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Virginia Tech expert: here’s how to tackle hot-button issues like climate change at the holiday dinner table

December 21, 2016

Christmas tree

As families and friends gather for the holidays, a Virginia Tech expert offers tips for dinner-table conversations around what can often be contentious issues like politics and sometimes-controversial science topics.

“Holidays are often a special time to catch up with family and friends, but things can turn sour when you and Uncle Joe come to blows around an issue like climate change,” said Todd Schenk, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. “How can he be so blind to the climate catastrophes unfolding around the world? Since when did you become a brainwashed hippie?”

Climate scientists are careful to distinguish the short-term weather in any given time and place from long-term climate patterns, but that doesn’t stop many from invoking what’s going on outside the window when climate change comes up and arguments start flying.

Schenk suggests not avoiding these types of issues with friends and family, but rather engaging in productive dialogue.

“Avoiding contentious issues like climate change is one strategy, but is not always possible or even desirable,” Schenk said. “It is typically healthier to find ways to have more respectful dialogue, and we can often learn in the process.”

Schenk offers the following tips:

  •  A healthy place to start is by distinguishing our counterparts from the opinions they hold — just because their opinions are wrong-headed doesn’t make them necessarily so. Respect them as complex individuals with many positive and negative traits, just like we are.
  • Second, whether formally codified or not, abide by a set of ‘ground rules.’ These can include: no personal attacks; be thoughtful in the language you use and non-verbal cues you send; describe your views while avoiding assumptions about others; and do not interrupt – only one person should speak at a time.
  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, practice a set of techniques often called ‘active listening.’ As the name implies, this is not a passive process of simply waiting your turn, paying little attention to what others have to say while you prepare your arguments in your head, and then delivering a monologue when you have the chance. Instead, this approach calls on us to really listen, asking probing questions to dig deeper into our counterparts’ perspectives and confirm that we understand what they are saying. Active listening does not inherently ask us to change our minds, but rather to remain open and willing to be empathetic and understanding.
  • Fourth, particularly around science-intensive issues like climate change, you might engage in a mini ‘joint fact-finding’ process of sorts. What do you learn, and where do your opinions converge and diverge as you look at information from a variety of sources? Can you agree on the credibility and saliency of different data? This might help you to move the conversation along, or at least appreciate that you are valuing different facts for different reasons.

Schenk’s last piece of advice, which he says is often the most difficult: “Think before you speak. We all say things we regret from time to time, but those situations are best avoided if we can.”

“And if all else fails, there is always eggnog.”

About Schenk:

Schenk is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He has extensive research and consulting experience working on collaborative governance and environmental policy and planning issues, including involving climate change adaptation.

View Schenk's full bio here.

Schedule an interview

Schenk is available for phone interviews. To secure an interview, email Jordan Fifer in the Media Relations office or call 540-231-6997.

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