Imagine that you start a conversation with a new person at an outreach event. They ask about the work that you do, and you share that you’re a scientist studying the impacts of climate change on coastal wetlands.
*Eyeroll* “Oh great, you’re one of THOSE people.”
Caught off-guard, you ask what they mean.
“I’m so tired of hearing about the ‘dangers’ of climate change. The climate has always changed, you scientists have already shown that. Why don’t we focus more on the economy or something else that will actually affect us?”
Unfortunately, this is the attitude that many scientists and technical experts face. Those working on climate change, vaccines, stem cell research, and other contentious topics are especially prone to negative and combative opinions due in large part to the increasing partisanship and divide in ideologies that many nations—the United States in particular—are experiencing. The gap between people who identify with specific political parties and ideologies is larger than ever, and that gap is reinforced by misinformation, or incorrect information accidentally or purposely shared, and disinformation, or incorrect information deliberately shared to mislead people.
These realities present a special challenge in connecting with audiences around important science topics. However, finding common ground during these difficult conversations can do a lot to move public opinion along on topics that truly impact us all.
There are steps that you can take to make progress during a difficult conversation about climate change and other science topics, but let’s start with actions that you can take before you even begin to speak or write.
1. Know your purpose.
Why do you want to have a difficult conversation about a science topic? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you want to change as a result of your conversation? Clarify your purpose, and you’ll be able to stay on track and easily decide where to focus your efforts.
2. Research your audience.
If you have the chance to prepare for your conversation (for example, if you’re preparing to discuss climate impacts with a policy maker who is known to be against climate change policies), do your research. Messages connect best when they address your audience’s “So What?”—when you answer why the conversation should matter to them. Can you connect your science topic to your audience’s values, to the things that they hold dear?
3. Set realistic goals for yourself.
Don’t assume that you can completely change someone’s opinion about a science topic in one conversation. You will surely set yourself up for failure that way. Opinions about contentious science topics are closely tied to identities and values, and as social animals we are hard-wired to dig our heels in when we hear information that we think contradicts those identities and values. If you can simply open the door to a difficult conversation, you’re making great progress!
4. Create a support system for yourself, and know that it’s alright to rest.
Scientists and technical experts are used to acting unbiased. But you’re also a human being with feelings that are closely tied to your work—you wouldn’t be working on such important and difficult issues if you didn’t care! This means that having difficult conversations with people of differing ideologies can be mentally and emotionally draining. Make sure that you have a support system that you can lean on for those trying times. This system can include colleagues, friends, and family members that will “fill your cup” when needed.
Also remember that you don’t have to constantly have difficult conversations. Give yourself the space to decline conversations and rest to avoid burnout. You can’t help or work with others well if you’re running on low energy.
Again, if you’re able to prepare for your conversation, you can lean on your support system by practicing with them. Sometimes it takes speaking out loud or reading your words to fine tune your messages and build your confidence.
Difficult science conversations are understandably intimidating, but laying the groundwork can help you enter these conversations with grace, curiosity, and a true commitment to the long road that it takes to create change.