First of all, apologies for being so late with my blog posts… I have actually already read 3 books in the past months but somehow my time management has gotten the better of me.

Not a great story to tell… but, Justin Lee has actually this covered: how you are actually supposed to tell stories in a way that change people’s minds and lives.

I found his book Talking Across the Divide: How to Communicate with People You Disagree with and Maybe Even Change the World incredibly insightful, not only because of his personal experiences that have taught him how to tell powerful stories but also because of his ability to reflect how he discovered these insights.

Here are my key takeaways as to how each one of us can follow this wisdom and have more impactful and lifechanging opportunities to tell stories.

 Understand the story first

Stories have always played a key role in human psyche because they enable us to put together a seamless and rational story about how our actions, thoughts and beliefs are all intertwined.

In a messy world, our brains crave for consistency and simplicity, which is what stories provide.

As Justin Lee notes, understanding these stories is key for effective listening, gaining new insights and understanding how we and other people rationalise different issues and opinions.

For example, I was recently told by an elderly gentleman at a restaurant that the current Australian lockdowns are not really about the coronavirus and its spread but a strategy that the governments use to exert more control over our lives.

This is one example of the many different stories that exist about corona but we find similar stories abound about finance (how to handle personal finances e.g. investing in different options), vaccinations (e.g. vaccines causing negative impacts vs. vaccinations keeping people safe) and which party to vote for.

We all use stories as sense making vehicles: we construct a story that fits with what we believe and we hold onto that story because stories speed up our decision-making.

Stories are often helpful because they speed our decision-making: rather than having to evaluate every time all the evidence and different perspectives on an issue, we use our stories as short hands to explain to ourselves what the world is like and what a person like me would and should do in a situation like this.

This is fine as long as the decisions we make are actually helpful.

Yet, some stories can also lead us down wrong paths especially if we don’t practice critical thinking and just accept arguments as they are.

This is why strategic dialogues are important as they help us to evaluate the extent that our stories correspond with how the world is in a sea of diverse perspectives.

Strategic dialogue as an opportunity for exchanging stories

Most of us don’t actually pay attention to the stories other people (or we) have and instead see conversations as battlegrounds as to who is right and who is wrong.

Granted, it is a lot easier to plunge into arguing where we just need to prove the other person wrong.

This is our core default, which is somewhat ironic given that it has been shown over and over that arguing is one of the most ineffective ways to enable change.

The aim of strategic dialogue is not to actually to win the argument but to open a discussion fuelled more by curiosity than war: it is “an information-gathering process to help you find the most effective ways to reach someone with a new idea or a different perspective of the world” (p. 52).

The key questions in any strategic dialogue focus on understanding and asking questions that assist in creating a space for a genuine discussion and revealing the stories at play. Justin recommends seven questions to keep in mind (p. 52-53):

  1. What do they want? (motivations, priorities, things that are important for them);
  2. What do they believe? (level of understanding of the issue, potential misconceptions);
  3. What do they think you want? (their understanding of your priorities, who they think you are);
  4. What are their sources of information? (sources they refer to and follow);
  5. What language do they use? (phrases and terminology that is specific to a particular angle or source, who they are influenced by);
  6. What are they worried about? (particular fears driving their reasoning, concerns about the future);
  7. What do you have in common? (areas where you can show similarities in experience or thinking, creating connection).

The beauty of these questions is that they force you to leave your own stories and focus on the other person, not why they are just so wrong but what deeper justifications and rationale they have in having the opinion that they have.

Structuring your thinking around these questions makes it a whole lot easier to stop trying to convince someone and gain a wider set of perspectives that you might not have even thought about ever before.

Being a strategic listener also helps you to break your bubble that you live in given that we are all heavily influenced by team loyalty in what we believe and which opinions we support in so much that it easily becomes a key barrier to any strategic dialogue.

Team loyalty has been shown again and again to influence how people judge for example preferable policy outcomes and what we think about other people in other teams or groups.

This leads to a clear and divisive us-versus-them mindset and is one of the hardest attitudes to break.

In our increasingly polarised world, it is even now easier just to live in your bubble: just read the news that support your views and surround yourself with people who have similar values and interests as you do.

What we can do however (without needing to change our stand on the issue) is to find out the other key arguments and stories that people in other teams use to rationalise why they believe what they believe.

As Justin notes:

“As difficult as it may be to spend time outside your bubble, the perspective you gain from learning how other teams see things can end up being one of your most valuable assets as you work to change hearts and minds” (p. 92).

Just showing genuine understanding and interest can sometimes be all it takes for someone else to increase their willingness to rethink their stance on an issue or at least considering your perspective.

Decisions and stories on and for climate adaptation

The more I read about decision-making in the management, leadership, neuroscience and psychology literature, the more I am convinced that there are really no simple answers given how many factors play into how our brains work.

This also goes for how we make decisions to adapt to climate change: there are so many factors that influence the context where we make decisions and the stories we choose to tell.

Some factors that influence our decisions are easily recognisable  but many are hidden, often unconscious pressures and beliefs that we only recognise in the aftermath.

This is a great challenge but also a cause for scientific excitement because it means that we have so much to uncover about the decision-making processes and stories we use to make decisions on how we adapt to climate change.  we rationalise we respond.

In the end, everything is about what stories we choose tell; which pieces we choose to promote and which pieces of information we choose to ignore.

Using strategic dialogue as a tool to reveal and understand stories requires that we also pay attention to the stories we think should be told, why and how.

This kind of reflexive thinking is very much needed in climate adaptation science as we continue to work on understanding adaptation.

Strategic dialogue therefore can open up new spaces for genuine conversations at local, regional, national and global levels about how we as a society can make better decisions towards a more resilient and adapted future.