Interview with Jim Hoggan: “Smashing Heads Doesn’t Open Minds”

Posted on: August 22, 2012

In this interview with the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers' Network, Jim Hoggan echoes communications themes brought forward in his CEGN's May conference keynote address titled "Smashing Heads Doesn't Open Minds."

Editor: One of the key goals of CEGN's new strategic plan is to "Give public voice to our shared aspirations". This has been spurred by the recent spotlight on the environmental community and environmental funders and a realization that the messages coming from the community have often been fragmented and reactive. What is your advice on how best to reframe the current conversation around the environment?

Jim: I don't like to offer specific reframing advice without taking a closer look at the details, so please take my comments as broad brush observations. My sense is that Canadians think the federal government has overstepped with its rhetoric. The public isn't buying the demonization of environmental leaders. Public opinion research confirms that Canadians feel we need a balanced conversation about economy and the environment. They believe that environmental groups and funders help provide that balance. There is broad public support for fair minded and respectful conversations about how we develop resources in a way that is good for the future and not destructive for the planet.

But people need to know what we are talking about, what the vision is. We need to communicate with Canadians in a more holistic and personal way, less intellectual policy wonk stuff. People understand things emotionally first. Canadians need to feel how environmental issues like climate change will affect our families, neighbourhoods and lives. Environment is a core value for Canadians.

Canadians see the conflict between environment and the economy and they feel we should be looking after both.

The lesson environmental leaders can take away from this attack by the Oil and Gas Industry and the Harper Government is a basic lesson of public communication: If you don't tell them someone else will and it will be bad.

So I agree with your focus. The environmental community needs to create a more compelling vision and narrative. The sustainability/environmental narrative isn't clear to people. We need to do a better job of telling our own story. We need research that looks deeply into a new more compelling environmental narrative. The public story can't be all about fights between industry and ENGOs.

Editor: In your conference keynote – "Smashing Heads Doesn't Open Minds" – you spoke eloquently to the kind of communication that works and the kind that doesn't. Can you share some of your insights here, as well as touch on your own path for arriving at these insights?

Jim: There is so much industry misinformation and spin when talking about environmental issues. And although ENGO advocacy is important there is a downside to being too combative. Advocacy may put necessary pressure on industry and government but the downside of this is polarization.

This combination of industry misinformation and over the top ENGO advocacy is very destructive – leading to the ‘polluted public square' that we have today where the public discourse is very toxic. As a result, most Canadians have turned away and disengaged from public conversations about these issues.

Polarization can make the resolution of environmental issues less likely. We need to look for alternatives. Self-righteous campaigns have limits. Moral humility and looking for ways to find common ground are needed. This advice is echoed by many of the thought leaders, I have interviewed for my upcoming book, The Polluted Public Square. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist monk, urges us to "speak the truth, but not to punish". Dr. Karin Armstrong, a leading spiritual and religious historian, notes St. Paul's teaching that "charity takes no delight in the wrong doing of others".

Daniel Yankelovich, a US social scientist and public opinion analyst, notes that when people are operating in different realities with different facts and are so far apart that they are just talking past each other, communication isn't really taking place. As he says, "people need to be singing off the same song sheet." Otherwise, a public paralysis can result. That's what we have today. Environmental groups have helped turn the environment into a core Canadian value, but now the levels of disinterest, mistrust and polarization are so high that we can't move forward.

Editor: What would be your advice to funders as to how best to deploy philanthropic support to strengthen communication work by the environmental community?

Jim: Start with research into a new environmental narrative perhaps using a dialogue research method. Then use the research to build a powerful narrative that includes the idea of protecting the environment for people, rather than from people, and which speaks to the deeper values of who we are as Canadians and how we live our lives. The new narrative needs to be one of interconnectedness. The environment can't be seen as being separate and our narrative can't be a story just for environmentalists and academics.
We also need to build ENGO capacity to deliver articulate and effective stories that inspire people outside of the campaign work they do. People operate with a present bias and are most concerned about things that are close to them in time and space. They also place a high value on fairness for themselves and for others that are close to them. An effective communications approach needs to meet these and others challenges. The ENGO community knows these things but doesn't apply them.

Why we have failed to take collective action on environmental crises like climate change is one of the most critical questions of our time. And understanding how we overcome this collective paralysis is the most important environmental work we can do.
Be careful with what you might call the myth of apathy – take time to understand the real obstacles standing in the way of communication and connecting. Canadians do care about the environment.

Make sure facts are a part of the package but speak to people's emotions and values. Resist the temptation to sling mud at opponents. You may end up deepening their base of support and turning off the people you are trying to reach. Remember that you could be wrong.

We need to speak with moral humility instead of self righteousness. Develop powerful narratives that are consistent with what we know about human motivation. And most importantly, be authentic. Reflect on the deep personal motivations for the work that you do and use your own story to connect with the people you are trying to inspire.

Editor: Thanks very much Jim for this interview and for your fine presentation at CEGN's conference. With communications as a major focus for the network in the coming year, your insights are timely and much appreciated.