The trick to helping people process their climate-related dilemmas

Talking about both sides of one's ambivalence is a gateway to behaviour change

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Emotional intelligence to the rescue

It’s been a big week of winning for emotional intelligence in the climate crisis. That’s because Project Inside Out officially launched on October 7th and 8th. PIO is an online hub of resources for sustainable behaviour change that was created by the pioneering environmental psychologist Dr. Renee Lertzman (who is also a friend and colleague). Renee and her team collaborated with interactive designers to create a suite of tools that are informed by clinical therapeutic fields and neuroscience. Their psychologically sophisticated resources are designed to upgrade the emotional intelligence of environmental leaders and help change-makers be more effective in their work. Over the 2 day launch, Project Inside Out convened inspiring talks and activities that foreground a new mindset for sustainability leadership. One they call guiding. (I spoke at the event and you can still find the recordings of all the sessions on their fb page).

The guiding mindset

A key feature of the guiding mindset is that it recognizes that many of us feel caught in a double bind when it comes to the climate crisis and how we live our lives. We care deeply about the environment and want emissions to decline. Yet simultaneously, we yearn for that flight for our vacation, or new truck, or to keep our salaried job in an environmentally damaging profession. And so, we have ways of justifying what “we deserve” as well as dimming our care for the world in order to keep doing as we please. But this makes us uncomfortable when we’re genuinely ambivalent, and we suffer - often unconsciously - for it. A guiding approach helps us tune into this ambivalence, get unstuck, and free up our capacities to make changes that matter.

One of the speakers at PIO’s launch, Steven Malcolm Berg-Smith, spoke about what we can do to disarm the double bind and allow change to appear where we normally see dilemmas. Steve is a trainer in a behaviour change technique called Motivational Interviewing, which is a counselling approach specifically designed to help resolve ambivalence. The good news is that even though ambivalence blocks change, when you learn how to talk to it in another person - and crucially how to not talk to it - it becomes the gateway to change. As Steve explained:

“The kicker is that in guiding and supporting change we have to learn how to do something that is so unnatural: we have to learn how to tame a reflex of the heart that wants to make change happen, get things moving, fix, promote, activate, persuade, convince others, and so forth, because there is a paradoxical effect. When I start to do that it tends to activate the other side of the ambivalence in the person: the voice of no change.”

Steve offered an ingredient list we can use to support ambivalent people to move in the direction of change: 

  • most importantly, you must tame the reflex inside you that wants to fix something in the other person

  • do this by adopting a particular mindset that makes you calm and curious to understand the other person’s perspective; this requires deep listening; people are more likely to move in a direction when they feel accurately understood, so empathic listening is key

  • operate from a place of acceptance and non-judgment in a way that supports and acknowledges the other person’s freedom and agency; do so without attachment to outcome

  • not being attached to outcome doesn’t mean you don’t care, it means that at the end of the conversation, you more or less cannot be emotionally attached to whether the person does one thing or another

  • if you feel yourself becoming emotionally invested in the outcome and cannot let go, remember that you are running the risk of manipulation and doing things that don’t work, namely, re-activating the righting reflex

  • use conversation to support the other person to begin exploring and talking about both sides of their ambivalence

  • get them to name their mixed feelings; motivational interviewing has found that exploring ambivalence frees up energy and helps unscramble doubt as well as awaken action

  • focus the conversation by drawing out good reasons for change in the other person; you want to hear what might be good for them in their own opinion and why they want to do something

  • most importantly, step out of the role of telling them what to do, and instead draw out the aspirations, wisdom, motivations, hopes and dreams that are already in them

  • remember that people are more likely to adopt change if they feel like they authored the idea themselves


Of course, it can be really hard to detach yourself from the outcome of whether someone changes or not, while also truly valuing their perspective and agency to make their own decisions. Renee affirmed this, and said we need to learn to cultivate compassion for people’s resistance. This is clearly not intuitive work.

Suppressing the righting reflex

Suppressing the righting reflex is not easy and it takes practice. Steve explained that it requires a deliberate shift of perspective, which we can practice with our loved ones before we try it out in the wider world. After all, we are usually quickest to pull out the hammer with the people we care the most about. To help suppress that urge, Steve uses metaphoric imagery. “I think about sitting on my hands or biting my tongue or leaving the hammer on the upper shelf” he said.

What would you like to know about the guiding approach and how to lower people’s defences against change? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll try to get some answers sourced for you from the combined wisdom at Project Inside Out.

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‘Till next week! xo