10 reasons most people aren’t listening to arguments about climate change

(or any other change you want them to make)

This one is for everyone out there communicating about issues and wanting people to change their behaviour or attitudes (and bring about socio-political change).

I don’t think most people are listening, and I am about to list 10 basic reasons why. I will also give a few brief pointers to hopefully assist you in targeting these listening barriers.

I have researched some of these points quite extensively, particularly with regard to climate change and the media today (this was the focus of my Masters thesis). However, I feel these points have general relevance across a wide range of issues, not just for communicating about climate change.

Much of what I have to say is not new, but gleaned from the collective learning of fields such as communication, behavioural change, social change and political science. But I am also simply applying a bit of common sense, personal observation and general life experience!

So I am not by any means claiming to be an expert at all, and I still have many unanswered questions myself with regard to how to get people’s attention and impress upon them the importance or urgency of certain changes and alternative courses of action.

Disclaimers aside, here are the 10 main reasons people aren’t listening:

1. They don’t care. No, really. Most people have other, more pressing and personal concerns making demands on their attention.

2. They don’t understand. The information is presented in ways that most people find difficult to absorb or process.

3. They don’t have time to research further for themselves.

4. They can’t distinguish between ‘reliable science’ and that which is not so, or less so.

5. There is just enough conflict/ controversy in the media and politics, for most people to ‘switch off’ to it all and leave it up to ‘them’ (experts/politicians) to argue over and decide.

6. They don’t feel a sense of ownership of the issue or actions required. (‘Why should we care?’ or ‘Someone else can do something about it’)

7. They feel disempowered and hopeless – wondering what they could really do that would make any difference.

8. Not everyone will choose altruistic paths or options anyway – most of us are simply selfish, self-absorbed and shallow. Hard to admit, I know...

9. Not everyone will come to the same conclusions, even if presented with the same ‘facts’. Especially with regard to assessing the level of risk or urgency of a certain issue – these are intangible, highly debatable concepts.

10. Most people think at the level of ‘things’ and ‘people’, not ‘concepts’ and ‘hypothetical scenarios’. In other words, as can be clearly seen on television any night of the week, most people want to know how to look good, eat well, live in a nice house, drive a cool car, keep up with the latest fashions, and what the celebrities are up to. They are not sitting around wondering “how many ‘parts per million’ of CO2 in the atmosphere will mean catastrophic climate change is imminent...?” or even, more personally relevant: “what is the likelihood that rising sea levels mean my house by the beach is not a smart purchase...?”

In summary, sadly, people are unlikely to listen or care if we say that ‘because of human activity in general over the last 200 or so years, some vague but dreadful event/s may happen, at an unspecified time in the future, in other parts of the world, to people you will never meet...’

So, how to target these ‘listening barriers’...?

In a general sense, the answer is quite simple - basic good communication principles apply:

Know your target audience, who/what they are listening to, what they care about and what motivates them... then speak to that!

Key points/ tips/ reminders:

Listening barrier -‘why should I care?:

Make the issue personal, relevant, local, immediate. In other words, tell people why they should care/ listen... Imagine them wondering: ‘How does this affect me, here, now?’ or perhaps ‘will this affect my children?

Listening barrier -‘why should I listen to you?’:

Build credibility in the eyes of your audience, by explaining the basis of your claims/ ‘facts’, being transparent and not getting defensive if questioned about your sources and conclusions. Be willing to admit your mistakes, and what you don’t know. 

Explain how people can evaluate competing claims and differentiate between, for example, peer-reviewed scientific findings, and (energy) industry-funded ‘findings’...

Listening barrier – ‘what’s in it for me?’:

Appeal to existing needs and desires – another basic communication principle. Package your message in a way that appeals to the target audience’s already existing needs, desires and interests – rather than trying to change who they are, and what they ‘should’ want. 

Successful examples of this include the way many lifestyle, fashion and home improvement shows insert bits of ‘green living’ into the program, appealing to the existing interests of their audience to look good, live well, ‘buy stuff’, be fashionable, etc.

Listening barrier – ‘I don’t have time for this’:

Give the nutshell version. Stick to the point, and the key facts, as much as possible. This is well known by journalists as the ‘inverted pyramid’ principle – pack as much of the key message into your opening line or paragraph as possible (with the rest of the information decreasing in importance as the message continues). 

In other words, ‘pitch’ the message as you would to someone with the concentration span of a toddler. Really - many of us will make snap decisions on whether to even listen beyond the first minute, based on the opening line – let alone whether to read or listen to a whole piece outlining the climate science behind the statement, for example.

Listening barrier – ‘It’s all a bit confusing...’:

Keep it simple. Be clear, without going into too much unnecessary detail, and avoid jargon, complex language or anything with problematic connotations. Trim away flowery or overly emotive language, or other distractions from the key points.

Listening barrier – ‘It doesn’t seem real’:

Be specific. Vague statements not only confuse, but also allow distance between people and the issue.

Give the issue a face – numbers, statistics and so on do not grab the attention, imagination or heart, the way a story about an actual person does.

Listening barrier – ‘I’m not sure I can do anything to change this...’:

Put ‘handles’ on it. Give steps, alternatives, practical options...

Break it down into manageable bits – of information, and of steps that need to be taken. This turns a big, unknown issue, or a scary looming change of ‘life-as-we-know-it’ into a list of key points to consider, and then an action plan or set of achievable goals.

Empower. Tell people they can make a difference – tell them how, and give examples of past successes.

Listening barrier –‘I understand, and have looked into it myself too. But I don’t agree with your conclusions or advocated solutions’ (this one is much trickier and more complex to answer!):

Build consensus around the issues or aspects of the issues that you can agree on. Don’t get stuck on the details. ‘Agree to disagree’ on less important or more controversial points. Allow for a broad spectrum of opinions and accept that not everyone will share the same interpretations, priorities or level of urgency regarding the issue and how to address it.

Much of what needs to be done only requires some consensus around a few key points, not complete agreement on everything. People can also often collaborate on issues for wildly differing reasons, with different motivations and to different degrees or levels of involvement. Respect everyone’s need to act according to their level of understanding and only as far as they are able to (e.g. due to financial constraints).

In other words, try to ‘lead’ by walking alongside people, listening to and sharing some of their concerns, not by shouting at them from way up ahead like an over-zealous aerobics instructor (or overbearing military sergeant)!

Well, what are you waiting for? Get back out there and spread the message! 

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