We often don’t speak about climate and environmental issues for fear of ‘looking stupid’ or ‘getting the facts wrong’. But getting rid of our ‘cognitive dissonance’ is not the answer – we should embrace it, argues Linda Aspey
Whenever I ask people how concerned they are about climate change and the environment, they frequently give it between 8 and 10 on scale of 10. Yet they don’t score so highly on how much they talk about it – it’s often 2-4.
When I ask them about the gap, their responses generally point to fear. Of upsetting or criticising. Of being ignored, dismissed, or even criticised themselves for being a hypocrite. Of not knowing enough of the science and looking stupid. Sometimes all of the above. So, they avoid it.
One of my coaching clients put it like this. “I try not to think about it but probably deep down I’m terrified of climate change, and I’m frightened of talking about it. Mostly about saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing but in the wrong way. And that I might end up on the firing line because I drive a big car and I’m not even a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. So, who am I to criticise?”
It’s notable that many people quickly assume that raising climate and environmental issues means it involves criticising or being criticised. And this has made me think a lot about cognitive dissonance and how we generally do our best to avoid it, reduce it or get rid of it.
Carl Rogers once said that in order for therapy to be successful the client needs to be experiencing some kind of cognitive dissonance – which is incongruence between our real and ideal selves – thinking that we are good or should behave in a particular (good) way, then acting in another (bad one). I think this is so for transformative coaching too. I’ll come back to this later.
The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ was first coined in the 1950s by psychologist Leon Festinger, with the idea that when we encounter a situation or do something that conflicts with our beliefs, we experience internal psychological discomfort. The dissonance is more intense when we’re protecting strong beliefs and values, and when there are multiple cognitions involved.
He found that we try to remove or reduce dissonance in various ways. Taking leisure flying as an example (a contentious issue in the environmental debate, that can evoke strong opinions and feelings), if someone experiences cognitive dissonance about their flying, they might stop or seriously reduce flying, or tell themselves they work hard and deserve their holidays, or find evidence that flying only contributes to X% of global emissions and so isn’t the problem it’s made out to be.
Often these changed or new cognitions allow us to create a ‘new reality’ that suits us. We tell ourselves ‘new stories’, a subject I explored for the Association for Coaching’s Coaching Perspectives magazine with Penny Walker in 2020. And thus, our belief is now ‘consonant’ – the opposite of dissonant. It’s almost like a form of self-soothing.
There are both unconscious and conscious processes at play here. Unconsciously, climate change poses potentially profound psychological threats to us – to the stability of our self-identity and to our self-esteem, to our life plans and our internalised expectations of the future. The feelings it can evoke can be complex and even unspeakable. So, we avoid thinking about it and instead seek to deny or minimise it using various defence processes to ward off the anxiety.
These psychological defences can also lead us to feel resentful, or to engage in judgement, and as Sally Weintrobe, the psychoanalyst, calls it, develop a sense of entitlement to carry on as usual because we’re living in a culture of “neoliberal Exceptionalism” that allows the uncaring aspects of ourselves to take over the caring parts.
I think of defences as shock absorbers for the truth. Per Espen Stoknes, Norwegian psychologist and politician, sums them up as “five inner defences” – distance, doom, dissonance, denial and identity. It seems to me that dissonance, both cognitive and embodied (within us as ‘gut feelings’ and in the environment as nature collapsing) is the process by which denial is helpfully raised in us, and is calling us to give it our attention. Like a fire alarm. We may not welcome the intrusion but it’s calling for us to take action.
Deep Adaption coach and friend, Matthew Painton, put it beautifully in a recent conversation: “I celebrate cognitive dissonance – it’s an amazing thing! We live in a cultural environment that favours mental sense-making but that’s only one aspect. It’s embodied emotional, neural and physical dimensions and awareness. Wherever and however it shows up it calls our attention to places where we can get a grip on reality.”
Experiencing climate-related dissonance is probably more prevalent in the global north than the south because we’re becoming increasingly aware of our lifestyle impact. That feeling that something isn’t right in our “industrial growth society” (a term coined by Joanna Macy) calls us to see anew this consumption-driven system that many of us are entrenched in and that relies on us NOT living environmentally friendly lives. Lives which are harming other people and living things all over the world.
As Sally Weintrobe puts it: “…. the climate bubble of denial is now bursting … it has served to maintain white privilege and Exceptionalism .. promoting a culture of uncare that boosts omnipotent wishful thinking and attacks reality-based thinking.”
So, coming back to coaching. The privileged world outside of the coaching room is generally a pretty unsafe place to raise climate change. So we need to make the coaching space a safe place. Being aware of the powerful grip of dissonance that may be inhibiting our clients means that we can usefully focus on relationship building, on their values and on not being judgemental.
Back to Rogers and his essential core condition of “unconditional positive regard”. We need to be invitational and not interrogative about climate change (and any other taboo subject), or they may not feel able to bring their whole selves.
And as ever, I think it starts with us. Is it only our clients that find it hard to talk about it or listen to, or is it us, unconsciously or consciously? What triggers us when we read about climate and environmental crisis in the news or watch it on TV? What about when someone raises it in our social or work settings? Or as you’re reading this very piece? Do we change the subject; wish they hadn’t brought it up, turn the page?
As coaches we know that it’s not facts or arguments that will move people to action but our ability to listen without judgement. So how might we listen to ourselves and not beat ourselves up, but approach ourselves with compassion?
As Katharine Hayhoe says in her TED Talk, we need to talk about values. “If you don’t know what the values are that someone has, have a conversation, get to know them, figure out what makes them tick. And then once we have, all we have to do is connect the dots between the values they already have and why they would care about a changing climate.
I truly believe, after thousands of conversations that I’ve had over the past decade and more, that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven’t connected the dots. And that’s what we can do through our conversation with them.”
So what are your values? What climate-dissonances are in your life at the moment and how are you managing them? How do you feel if someone challenges your behaviours (and the underlying values)? What would make it possible for you to engage in conversations where you explored these complex issues, where you can approach dissonance as a gift, one that is helping you to face into and “honour your pain for the world” as Joanna Macy puts it?
And how might you then apply that to the transformative work you do with your coaching clients?