Skillful Conversations

Talking About our Earth and Ecological Crises

We are suffering in silence.

Studies show that most of us are concerned about climate change, and yet the vast majority of us never talk about it with our families, friends, or communities (Yale Climate Opinion Map 2016). And for those of us who have tried, how often do we find that the conversations lead to increased resistance and defensiveness, with our sense of connection to the other damaged or lost altogether? How can we possibly forge a healthy path forward if we can’t talk about what is happening now? Given the pull between the necessity and difficulty here, what does wise speech look like when the topic is climate and other ecological crises?

Why Climate Conversations Matter

I truly believe after thousands of conversations that I’ve had over the past decade or more that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven’t connected the dots. And that’s what we can do through our conversation with them.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

People are more likely to both believe and follow-up on news and information learned from their trusted friends and family than from any other source.[1]Pew Research Center, “Friends and Family: Important Drivers of News.” March 2013[2]Axios, “Americans trust their friends, not media or government.” April 2017 According to Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, “The number one thing we can do to break this vicious cycle of denial and conflict around climate crisis is the one thing we’re not doing: talk about it.”[3]Katharine Hayhoe November 2018

Having these discussions skillfully with others, and particularly with those who may not agree with us, is part of our engaged practice. Listening deeply and sharing our vulnerability, without moralizing or finger-wagging, we can make connections that can shift hearts and minds. This is action on behalf of the living earth community.

© Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Acknowledging Our Suffering

If we have the power to break this “vicious cycle of denial and conflict,” then what’s stopping us? Clearly, we’re side-stepping these exchanges for a reason… What’s going on here?

The situation we find ourselves in right now makes sense, as uncomfortable as it is. Here are a few things that we see happening when some of us try to talk about ecological crises:

  • We can easily go into conversations with an agenda for what we want the other person to do or believe, and we are often unwilling or unprepared for what might happen if that agenda is not met. We often carry the subtle or overt desire for them to behave differently. People can detect that and consequently feel judged and likely defensive.
  • We can enter these conversations dysregulated and might be attempting to dissipate our anxiety, instead of staying attuned to our experience while seeking a genuine connection with another human being.
  • Alternatively, we may try to protect ourselves from the potential discomfort about how we might be perceived, so we only say what we assume will be well-received. In this case, we might have a peaceful conversation, but it might feel incomplete or dishonest.

Mistaken Strategies

The stress we feel, that we may not even recognize, distorts our view. We’re looking for a way out. Sometimes we project that stress onto those around us, and we wind up not seeing them clearly either.

We usually enter these conversations asking someone to change. What we can do instead is ask them how they’re doing.

We often make two mistakes in particular:

  • The Myth of Apathy: We wrongly assume that the person we’re talking to doesn’t care. What flows from this? Judging, terrorizing, blaming, shaming, pressuring… all communication styles that have the opposite of our intended effect of changing behavior. And, the truth is, lurking just beneath their denial, they are probably just as scared and confused as you are.[4]Renee Lertzman, The Myth of Apathy.
  • We think that the other person can’t handle the truth, or maybe we just don’t want to bum them out, so we take the “we can solve this!” approach, overcorrecting and cheerleading, and we wind up finding ourselves stuck in disingenuous happy-talk and somehow alienated from ourselves.

Alternatively, it might be the case that we don’t actually know what can realistically be done about climate change, so we remain silent to avoid getting the other person and ourselves more freaked out without offering anywhere for them to go. This is compassion gone awry.

Rather than falling into one of these traps and risking further alienation from our own hearts and each other, we often choose to remain silent and avoid the situation entirely.

Beginning with Awareness

What happens when we experience stress beyond what we can tolerate? We tend to go into the edges of our window [of tolerance]. And on one hand, we might go into a sort of collapse, what’s called a chaotic response, which looks like depression, despair, kind of a shutting down. And on the other side of this window is a more rigid response: denial, anger, rigid. And so when that happens, we actually lose our capacity to be integrated, resilient, adaptive, all those things that we want to be.[…] And so with something like climate change, with every new scientific report, documentary, connecting the dots between what we’re doing and the impact it’s having, it can collectively be pushing us outside of our window of tolerance.

Renee Lertzman

When we understand our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of the person we’re encountering, we can meet both without projection and attachment. The Dharma has so much to offer us here. When we’ve developed the capacity to empathize with and transform our own fear, grief, and anger, we can hold space for that in others as well. We can be guided by sensitivity, a willingness to truly listen, and a desire to respond with clarity and compassion.

© Külli Kittus from Unsplash
  • Three A’s[5]Project InsideOut, The Three A’s: Ambivalence, Anxiety, and Aspiration. From Project InsideOut (see more in our Resource section below), these are meant to serve as reminders that can aid us in developing a new mindset that helps us remain connected and receptive during challenging conversations:
    • The situation we’re in leads to anxiety for many, and when we’re anxious or agitated, our neurological capacity for information processing is impaired. Acknowledging and understanding the anxieties of the people around us can help keep it in the present moment and allow us to communicate in a way that allows for more integrated information processing.
    • Many people experience a great deal of ambivalence about climate issues; our desires to remain the same compete with our desires to change, and we end up in a double-bind that feels irreconcilable. If we listen for these when speaking with others, we can validate with empathy and engage in creative problem solving together.
    • This last one points to our aspiration to live in integrity with our values, to be the best version of ourselves that we can. According to Project InsideOut, “When we signal ‘bright spots,’ we activate aspiration within ourselves and remind one another that what we are doing is a step forward. The key is to do this in the context of the other A’s so we are not only focusing on aspiration — We must aspire to address them all in our interactions.”[6]Project InsideOut, A Playbook for Difficult Conversations

Building Connection

People heal and make change when they feel supported, understood and challenged.

Renee Lertzman

When we can listen for all of these in those we speak with, we can weave them all together and remain empathically attuned and connected to ourselves and the people around us. Eventually, rather than avoid conflict, we can explore it openly with others with sensitivity and care, and without making any enemies.

Wise speech is a discipline, and we must approach climate conversations with this practice: really listening, asking clarifying questions, opening yourself to this other person’s truth, and finding the places where you’re both angry, you’re both afraid, you’re both confused, while holding space for it all.

Perhaps to get started, you might try this out with some friends. In low stakes scenarios, we can work out fledgling skillful conversation muscles, building up our toolkits, and learning to be with the unexpected. We will likely never do this perfectly, but practicing can build confidence and skill.

Seeding a Culture Shift

When people are not filled with reactivity, their activism looks different, feels different, and is less attached and more durable. We need support from each other to get there.

There’s something special about signaling to each other that it’s possible to not be in denial and simultaneously to not be running away from our pain. We can demonstrate that it’s possible to feel our suffering deeply while not reacting from it. When we hold space for others to come to terms with their feelings and find out how their own hearts feel called to respond, this is how culture begins to shift.

Support for Your Practice

This is a practice, one that can develop with attention. Here are some resources to support your conversation practice:


1 Pew Research Center, “Friends and Family: Important Drivers of News.” March 2013
2 Axios, “Americans trust their friends, not media or government.” April 2017
3 Katharine Hayhoe November 2018
4 Renee Lertzman, The Myth of Apathy.
5 Project InsideOut, The Three A’s
6 Project InsideOut, A Playbook for Difficult Conversations
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