In this guide:
- Lessons from my first sustainability programme
- Beware – sustainability facts can cause powerlessness
- How to speak about sustainability when the facts are scary
- From conversations to building support
- Key Steps – Listening, Sense Making, Inviting
- Action: Talk with your potential collaborators and allies
- Links to articles and other resources
In this guide I’ll help you to talk with colleagues about sustainability in ways that make it more likely they’ll be interested and engaged, and be more open to supporting your initiative as collaborators or allies.
Lessons from my first sustainability programme
I developed and ran my first sustainability programme in the late 1990s. A UK government department, let’s call them the Dept of Red Tape, signed up and I delivered the first session with their environment manager and the green team he had created, let’s call him Joe.
The day after, I had a call from Joe.
“Hi Joe, how are you doing?” I asked.
“You’ve destroyed all the work I’ve done in the last three years to build up the green team” he said.
I felt sick.
I listened, stomach churning, as he told me what he thought of me and my programme. That was the end of that contract.
This is what I’d done. I told them about the damage we’re causing to nature and people, that we’re heading for disaster, that we need transformation of the economy and society to turn things around.
I thought I was inspiring them, and that they’d be keen to learn more about sustainability and how their organisation could be part of the solution. Joe had told me I’d done the opposite.
It is probably my worst experiences as a sustainability advocate.
But I learnt a lot from it, and it really influenced my approach.
There were two big things I got wrong.
I ignored potential negative impact of emotion.
I assumed people would be informed and inspired. Instead, I stimulated fear, despair and powerlessness.
I focused on telling, rather than listening
If I’d created space for them to talk about what they thought and felt about sustainability, I could have listened and then adapted the session. Instead I simply ploughed ahead with my presentation.
Beware – sustainability facts can cause powerlessness
I wasn’t the only one talking about sustainability like this. Back then, the main way NGOs and campaigners communicated about environmental issues was with facts about the scale of the damage and the scale of challenges facing us.
Of course, the facts are scary. Done badly, talking about them puts people off sustainability. They feel overwhelmed and powerless.
As a result, communicating sustainability in ways that risked bringing up negative emotions got a bad reputation. When communicating with business audience focus moved to the ‘business case’, painting a positive picture of the benefits to the organisation.
In our previous guide, Two approaches to build support for sustainability, I mentioned two problems with using the business case to engage colleagues with sustainability:
- Unsustainable opportunities remain tempting, and the business case reinforces the view that profitability is the sole purpose of business
- We need ambition beyond good practice to address the challenges facing us all
We can only overcome these problems by inspiring and engaging colleagues with emotions, not simply facts about sustainability nor the business benefits of tackling it.
And we shouldn’t downplay the facts. Given that knowledge of the dangers and difficulties are widespread, if we make light of them, we risk being seen as dishonest, inauthentic and untrustworthy.
So, the question is: how to work with emotions to engage people with sustainability when so many of the facts are truly terrifying?
How to speak about sustainability when the facts are scary
The answer lies in how we speak with people about sustainability.
Starting a conversation about sustainability can feel challenging.
You might fear you’ll get push back if talking about sustainability feels inappropriate in your professional context; if it’s not actually on the agenda.
Or you might fear that you’ll find your colleague is a climate denier, and you’ll not know how to respond. You might worry about setting off rants about cyclists, environmental protesters, etc.
And what if your colleague is concerned about sustainability and your conversation opens the floodgates of despair?
You might also be worried that you’ll be unable to answer all the questions they may have.
And if you are very knowledgeable about sustainability, there’s a risk you end up just answering questions and giving facts, which don’t engage people, rather than connecting with their emotions in ways that inspire them.
Luckily, since my first disastrous sustainability programme, academics and NGOs have worked together to develop better ways of communicating about sustainability and climate change.
One NGO with useful guidance is Climate Outreach. I’ve found their work really helpful and I’ve drawn on it as I’ve developed my sustainability programmes, workshops, consulting and coaching.
Climate Outreach have a great resource: The Talking Climate Handbook: How to have conversations about climate change in your daily life. It’s just as useful for talking about sustainability in your professional life.
They suggest following the principles of “REAL TALK”:
From conversations to building support
While it doesn’t address conversations at work, the principles and advice it offers are still relevant – and they underpin our approach to using conversations about sustainability to build support for your organisation’s sustainability initiative or strategy.
Our approach is based on these insights from practice and research:
People do care and want to do something
We know that most people do care about climate change and other aspects of sustainability, and they would like to do something about it if they could.
If they don’t feel they can do anything worthwhile, they are likely to feel despair and a sense of powerlessness.
But if they believe they can take action that will make a difference, they will feel hopeful and be keen to do more.
People want others to take action
Most people want other people, businesses and government to take action.
If they don’t believe these groups are taking meaningful action, they feel that their little point in them doing anything.
But if they see that enough businesses, organisations and governments are taking sustainability seriously, they will be inclined to support such action and get involved if they believe your organisation’s initiative will actually make a difference.
An hour with other sustainability directors and managers to explore the key issues and challenges that matter to you. To be notified of the next event…
Key Steps – Listening, Sense Making, Inviting
Those are the principles behind our approach to engaging people at work with sustainability. Our approach has three steps:
- Listening: gathering information about their interests, etc.
- Sense Making: making sense of this, key issues, concerns, what’s important
- Inviting: them onto the next step in a way which feels right to them, meets their needs
We apply this approach in many different contexts to engage people with sustainability. It’s often the initial phase of a consulting project where we interview key staff and stakeholders. We also use it to design and deliver workshops to involve more people from across the organisation.
We’ll go into how you can use it in those ways in future episodes.
Right now I want to help you apply this approach to having informal, one-to-one conversations with colleagues about sustainability. It might start as a ‘water cooler’ conversation, over lunch, or when you are travelling together. Or perhaps the opportunity arises during a meeting about something else.
Taking the opportunity in these kinds of situation will help you become comfortable with the approach before you apply it in more high stakes contexts.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that your first aim should simply be to start the conversation, get people comfortable with talking about sustainability and open to continuing the conversation in future.
Step 1: Listening
Although the focus is listening, you need to start with a few questions to build rapport and find common interest around sustainability.
Ask open questions to learn more about what they care about and why including personal interests and concerns. And most importantly, listen to hear what matters to them and what they need.
Listen for things that matter to them: For example, you may hear that they are concerned about the local flooding, or that outside work they sit on the board of a local nature charity working with farmers, or are a keen skier and they’ve noticed the loss of snow in the Alps.
Listen for what they need: They might not say this out loud, but listening between the lines, you may hear for example, that they would like to improve their knowledge of some aspect of sustainability, or that they aren’t aware of what some businesses are already doing, or that they don’t believe anything they do will make any difference.
Step 2: Sense making
You’ve heard what you think matters to them and what they need. Now you can reflect back what you think you heard to check that you heard them correctly. Then, gently shift the conversation to explore connections between the different issues they are concerned about and different aspects of sustainability.
For example: are there connections between the local floods and the projects their charity is working on?
How is the loss of snow affecting nature in the Alps? Is the lack of snow melt in the summer in the Alps causing drought for farmers in the area?
If it feels natural, you might want to explore connections between this issues and your organisation’s supply chain, operations and customers: Are some of your suppliers at risk of flooding? The offices were unbearable in the 2022 heat wave – what will you do if it happens again? Have customers been asking about your sustainability and climate plans?
Step 3: Inviting
Think about ‘inviting’ as a broad concept. The idea is you are inviting them to continue the conversation in some way. You are most likely to be successful if your invitation picks up on an issue they are emotionally engaged with: something you’ve discovered they care about, or something that would help meet a need that they’ve expressed.
It could be as simple as: “you said you wanted to know more about climate change and ski-ing; I saw a great article about that, shall I send it to you?”
Or something more formal: “We’re looking at developing a biodiversity plan for the estate, your experience with your nature charity would be really useful. It would be great if you could come to the planning meeting”
Or offering your support to them: “Your idea about X is really interesting; how can I help?”
Putting it into practice
In an informal conversation, rather than an interview in a consultancy project or a workshop, these steps will likely be mixed together rather than the step by step process set out above.
The most important aspect is the listening stage. It may be all you have time for or you may want time to think before your next step.
But even if the listening stage is all you can do, you’ve made great progress:
- Hopefully your colleague feels listened to
- You’ve started making it normal to talk about sustainability in ways that engage the emotions
- You’ve opened the door to further conversations, including invitations to be involved with or support, the development and delivery of your organisation’s sustainability initiative.