It’s easy to feel outraged when confronted by denial of issues like COVID, climate change, and racism. COVID vaccine denial is killing thousands of Americans needlessly. Denying racism has killed many more, and caused generations of suffering. Denying climate change may well kill hundreds of millions, and puts the entire survival of humanity into question. We also know that people of color are suffering the worst impacts from COVID and climate denial. It would be hard not to feel outraged.
As individuals and as organizations working to address these challenges, what should we do about it? Outrage and righteous indignation are understandable immediate reactions. They may even make us feel better for a while. I certainly give in to outrage myself sometimes. But outrage won’t help solve these problems.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been at the forefront of responding to COVID. The CDC website outlines five steps to constructively talk with skeptics about vaccination. This framework translates quite well to the areas of systemic racism and climate change denial.
- Listen to questions with empathy. These are complicated topics, and also emotionally charged. If I accept the reality of racism, or the impacts of climate change, or the effectiveness of vaccines, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with guilt for being part of the problem, or overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness. It can feel much easier to just deny the problem. As the CDC counsels, “Acknowledge their emotions so they know they have been heard… listening without judgment and identifying the root of their concerns.” Change can be scary, hard, and painful – for organizations and individuals alike. It goes a long way when we just acknowledge that: “It sounds like you’re already really feeling stressed, and thinking about global climate change is one more source of stress; that’s really hard.”
Change can be scary, hard, and painful – for organizations and individuals alike. It goes a long way when we just acknowledge that.
- Ask open-ended questions to explore concerns. Our goal should be to understand what is important to the person or organization we are dealing with, what their concerns are, where they get information, and how they make decisions. As Dr. Steven Covey put it, “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Open-ended questions like, “what experiences led you to have that opinion?” or “what sources of information do you trust on this issue, and why?” can help move a conversation forward.
- Ask permission to share information. Whether it’s COVID or racism or climate change, we are all overwhelmed with information, much of it intentionally misleading. If you connect authentically with someone and understand their concerns, you can ask to share information that you trust, and explain why you trust it, or help them find a credible source they find trustworthy. Note that this is different than swamping someone’s social media feed in links that support your argument. For this to work, we have to actually be focused on others, not on showing how much more enlightened we are.
We have to actually be focused on others, not on showing how much more enlightened we are
- Help them find their own reasons to act. If we understand someone’s concerns and what is important to them, we can help them find those reasons to act that are compelling to them. Some people are passionate about fighting climate change because they feel it is a religious responsibility to steward creation; others are motivated by the plight of island nations or subsistence farmers; others like to ski, or drink great wine that only grows in certain climates. Organizations are the same way: some may see addressing climate change as a moral imperative, others as a business opportunity, others as a necessary piece of their marketing strategy, and many may have a mix of motives. If we can let go of our personal moral judgments about which motives are the “right” ones, we can instead focus on accelerating action.
- Help make their action happen. As the CDC says, “Help make the path shorter, easier, and less stressful…” When it comes to COVID, a substantial proportion of the unvaccinated population are unvaccinated due to barriers like transportation, time off work, or lack of childcare. Unfortunately, the focus on the most vitriolic “anti-vaxxers” and the language of blame obscures efforts to reduce these barriers. Likewise, when it comes to racism or climate change, we can make a lot more progress if we focus on barriers that keep people from taking action. Rather than simply criticizing people for driving gas cars, we can help overcome barriers to going electric or using an e-bike.
We can make a lot more progress if we focus on barriers that keep people from taking action.
I’m not suggesting we wait for consensus before taking action. However, regardless of how tempting it may be when we are angry and frustrated, we cannot simply write off a third of the population because they deny these problems. That would be ethically dubious – especially when many of them are our friends, family, and neighbors. More important, in my mind, is that it simply won’t work.
These are big issues and concepts, but they also form the foundation for our transportation work here at Forth. Fundamentally, we bring together diverse stakeholders, try to understand their hopes and fears, engage across differences, help them find their own reasons to support our mission, and help make it easier and less stressful for them to work together towards a future with a cleaner, more efficient, and more equitable transportation system.