How to Have Productive Environmental Discussions

April 11, 2020  •   6 min read

This post has been written by our guest contributor: Lilly Woodbury


We’ve all been there, whether we’re gathered around a table alongside family members with our foraged goods, or we’re out on the town and once again we’ve found ourselves in impassioned dialogue with a stranger, or we’re digging deep into the ecological crisis with a coworker. In these and other similar instances, we have most likely entered into environmental discussions where we felt challenged in navigating the conversation towards productivity, enhanced learning, and a greater sense of hope.


I began my activist journey at the turn of the summer in 2011, and this was the era that I gained the most insight on how to constructively engage people in environmental conversations. My job for Greenpeace New Zealand had me willingly walking onto private property all day long. I travelled around the country talking to people from all walks of life about the issues threatening the ecological integrity of this country’s iconic land and seascapes. What was even wilder about this equation was that I placed myself on unknown doorsteps and entered people’s homes daily, walking into unpredictable situations 30 odd times a day.


On top of countless memories from the downright scary to the utmost inspiring, my Greenpeace experience gave me vital insight on how to reach a wide array of people. Of course, I’m still discovering new techniques on how to influence actions from conversations, but here are some key insights from my experience over the last 9 years. These insights can especially serve us when discussing topics that we may not see eye to eye on with someone. And, honestly, these conversations are some of the most essential to seek out and have because it’s become increasingly urgent to break out of the echo chamber. We need to do our best to deeply reach each other: to lower the barriers, fill the gaps in our efforts, unify across silos, and come together in our diversity in this movement to regenerate the earth.


1. Deeply listening to people instead of just focusing on being “right”.

Of course, this advice is easier said than done, but becoming a true critical thinker means opening ourselves up to perspectives that are different than our own. This is challenging since we become very biased and attached to our own beliefs, but the truth is, we don’t always have all the answers. Attentively listening is also essential for genuinely connecting with people, and even in the instances, of, let’s say, individuals denying climate change, digesting their arguments is a necessary process for strengthening the logic we use to defend our justice statements. 

2. Connect to people’s hierarchy of values.

Building on the previous pillar of advice, once we actually hear people out, we can extract what their values are. Often, we get into environmental conversations and we project our experiences on to the people we’re engaged with, but our experiences, our types of identities, history and thus our values are likely very different. So, ask open questions that will help you understand what someone holds high on their hierarchy of values: it may be their children, nieces or nephews, their pets, the economy, food, recreation, their career, even new cars! One of the most positive attributes of our existence is that everything truly is interconnected, so there is always an intersection we can identify between someone’s values and an eco-based topic. Our values underpin our belief systems and thus our behaviours. Thus, once we tap into this intersection, we have a greater chance at having a meaningful conversation, building genuine rapport, and exchanging insight.

3. Meet people where they’re at.

We all have different backgrounds, education, and societal conditioning. I believe it’s important to always keep this in mind. If someone doesn’t understand or believe something in relation to the environment, there’s usually a reason behind this, so instead of becoming instantly judgemental, let’s meet this with compassion. Truthfully, many of us were not educated about the environment in school, and now we’re widely learning about the crisis we’re in through various forms of media. If we’re patient, we’re going to be a lot less frustrated (which will drain less of our energy), and there is a higher probability that people will have a greater willingness to accept new ideas if we do not respond reactively. With this, it’s imperative to use inclusive language, over accusatory language, in conversations: “we”, “us”, “together”, over “you” and “your”.

4. Know the facts, embrace and spread the solutions.

In my environmental conversations, I find most of what I’m rebuffing is people’s negative and often false claims about the state of the environment. Please note, this is different from folks venting about the earth, we’re all justified in expressing our concern, pain, and grief for the state of the planet. This is a healthy process and essential for getting back to a mental and emotional state of active hope. However, when people make sweeping pessimistic claims, like “we have no real chance at combating climate change so there’s no point in taking a stand”, we can step in to share the facts around the inspiring victories that have been won and the current environmental developments already in place. The biggest resource I can recommend for this is The Optimistic Environmentalist by Dr. David Boyd, which chronicles environmental success stories, from clean air, to successful international treaties, to the renewable revolution. It’s important to be aware of the harsh reality we are facing and not gloss over this, however, it’s also productive to continually educate ourselves on the solutions and our achievements, so we can illuminate the truth in these types of communications.

5. Be brave in being outspoken. However, sometimes, we don’t need to have the environmental conversation at all.

There will be times when we feel shy, nervous, and vulnerable in speaking our truth with people, but we need to give it our all to transform this. The earth needs us to dig far into the soil of our soul and conjure courage for raising our voice in motivation for creating a better world. Like balancing yin and yang of opposites, there is also a flip side to this that’s important to adhere to. Sustainability doesn’t just relate to our relationship with the earth, it also applies to respecting our own resources; our own capacity. This includes the bandwidth we have for dealing with and discussing environmental issues, and respecting this so that we’re less susceptible to burnout. If we go overboard with our efforts, this can decrease our future ability and longevity in making a difference. With this, it’s also important to be aware about when a conversation is toxic and/or when it’s not going to be a good use of our time and energy – let it go! We have a duty to do our best, not to be perfect and force conversations or continue them where they might end up having an adverse impact on us.


What are your techniques for reaching and influencing people to take action on the environment? Whatever they are, I’d love to hear them, and the world needs to hear it, too. More than ever, we need to come together, and as communicative creatures, this will happen through open, transparent, vulnerable and daring dialogue. This may not be easy, but it’s going to be an adventure, and one that will enrich the quality and purpose of our lives for building a brighter, cleaner and more equitable earth.


About the Author

Living seaside amongst the foggy rainforest of Tofino, B.C., Lilly Woodbury is an environmental communicator, activist and Chapter Manager for Surfrider Foundation’s Pacific Rim Chapter. Surfrider’s mission is the protection and enjoyment of the ocean, beaches, and waves, and this Chapter’s focus is addressing plastic pollution and shifting towards a circular economy. Lilly has an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto, and has also worked for Greenpeace New Zealand. Lilly won Starfish Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 in Canada in 2018, and when she isn’t surfing, she’s spending time on environmental speaking, workshops, writing, and collaborations.


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