As the Vermont summer tips toward fall and hints of color and chill seep into our days, I am reminded of what drove me deep into the outdoors six years ago in pursuit of the whitetail deer — curiosity.
I was curious about harvesting my own food, the cycle of life and death, and a better understanding of our forested ecosystem. This curiosity led me to an unexpected place, sharing time with people who held a wide spectrum of beliefs and values, where I was far from the expert. To my delight and surprise, I found we had more that united us than divided us.
When it comes to climate science and the path to a sustainable future, the number-one predictor of whether we agree that the climate is changing and humans are responsible, is where you fall on the political spectrum.
If we are serious about tackling the biggest challenge facing people and the planet today, there is one thing we can do that will make the biggest difference: Talk to one another.
According to social scientists, our personal identity is strongly tied to the beliefs and conclusions we hold, so being curious and open-minded about a problem can feel risky. Many Americans feel uncomfortable talking about politically charged issues such as climate change because we associate talking with compromise. We mistakenly believe the act of listening suggests we are also accepting another’s point of view. But it is in the act of talking to people not at all like us, we can learn and grow.
Seven in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening, and 6 in 10 are at least somewhat concerned about it, but two-thirds of Americans rarely, if ever, talk about the topic.
So how can we engage in a conversation about issues or with people we don’t agree with? Here are three steps I lean on as I strive to connect with people from a broad range of political backgrounds:
1. Meet people where they are — then listen.
It’s tempting to begin a conversation by blurting out your side of the argument — all the things you think about an issue, whether it’s climate change or why we should eat less meat. But that’s not the place to start. Don’t enter the conversation with the idea of trying to change someone’s mind. Let go of this intention. Be curious, ask questions and find out what they think and why. Enter the conversation with a spirit of learning. Be present in the moment, and ask open-ended questions: who, what, where, when, why and how. It takes energy to pay attention to someone. Resist the temptation to jump in with your point of view. See if you can find a place where you agree — you might just be surprised.
2. Second, don’t try to conquer with facts.
Many of us have this fantasy of an epic conversion moment — we’ll tell our climate skeptic all our amazing facts in a compelling way and in the end, they will be forced to agree with us. That never happens. People don’t like to be told they are wrong, and facts only take us so far. If they are forced into a position where they must admit they are wrong, they’ll end up resenting the person who put them there. Science also tells us no matter how much we may believe in our own logical and data-filled arguments, most of us make decisions based on our feelings not on facts. Talking shouldn’t be a contest of facts. The act of talking is about establishing each other’s humanity, understanding each other’s perspective, and engaging on issues instead of staying silent or separate. The victory is you’re both sharing on the topic, even if you never reach agreement.
3. Third, connect on shared values.
Studies have shown liberals frame their arguments in terms of equality, fairness, protecting vulnerable people and social justice; while conservatives tend to respond to group loyalty, industriousness, patriotism, respect for authority, principles and religious sanctity. In short, when either group tries to persuade the other, we tend [to] use the same arguments we originally found persuasive — the ones that speak to our values. But when reaching out beyond your comfort zone, consider framing your case in a way the other can hear. If you want to move liberals, consider framing your case in terms of equality or protecting the most vulnerable among us. If you want to persuade a conservative, tap into her concerns for moral or environmental purity.
Being curious in conversation can lead to some uncomfortable moments, but we can also learn why others think the way they do and seek to find common ground — an increasingly elusive place in our current landscape. Curiosity might also delight us with the discovery of shared values and get us out of our ideological bubble. Just like any healthy ecosystem, democratic solutions need the full spectrum of ideas to thrive.
Heather Furman is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.