Seven Tips for Mediators based on insights from the climate change discourse

I was at a social gathering the other night. My conversation partner was lamenting that their message, they work for an environmental agency, wasn’t getting through. Paraphrasing my friend, “All the facts are there. The planet is at peril. People still don’t get it, though.  They carry on, as usual.”

Alert to a timely opportunity to share my views on mediating conflict, I softly suggested to my friend that they might want to deliver their message, which is a public one, in a different way.

I'm right and you're an idiotFacing a roar of climate change deniers, environmental groups wrestle with getting their message heard. That challenge was the context for I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up, authored by James Hoggan (with Grania Litwin). Hoggan is a PR executive and past-chair of the David Suzuki Foundation (a major Canadian environmental group). For the book, Hoggan interviewed “outstanding thinkers from the Himalaya to the House of Lords, drawing on the wisdom of such notables as Thich Nhat Hanh, Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Adam Kahane, Dalai Lama, Marshal Ganz… ”

In our culture that favors debate, advocacy and conflict over dialogue and deliberation, what is one to do?

Here are insights, offered up by the different thinkers, in I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, along with my mediator tips, based on those insights:

1. Start with feelings, not evidence.  Change the feelings, and then evidence has a chance; e.g., selling climate change – focus on issues such as fuel efficiency standards, better light bulbs and ways to make us all less energy dependent, the negative case will weaken. “If you begin to associate combating climate change with the Apollo program and a gigantic national effort to find technologies that will wean us off the carbon-heavy fuel sources, then it won’t seem threatening anymore… A general principle of moral psychology is that intuitions come first and strategic reasoning second.” (Marshall Ganz)

Mediator tip: Start your mediation by having the disputing parties tell their story, their narrative. Invariably, there is a strong emotive component to their story. I, almost always, start a mediation this way.

2. Link private troubles and public issues. Tell a positive narrative that expands what people see as possible, that engages people (e.g., to their everyday lives, roles as parents…) and gives them a plausible, feasible alternative to the status quo; e.g., show them how much money or water they have saved, by practicing methods of conservation.

Mediator tip: Mediators (you) are storytellers. We connect dots, and reframe challenges into shared opportunity.  In many ways, mediation is a negotiation of narratives, with the mediator facilitating the successful narrative.

3. Use metaphors and conceptual frameworks. Frames, metaphors and conceptual frameworks, are what we use to interpret and understand the world. (Donald Trump uses the metaphor of professional wrestling to communicate his understanding (?)).  George Lakoff advises, “Be on the (frames) offensive – always start with your frame and stay in it. always be on the offensive; never act defensively.”

Mediator tip: Using metaphors can help your parties step outside of their inner spiral of negative thoughts and picture their problem in a different way; e.g., as comparable to another problem, that was solved. Take it from there.

4. Be open to persuasion.  “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.” (Sengcan) “Move from self-righteousness to moral humility.” (Jonathan Haidt)

Mediator tip: As mediators, we ask the parties to be “open” to the other’s story. Yet, as mediators, we, too, can get judgmental, our biases take over. When that happens, our neutrality takes a hit. Being open to persuasion is a reminder to always be curious, and walk the talk.

5. Know the other. , on American and China views related to climate change, Peter Senge, says,”It’s a total waste of time to try and shift the political climate in Washington. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s aggressive leadership on climate change in Beijing and little in Washington” When leaders in Washington get overwhelmed,they revert to what they’re most comfortable with: debating and acting lawyerly, because that’s who they are.” Most of the leaders in China, however, are engineers who want to get things done. Many understand the basic science of climate change, but of course they face their own very daunting problems, given the direction and inertia of the economic growth engine in China.”

Mediator tip: Make an effort to understand the context, in which the parties operate. Conversations take place in context. Parties often relate better to those who have walked in their shoes, or at least have a realistic understanding of where those shoes have walked.

6. Use the language of values.  People will find the person whose values they think are more like theirs to be more credible. And that’s how they figure out what to believe, because they trust people like them.

Mediator tip: Every mediator has experienced the party who says, “I am not going to settle because it would go against my values (or principles)”. You can let that ride or you can tackle it head on; e.g., ask them what those values (or principles) are? Then, seek shared alignment on those values (principles). Note: Values are different from principles. Values are largely subjective; e.g., collaboration. Principles are largely objective, have always existed, and apply to everyone; e.g., people do not trust people who lie.

7. No paralysis rule.  “There is little point in creating a message that leads to paralysis (inaction). This is a Fox News attitude and should be fought by all possible means. The message must give them the will to find a way out of the dilemma.” (French sociologist, Bruno Latour)

Mediator tip:  Stay positive, forward-looking, excessively so, in your messaging.  Its only fair, given negativity’s sway.


[Collaborative Journeys provides conflict management services for small to medium-sized businesses, nonprofits and local governments. Contact Ben for a free consultation.]


  1. This is an incredibly interesting and useful article. Thank you.

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