Communication tips for tough issues from Katharine Hayhoe

Communication has never been tougher for innovation leaders tackling issues like climate change, racism and gender discrimination. Polarization and disinformation are at all-time highs, making it almost impossible to just start a conversation. Dinner tables at family gatherings have turned into war zones and hate-fuelled violence is destroying communities. So how can we learn to break through the stalemate and start to have conversations instead of fights?

That's what climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe sets out to show us in her book Saving Us. Filled with powerful research and real-life examples, she walks us through the theory and practice of engaging North Americans in dialogue about change. Though she focuses on climate change, most of what she's found about human nature also applies to challenges in other areas.

I found myself highlighting most of the book - so it's definitely worth a read! Here are a few key insights and quotes that jumped out for me.

"The biggest challenge we face isn't science denial. It's a combination of tribalism, complacency, and fear."

Climate deniers, or as researchers call them, "Dismissives" don't have a problem with climate science. What they fear and object to are the solutions.

"Republicans believe government's and society's attempts to address climate change will decrease their quality of life, pummel the economy, and compromise their personal rights."

This creates a dilemma for them. They likely do believe in climate change but are afraid of what they might lose if they support solutions. However, if they admit that they know climate change is a problem and they don't want to fix it, that makes them look like a bad person and we all want to be good. So instead of rejecting the solutions, they reject climate change.

In short, most people don't care about climate change – they care about how it affects their lives.

Our need for belonging and our sense of identity are the key drivers of our behaviour.

Belonging is a fundamental human need that has much more influence over us than we often realize. We all belong to different groups – families, teams, communities, organizations, nations – that define our identity

"Fear of change drives tribalism, emphasizing what divides us rather than what unites us; and the more threatened we feel, the tighter we draw the circles to distinguish between them and us."

These connections to others in our group are so strong that we see people from other "tribes" who disagree with us as enemies, alien, not worth respecting or even treating as human.

The "knowledge deficit model" doesn't work.

This is the most important message of the book IMHO. It builds on the ideas about belonging, demonstrating that facts and data don't drive our behaviour – emotions do.

Most of us think that, if we just give people more information, they'll make the right decision. This is a false assumption.

"Modern psychology strongly suggests that when it comes to making up our minds about something, emotions usually come first and reason second. If we've already formed our opinions, more information will get filtered through those pre-existing frames. And the more closely that frame is tied to our sense of what makes us a good person, the more tightly we'll cling to it and let potentially opposing facts pass us by.

In other words, if we give people new information that contradicts what their group believes, they will reject it at almost any cost.

"For most of us, the value of belonging far outweighs the value of attaining new information, especially if publicly accepting that information and speaking up might lead to a negative outcome – an argument, the cold shoulder, or even ostracism from your social group."

In fact, it turns out that the smarter you are, the better you are at cherry-picking evidence to deny new information presented to you, in order to preserve your self-worth and identity.

This also means that "the more broadly scientifically literate you are, the more, not less, likely it is that your political identity dictates your opinions on polarized issues like climate change."

Using fear to try to incite action doesn't work.

This is another mistake we're making in most communication for change. As an emotion, fear causes us to shut down and retreat. Which means that gloom and doom messaging just doesn't work.

"Research on everything from airplane seatbelts to hand washing in hospitals shows that bad-news warnings are more likely to make people check out than change their behavior. And the more vivid and dire the picture painted, the less responsive the recipient. Fear and anxiety [can] cause us to withdraw, to freeze, to give up."

Fear also shuts down your brain's capacity for creative thinking.

"When the body releases stress chemicals, the brain shuts down the hippocampus region and you lose about 30 percent of your brain function, including the creative thinking faculties."

That said, our reaction to loss aversion is stronger than opportunity.

"We assign a much greater cost to things being taken away from us than we do to obtaining new things."

Blame and shame only divide us.

Hayhoe reminds us several times that people want to be seen as good. So when we challenge or contradict someone's beliefs and values, we cause them to feel shame and guilt.

That makes them feel like a bad person because they let things get to this terrible state. And that disrupts their sense of belonging to the society of good people, which forces them to reject the ideas that caused them shame in the first place.

God is not in charge.

As an Evangelical Christian, Hayhoe has become quite an influential speaker for her ability to address challenges to climate change based on the Bible.

"One of the most frequent Christian arguments I hear is that God is in control, so humans can't affect something as big as the Earth. But this completely overlooks the role of human agency, the fact that the Bible explicitly states that God gave humans responsibility over the Earth."

Plus, "climate change disproportionately affects the poor, the hungry, and the sick, the very ones the Bible instructs us to care for and love."

"If Christians truly believe we've been given responsibility / dominion over every living thing on this planet, as it says at the very beginning of Genesis, then we won't only objectively care about climate change. We will be at the front of the line demanding action because it's our God-given responsibility to do so. Failing to care about climate change is a failure to love. What is more Christian than to be good stewards of the planet and love our global neighbor as ourselves?"

So what does work?

Focus on shared values and experiences.

"Beginning a conversation with something that unites us instead of something that divides us means we are starting at a place of mutual respect, agreement, and understanding"

Find out what values are important to your audience's identity and use those as common ground to start a conversation. Issues like climate change touch almost all aspects of our lives, from recreation to health to the economy. Once you've done that, connect on a human level, through stories.

"When you hear a story, neuroscientists have found, your brain waves start to synchronize with those of the storyteller. Your emotions follow. And that's how change happens.
"When we're talking about contentious, politicized issues, study after study has shown that sharing our personal and lived experiences is far more compelling than reeling off distant facts."

Offer people a powerful vision of a better future and clear ways to take action to make their lives better.

Most of us feel helpless right now.

"We're told that essential aspects of our lives – driving to work, or to the doctor, or feeding our kids, or going on vacation with our family – are bad. But we can't envision how to live otherwise. Or even, how to exist otherwise."

Hayhoe reminds us that we need to know what to do. Action is contagious – and when we take it together, it creates the belonging we so desperately crave through shared experience and values.

"Hundreds of experiments have shown that humans are literally hardwired to move toward pleasure and away from pain."

People want to be seen as good. Help them achieve that.

"Being on the same side as the solutions rather than seeing them as in opposition to us is more likely to bring us on board. Going a level deeper into the function of our brains, positive rather than negative reinforcement is key to motivating long-term change. If our brain is hardwired to move forward toward a reward but to freeze in response to fear and anxiety, as Tali Sharot explains, then to spur ourselves and each other to action we must provide a positive incentive to act, not just an apocalypse to avoid."

Finally, don't bother trying to change the mind of the 7% of hard-core Dismissives.

Focus instead on the 93% of people who are open to new ideas.

Do you have any tips to add based on your work? I'd love to hear them!