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How Can We Start Difficult Conversations?

Keep it social, short, and positive. These principles will help.

The question came at the end of an energetic workshop on climate change.

It was early March, just before COVID-19 changed everything. In a room full of Duke alumni and alumnae, a middle-aged woman started, haltingly at first.

“I have a relative — an uncle — who just won’t listen to the facts about climate change. He doesn’t believe in it, and doesn’t want to hear about it. I love him but I can’t change his mind. How can I talk with him about it?”

She was asking a simple question: How can we have difficult conversations that matter?

Difficult Conversations Matter

The question reminded me of a discussion I had with Ellen Goodman, founder of The Conversation Project. Goodman started that non-profit to give people the tools to have very difficult and important conversations about end-of-life issues. As the Conversation Project puts it, “We believe that the place for this to begin is at the kitchen table — not in the intensive care unit — with the people we love, before it’s too late.”

Ellen Goodman got interested in these issues because she realized that many people shared her own experience. For many years, Ellen was a caregiver for her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease, but they had never talked about end-of-life care or decisions. When the time came, Ellen had to make those decisions. “I realized only after her death how much easier it would have all been if I heard her voice in my ear as these decisions had to be made,” she recalls.

We Avoid Some of the Tough Topics

To be sure, we don’t avoid all of the tough conversations. For example, in the wake of the recent demonstrations and protests around black lives and social justice issues, Americans are talking about racial issues. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans say that longstanding concerns about the treatment of black people in this country contributed a great deal to the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death although there are differences in opinions across political party lines. Importantly, a majority of Americans (69%) report having a conversation with family members and friends about race or racial equality in the last month.

Source: Jopwell/Pexels

But we do avoid some difficult issues. According to The Conversation Project: “While 92% of Americans say it’s important to discuss their wishes for end-of-life care, only 32% have had such a conversation. 95% of Americans say they would be willing to talk about their wishes, and 53% even say they’d be relieved to discuss it (The Conversation Project National Survey, 2018).”

Of course, our silence is not limited to end-of-life issues. The same pattern holds for talking about climate change. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 72% of Americans know climate change is happening and 60% acknowledge that it is human-caused. Yet while 65% of Americans are somewhat or very worried about global warming, only 38% discuss it (even occasionally) with family members or friends.

Designing a Conversation: Keep It Social, Short, and Positive

Fortunately, the National Academies of Science has provided guidance for how to talk with children about climate change: Keep it social, short and positive. These design principles—social, short, and positive — are useful for all ages and for many difficult conversations, including climate change.

Social means focused on people or places we care about. Short means focusing on a human-scale time frame (e.g., 2-3 generations or 50-75 years). Positive means showing people actions that they can take once they have identified a concern.

It Sounds Good but Does It Work?

Using these principles to frame a conversation sounds good, but does it work?

In a recent study, we tested out two strategies for framing the climate conversation, compared to a control condition, for adults 18 and older (Wickersham et al., 2020). Both approaches focused on the social and short elements in framing climate change.

Source: Cottonbro/pexels

One strategy asked participants to write about a place that has special meaning or attachment for them and to imagine how extreme weather or climate change might change that place. The second strategy asked participants a simple question: How do you want to be remembered? They were asked to write about what they wanted future generations to remember them for and in what ways they will have a positive impact on the environment or other people after they are gone.

How we frame a difficult issue, like climate change, makes a difference. Both the "place" and "legacy" approaches had a significant effect on participants' climate attitudes and sustainability behavior. Both were effective across all age groups.

What’s Your 2040?

Australian film director Damon Gameau’s latest film, 2040, is a wonderful example of a social, short, and positive approach to climate change. Social: It is a “visual letter” to his 4-year-old daughter, speculating on the impact of climate change on her life. Short: Gameau focuses on what changes will occur over the next 20 years, by 2040. Positive: He limits himself to only focusing on already-existing solutions and technologies.

The result is an engaging film on the climate crisis and potential solutions in many different sectors (e.g., agriculture, energy, transportation, and the economy). Since it is framed as a letter to his daughter, it also illustrates how to have a realistically optimistic difficult conversation.

Annalia Baggiano/Unsplash
Source: Annalia Baggiano/Unsplash

Answering the Question

How did I answer the Duke alumna’s question? I emphasized the design strategies of social, short and positive, suggesting that she start with a simple request of her uncle: Picture a place, any place in the world, that has special meaning for you. She could also start with the legacy question: How do you want to be remembered?

Starting with a personal connection to the topic, as I did or as David Gameau did, won’t make the conversation easy, but it may make it less difficult.


Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Berquist, P., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., Guistafson, A., & Wang, X. (2020). Climate Change in the American Mind:April 2020. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Available at

National Academies of Science, Panel on Informing Effective Decision and Actions Related to Climate Change, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate D on E and LS. Informing an effective response to climate change (America’s climate choices). 2011 May 11 [cited 2019 Jun 2]; Available from: http://

Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M., & Anderson, M. (2020)>. Deep partisan divides over factors underlying George Floyd demonstrations. Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends. (June 12). Available at

The Conversation Project (2018). Most Americans “relieved” to talk about end of life care. (April 10). Available at

Wickersham RH, Zaval L, Pachana NA, Smyer MA (2020) The impact of place and legacy framing on climate action: A lifespan approach. PLOS ONE 15(2): e0228963.