but in order to understand the person, empathise with their dilemmas and support them. And, as you encounter resistance, instead of pushing back you need to explore the objections and look at ways of removing blockages rather than pushing harder against them.

These are not easy skills to master but I’ve found time and time again that even a short introduction can change the way people talk to each other about climate change.

CAT conference, 5-7 October 2018

Join us for this year’s CAT conference, 5th-7th October

We’ll be exploring raising ambition for climate action, with talks, seminars, tours and workshops centred on working together to build sustainable solutions.

Visit www.cat.org.uk/conference or call Penny on 01654 705988 for more information and to book your place.