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Don't be afraid to discuss challenging issues, but read the audience and environment to get the most out of a conversation. | Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

July 31, 2023

Let’s take a minute to acknowledge the state of the world at the moment: A fierce heat wave has engulfed Europe, and people are rushing to flee wildfires in Greece. The U.S. has failed to protect workers in light of these changing climate conditions while my current home country of Tunisia is dumping migrants in the desert., And, more than 500 days later, the war in Ukraine wages on.

Amidst a myriad of global tragedies, I flew across the ocean and took a one-month holiday in the United States. I attended a family reunion, where I met up with relations I haven’t seen in many years. We rented a big home on a lake, spent days on the water, shared meals together, and chatted the hours away.

These conversations often took place on a covered back porch cooled off by several fans. Yes, it was hot, but the comfort of an air-conditioned house and a cold beverage were only a few steps away. For people of privilege, including members of my family, the realities of the world happen “to them.” “We” are merely inconvenienced. Even if “we” acknowledge the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, and equally alarming issues are real, the impacts are so far removed they’re only passing topics of conversation.

The week I spent at the family reunion, conversation hit on a number of issues that set off global awareness alarm bells and made my sustainability sensitivities prickle. The missing Titanic-bound submarine (a luxury travel experience) overwhelmed press coverage and multi-national rescue efforts while a sinking migrant ship was given a shadow of attention. I heard all about one family member’s plans to book a vacation at an all-inclusive Cancún resort (needless to say, I have thoughts) while another went off on how immigrant workers in meat-packing plants have good working conditions (or … not so much). 

And don’t even get me started on the lack of recycling not only at the vacation house but throughout our drive in the southern United States.

I thoroughly appreciated the week spent with my family — truly, where do the years go between these visits? But this trip was also a great opportunity to put into practice some of the strategies I’ve learned and coached folks on through my work with Rooted. 

They served me well. If you’re able to use them in your own challenging encounters and conversations, I hope they serve you well too.

Pick Your Battles

There’s so much to say about so many complex issues, and we need to have hard conversations about all of them. I also wanted to preserve the integrity of our family gathering and not burn bridges with these important people in my life. So, I chose my battles.

In choosing those battles, I found I was more likely to speak up on those topics where marginalized people were concerned. I never intend to be a voice for the voiceless or speak on behalf of under-represented communities, but I do feel knowledgeable enough about some topics to at least speak about marginalization and the impacts of inequity. I believe everyone has the right to safety and dignity, and to deny people of human rights is simply inhumane. That’s the hill I was willing to die on, so those were the issues I chose to embrace.

Some topics just need to be set aside for another context or conversation. It’s nearly impossible to take everything on at one time.

Read Your Audience

Speaking of context, take a look at a particular moment before choosing how to proceed with a hard conversation. Pull on the obvious threads — especially if the conditions are appropriate for the conversation. For example, if you’re on a boat discussing water-related issues already, this is a great time to bring up increasing sea temperatures, coral reef bleaching, or overfishing.

My cousin is notoriously stubborn and has no interest in actually engaging in conversations about challenging issues. With this awareness, I knew exactly what I wanted to convey before stepping into a conversation about migrant labor. I said what needed to be said based on what I knew (thankfully I’ve been following my colleague, Alice Driver’s, award-winning work on the issue), but refused to be goaded into a baseless battle of anecdotes and hearsay.

We don’t always know how people will react to unexpected information or uncomfortable truths. Evaluate your environment, read your audience, and provide information when appropriate in the most accessible way possible.

Model the Behavior

No recycling? No problem! (Well, actually, a big problem. I mean, c’mon, recycling is the least we should be able to do at this point.)

My dad lives in a place with legitimate recycling services, so right away he set up a space to collect plastics and cans throughout the week. We actively asked people to put their recycling in this space, collected cans and bottles sitting around the house for recycling, and even dug through the garbage for items that had been thrown away. Yes, recycling was important. Yes, we were willing to be inconvenienced to take action.

In addition to separating recyclables, those of us more aware of the single-use plastics problem always drank water out of glasses or the reusable water bottles we always tote around with us. Modeling responsible behavior is important for normalizing it.

Invite Risk-Free Participation

In addition to being addicted to single-use plastics, a good portion of my family loves meat. My partner and I are plant-based eaters. While we don’t want to inconvenience anyone, we will go out of our way to stand by our principles, even when it is hard.

On the night my immediate family was in charge of dinner, we served up a make-your-own kebab buffet. Among the offerings were tofu chunks, which my cousin’s kids were curious about. We grilled up a small piece for each of them to sample. One was into it, adding several pieces of tofu onto his kebab, while the other one wasn’t a fan.

Small steps can lead to big changes. Take advantage of opportunities where people show curiosity and can participate with little to no risk.

Make the Journey Together

The volatile circumstances in which we live mean things are changing fast. We’re learning new information all the time, which surfaces new questions and leads to new conversations. No one knows all the answers or has all the solutions. “I don’t know” is a legitimate response.

What is important is that we remain open to receiving new information, being curious about what we’re learning, and being willing to evolve our belief systems and understanding of the world around us.

As our family reunion came to an end, my sister, my closest cousin, and I started chatting about where to host the next gathering, which will tentatively take place two years from now. In relation to location, one of the things we talked about were algae blooms. Climate change is impacting water sources, and it’s hard to say how algae blooms and other consequences of a warming world will impact future family gatherings. We realize we’ll need to think about these things as we make our plans, and we’re committed to working through those questions and considerations together.

About the author

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.

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