Climate Conversations S3E1: The Psychology of Learning to Change, a Conversation with Renee Lertzman


Learning to change begins in the personal sphere. How do emotions attached to climate change drive how we communicate and act on the issue?

In this first episode of season 3, we talk with psychologist Renee Lertzman about how we, individually and in our communities, can create the necessary space to listen to others and develop emotional intelligence about climate issues.

Rajesh:  [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Conversations. A podcast by ClimateX.

It's been a few months since we've talked. I missed you guys.

Curt:  Yeah, me too Rajesh. Hi Dave.

Dave:  Hey Curt. Hi Rajesh.

Curt:  It's good to be back in the studio with everybody.

Rajesh:  So, what are you guys feeling?

Curt:  Well, I am really excited to begin this new season on our theme Learning To Change. It's about the beginning of a new school year, and while there's been a lot of climate news happening, it certainly got me pretty pumped up.

Rajesh:  Dave, how about you?

Dave:  Well, I think it's really, really important in this time of great urgency, to address climate issues, that we figure out what does it mean to be different. What does it mean to change from, on an individual level or institutionally, whatever, because we don't seem to be working very fast.

Curt:  [00:01:00] You could say it's not been working and insanity would be repeating the same thing, and expecting a different result.

Dave:  Right, exactly. Yeah.

Rajesh:  And you know, I've been thinking a little bit that, after all sitting at MIT, we think of learning as very information driven, and I have a feeling that we need to think a little bit more about emotion and empathy as much as information. What do you think?

Curt:  Yeah. Complimentary to that information, information is essential for sure, but there's more to it. Especially when we think about getting outside the confines of a typical school environment. How are we coming together on this?

Dave:  Yeah, it's really, really helpful with complex hairy issues, like the climate emergency to figure out, how can we learn together? How can we learn in community, not just isolated individuals off in different corners.

Curt:  We're gonna be digging in on that this season.

At the moment, I'm also thinking a lot about our openness to [00:02:00] learning, and what takes, and how important our individual emotional situation is. I know sometimes I'm more open to being empathetic than other times, I'm more open to ne information. What's it gonna take? And that brings us-

Rajesh:  To today's perfect person to talk to about exactly that issue.

Curt:  Renee Lertzman. Welcome to the Climate Conversations podcast

Renee Lertzman:  Thank you. Excited to be here.

Curt:  Renee is a psychologist, researcher, author and an in demand practitioner, whose been working for many years at the intersection of climate change, and our rather complicated selves.

Renee, would you kick us off by just telling a bit more specifically, what is it that you do?

Renee Lertzman:  Sure. That can be sometimes a challenging question to answer. So, I do actually quite a number of different things. I would say, my primary focus is on [00:03:00] supporting organizations and initiatives and people to navigate the act of communicating, engaging an educating people, all kinds of people about climate and environmental issues in general.

So what that looks like, it really varies, depending on who I'm working with. So, right now for example, I'm working with a company, a global corporate entity who has a sustainability team. They are really wanting to figure out more effective ways of engaging the people within that company which, some companies are almost like small towns. There are just many, thousands of people.

So, we're looking at how they can find more effective ways of communicating and engaging with people. I might be working with a [00:04:00] climate group around how do we communicate more effectively in ways that are actually really productive, which you'd be surprised is really hard to do when it comes to climate change.

Curt:  I think none of us are surprised at that.

Rajesh:  So Renee, tell us what does that work look like. Say you're in a room with Big Honcho number one of-

Curt:  That would be Dave.

(Laughter )

Rajesh:  What happens?

Renee Lertzman:  So there's no formula per say, but I've come to see that there's actually pretty standard approach or process here. It all comes out of my training as a psychologist and a social scientist, and a psycho social researcher, which we can talk about later, if that comes up.

Number one is really understanding where you're coming from. So, the very first thing before anything else, is really about [00:05:00] listening, and it's really about my ability to truly invite and evoke as much from the others as possible around, what is your relationship with this issue and with this topic? Where are you coming from in such a way that's really disarming that it's not about expecting anything. It's really about creating that sense of, it's okay, wherever you're at. I'm just curious, I'm interested. So, I do that as a consultant and a practitioner, but I also train people to do that all the time.

So, number ne is learning when the stakes are high and our emotions are very up. That these are urgent issues that we all need to be acting on right away. How do you in light of that still manage to have conversations and interactions and really listen when we need to be moving into action quickly. So, that's number one, is about listening.

Number two, [00:06:00] what follows from listening is the ability, and this can be, again at the level of a scale of a major corporate campaign, or it can be a scale of a climate organization, is being able to really show and demonstrate and reflect that that you or we understand where you're coming from.

So that can look like a message, it can look like a frame that basically reflects back. We hear or we know that you actually care about these issues, but at the same time what are the concerns, the anxieties, and so forth. So, what's holding you back? To really acknowledge, and name it-

Rajesh:  Is this typically one on one, or collective? How many people are in the room when these kinds of conversations are happening?

Renee Lertzman:  It really is about both ends. So, there is the one on one interpersonal interactions. I think it's incredibly [00:07:00] important to recognize that everything I'm talking about can be translated and scaled to a digital campaign that touches and engages with many, many, many people. The essence of it is about having an empathy centered approach to how we communicate.

In order to do that, we need to have some way of listening and understanding the other, and how do we really see listening as a key strategic focus in our climate work, which is really the complete opposite of what I think most people in the climate sector tend to be oriented around, which is informing and informing, and more informing. And really coming from that anxiety, like this is what's happening. We have to raise people's awareness exponentially.

There's a gap that happens in the climate sector understandably, which is about the relationship [00:08:00] between awareness, and having the information, and being able to actually integrate that, process that, make sense of it in such a way where you're able to translate that into a meaningful action that makes sense for you and your organization or your program or your initiative, your community, your neighborhood, and whatever that there's actually a ... It is a process. So, it's not a direct, "Here's the information, I've got to do something now with it."

For a lot of people, now there are obviously people probably as yourselves, who maybe, it's not as complicated, and maybe it is more straightforward to say, "Okay, I know the facts, I know what's going on, I don't have any question or concern, I know that I need to do XY and Z, but the reality is that for a lot of people, it's not that straightforward. They're often bound up and a lot of dilemmas and a lot of conflicts that are very, very complicated, depending on where you're at, personally and [00:09:00] socially and culturally and politically and economically-

Rajesh:  So, tell us a little bit about that variation. Right, you were saying that some people read or listen to some facts and immediately they're fine, but we are sitting in a room, in an institution where I think a lot of people are like that, but we want to know what the rest of the world is like too.

Renee Lertzman:  Right. Yeah. It's amazing how differently we can experience the world. I'm continually shocked by just realizing we're humans, but your experience of the world is very different from mine. So, from an engineering, problem solving mode, that is the primary mode, which is, you give me a problem, and I'm gonna go into a solution pretty quickly.

So that's a tendency, that's a personality-

Rajesh:  That's the only way.

Renee Lertzman:  Well, I'm afraid [00:10:00] it's not the only way. I think that this is something that we've been very reluctant to really acknowledge, which is that by and large humans are highly irrational. I think we can see that being played out since November 2016.

Rajesh:  What happened then? I'm just kidding.

(Laughter )

Dave:  So, you used the phrase empathy centered approach before, and I'd love to hear a little bit more about what that entails, because I was looking at some of the material that you published as well as the interview on Warm Regards. I was really struck, by your talking about a middle way that goes beyond either-or-thinking. Say a little bit more about what that means to have an empathy centered in your practice.

Renee Lertzman:  Well, an empathy centered approach is about really valuing and understanding what the experience of others may be. As we know now with the rise of research into empathy, [00:11:00] which is obviously grown in the exponentially past decade, is that these are skills. That it's not something that you can just decide one day, I'm going to be empathetic. I'm going to suddenly apply an empathy centered approach. That it's really about developing the skills to take perspective, to really feel into what kinds of experiences others may be having.

Curt:  That sounds like something we're learning.

Renee Lertzman:  It's something we're all having to learn, and it's really hard to learn. It's really, really hard for all of us, and I think it's really important to just establish that there's nothing wrong with you if you find it hard. It's hard for every person to really embody and really enact an ongoing process-

Dave:  So what does that look like to be practicing?

Renee Lertzman:  So what it looks like, I have some practices and activities that I use and work with, with clients and with students, and researchers and so forth. It's actually [00:12:00] gonna seem simple, but it's quite powerful. It's called they three A's where I have people imagine who are they seeking to engage with. I use the word engage really deliberately. So, it's not who do you wanna motivate, because I think we have to stop even using that frame of motivation, because it really is not an empathy approach. It's presuming that people are lame and not motivated.

I think that framing this more and again, this is about having empathy, is really asking the question, what might be getting in the way of what might be going on for people?

Dave:  So what are the three A's?

Renee Lertzman:  The three A's are, number one is anxiety. I think it's incredibly important for us to just remember that climate change is anxiety producing. We all have strategies for managing anxiety. All of us do Some of our strategies is to be in an [00:13:00] active mode. Which again, I'm sure you all can relate to, cause your anxiety maybe goes down once you feel like you're doing something, and you're part of something that's proactive.

The data, the information about climate, it's just, even if people aren't fully conscious of it, it can raise that limbic response of anxiety, which is what's associated with our fight, flight, freeze response. It's that part of our neurological makeup that alerts us to danger and threats.

So, to put it very simply, we also have other capacities, there's the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is known to be where we have capacity for foresight, for strategy, for looking ahead.

Dave:  For higher level thinking.

Renee Lertzman:  Higher level, higher function thinking.

So what happens is when the limbic, and again, this is very simplistic, but when the limbic is activated, [00:14:00] we lose access to that cortex. So that to me sums up our climate change situation at this moment. Is that, is limbic activating, and yet what we need most, more than anything right now is prefrontal cortex capacity.

So the question for all of us to have, and I think, arguably one of the mos important pieces her is how do we navigate that? That's where I think we can learn some practices and tools from neuroscience and from psychology that can really support climate folks.

Rajesh:  I think we need a neuro map of climate actions. Like, this thing needs the limbic system, that needs the prefrontal cortex, this needs the auditory cortex. It would be fun to-

Dave:  I'm dying to know the second A though. Well, we've got one of the three A's, and I'm really interested in the second and third A.

Renee Lertzman:  So, the second A is incredibly important, which is ambivalence. [00:15:00] So, ambivalence is really about where we become conflicted, and where we are actually in conflict with ourselves. Ambivalence I've come to appreciate from my exposure to work in the public health sector, especially something called motivational interviewing which is a whole approach to behavior change, where ambivalence is recognized as obvious, obvious challenge with any kind of change, behavior change. Part of us wants something, and another part doesn't.

Ambivalence is not acknowledged and recognized. It tends to run the show. That's where inaction and paralysis comes in. So, I would say a lot of what we're seeing ut there is a combination of anxiety in ambivalence, not a lack of care or concern, but people get tied up in these anxieties and ambivalence, [00:16:00] and speaking frankly, I don't think people working in climate sectors are doing enough to really acknowledge those anxieties and ambivalence. Which is known to reduce the limbic response. It's known to actually disarm and soften those responses that get activated, that keep us from moving into tat third A which is aspiration.

They're obviously all connected. Again, models are always kind of crude, because they're separating things that are very interrelated. Because obviously, when we feel that we are not able to achieve our aspirations, that also causes anxiety, and there's ambivalence about.

The aspiration is really, what do we all really want? What do we need? What do we want? That goes back to basic. Again, things we know so much about, connection, belonging, being values, contributing-

Rajesh:  Isn't there another A called [00:17:00] acknowledge? Isn't that what you were talking about?

Renee Lertzman:  There is. Yeah actually. There's a lot of other A's. There's acknowledge, there's action, but I do-

Curt:  It's the alphabet game.

Renee Lertzman:  Trying to keep it to the three, just because it's simpler, easier for people to remember. Acknowledgement, if you see me, I talked about this all the time, which is that it's kind of magical when we acknowledge. To ourselves and to others. Again, I want to get us out of thinking this is about therapy or about one to one in depth conversations. Which we all know are the gold standard of ... our behaviors and our relationship with the world changes through conversations and interactions with people. That's how it is, but I think we can get hung up on, "Oh, but what about scale, and how do we reach more people?"

What I really emphasize is that can take a lot of this and translate it and experiment with different ways of doing the [00:18:00] listening and really evoking where people are and reflecting that back. Which is actually something I did with one project a few years ago, where we crafted a message about climate for climate skeptic republicans. We did in depth interviews that were using this kind of methodology. Again, it's the opposite approach to how a lot of researchers go out and gather information, which is usually you ask some pretty direct questions, like what do you think about climate change? Do you care about it, or would you pay for carbon tax?

Those are all very activating questions. Once the activation happens, I think it's game over. Instead, if you ask open ended prompts that are quite gentle, do you find yourself thinking about this and if so, what are those thoughts? What comes to mind? Who do you talk to about this, if anyone? What are your fantasies about what you'd like to see happen? That really tells a different picture.

[00:19:00] Then we take that and we actually experimented with a script that was tested with republicans. Climate hard and soft skeptics, using the Yale Six America categorization. It scored very high because we did all of those things. We acknowledged the anxiety. Yu must feel really angry. You must think all the solutions are bogus.

Then we moved into acknowledging the ambivalence and then the aspiration. Which was, what if you were to learn that we can solve this on our own terms, that speaks to the whole need to autonomy for freedom to choose and so forth. It was just very effective. So this can be applied in many, many different ways.

Dave:  One of the things Renee, you've talked about and written about how people make decisions. When you're talking about the neuro science and the three A's, that sort of thing, [00:20:00] that came to mind again. Can you say a little bit about that, how you bring it together in order to help people move through those different neurological stages where there's cognitive, limbic, whatever it happens to be. Because I think here's a great opportunity to go beyond the binary fear hope discussions that we find ourselves trapped in sometimes.

Renee Lertzman:  Right, well first off I advocate that we again recognize that these are complex nuance issues, and no one's walking around only in fear, or only in despair, or only in hope that these are all dynamic parts of human experience that shift all the time depending on where we are, and what we're doing, and who we are.

So one of the things I've learned from public health again, from motivational interviewing that's very powerful, is understanding the science of change. For me, what that comes [00:21:00] down to is how do we create the conditions that allow people to get in touch with their own volition for change. So this is really thinking of it instead of, how do you get people to change or get people to make the right decisions, how do you evoke ad draw out and create the circumstances where people actually get in touch with, "Yes this is what's important to me."

Curt:  That's like the underpinning for the feeling of empowerment that a newly activated person might feel.

Renee Lertzman:  Exactly. So there's all kinds of ways of doing that. It comes back to the kinds of questions that we ask. For example, if I'm doing a training with energy professionals who are talking about renewable energy, and they're out there at events, and out there on the floor or whatever, and they're having these interactions, what I would focus on is training them how to ask the right kinds of questions that actually promote and evoke people to say, "Yeah, I do care about this."

It [00:22:00] sounds manipulative, but it's really coming from that place of recognizing that any change truly, it has to be intrinsic, it has to come from us.

Dave:  Well, what you've said in your writing I think is people need to feel safe, and they need to feel like they're not being judged. That's really important to create those conditions in which people can take all this stuff in, and then decide, yeah I do something about it.

Curt:  I think it's so important too that what you're talking about Renee, there're this learning underpinning that these are all skills that people can, with some direction pick up and put into practice. That's really important.

Renee Lertzman:  We all can when we recognize it's part of being effective. There's one other thing I just wanna throw out, which is how powerful it is to hear from people who have been sort of on the other side, who've changed. So, I just heard an interview for example recently on MPR [00:23:00] was someone who used to be hard core Christian pro life evangelical. He's come through the other side where he's not actually going out and working with people, and doing a lot of healing work around, this is who I was, and these are some of the things I did, and now this is who I am, and this is what's important to me.

There's lots of examples of that coming out more and more. I feel that there's something about that that is very, relates to what we're talking about. Which is having empathy, it's saying, "Look, I've been there, I know, and I'm here to tell you that things ca be different. How can I help you, or how can I guide you or be part partners with you?"

That's the other thing is really important for climate folks to keep in mind, is that it's really about thinking of it in terms of guidance. How can I partner or connect with you in a way where I know that these are [00:24:00] hard issues and you probably feel overwhelmed in maybe whatever it is that you're feeling, but how can we figure this out together.

Dave:  Right. So a lot of what's come up for me in thinking about this season Learning To Change is how people can learn in community where they feel safe, they feel like they're not being judged. In my view, the better more effective advocates and educators ca do that.

Renee Lertzman:  Oh yeah, absolutely. What we're talking about in a way ... I'm imagining someone out there listening, who's just thinking, this just sound like basic good human

Dave:  Psych 101.

Curt:  In a way that's correct, right? But we've forgotten some of these things.

Renee Lertzman:  Yeah, exactly. It's not the province of only psychologists. It's really people who have high emotional intelligence.

Rajesh:  So, talking about high emotional intelligence, this season we're looking at educators both in school and college. On the [00:25:00] whole, I would say that formal learning systems, and that is school education, graduate and post graduate education doesn't emphasize emotional intelligence that much.

Curt:  Yeah, and that's to the detriment of our ability to take on issues like this.

Rajesh:  But at the same time, I don't think it's a bad idea to be able to look at facts objectively and reason through them.

Curt:  Necessary, but not sufficient.

Rajesh:  Right. So what's your magic wand here Renee?

Renee Lertzman:  Well, my magic wand is for us to recognize that emotional intelligence is really a core competency in our climate in environmental work, and just period, but specific to this. So, my magic wand would be a way to work with educators and support educators so that they have resources and skills and support to offer that to the [00:26:00] people that they're working with, and who's lives they're touching.

I feel personally that maybe it's because I'm in California, the Bay area, but it feels to me like on the whole there's been an arc where there's more and more recognition of the importance of all of this. So, I feel somewhat optimistic that I think we're moving generally in that direction. But I think much more needs to be done faster.

Rajesh:  It's gonna take a while for that wind to blow out east.

Dave:  Or south.

Renee Lertzman:  But look at where you are. You all are really, you're a hub of innovation and forward thinking, and so would love to see your work and your programming really bring this in, and show and demonstrate that this is not extra nice to have. This is actually part of what it means to be an effective climate scholar, researcher, practitioner, [00:27:00] educator right.

Rajesh:  Renee, I think we're all in pretty vehement agreement with what you're saying.

So, on behalf of our listeners, be you climate practitioners, researchers, educators, activists, Renee, thank you so much for starting us off this season with some thoughts on deep listening, on empathy and all those A's. Plenty of food for thought.

Renee Lertzman:  Thank you for having me.


Climate Conversations S3E1: The Psychology of Learning to Change, a Conversation with Renee Lertzman - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e1-psychology-learning-change-conversation-renee-lertzman

Climate Conversations S3E2: Free Choice Learning in Universities with MIT Terrascope - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e2-free-choice-learning-universities-mit-terrascope

Climate Conversations S3E3: Learning in Community with Mothers Out Front - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e3-learning-community-mothers-out-front

Climate Conversations S3E4: NextGen Learning to Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e4-nextgen-learning-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan

Climate Conversations S3E5: More with MIT Terrascope Lecturer Dr. Ari Epstein - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e5-more-mit-terrascope-lecturer-dr-ari-epstein

Climate Conversations S3E6: The Making of a Climate Scientist with MIT Terrascope Alumna Lauren Kuntz - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e6-making-climate-scientist-mit-terrascope-alumna-lauren-kuntz

Climate Conversations S3E7: Building a Community with Mothers Out Front Co-Founder Vanessa Rule - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e7-building-community-mothers-out-front-co-founder-vanessa-rule

Climate Conversations S3E8: Moving into Action with Mothers Out Front Chapter Leader Stacy Levy - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e8-moving-action-mothers-out-front-chapter-leader-stacy-levy

Climate Conversations S3E9: Teaching Climate Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Teacher Cate Arnold - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e9-teaching-climate-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan-teacher

Climate Conversations S3E10: From Learning to Teaching with Boston Latin School & YouthCAN Alumna Rebecca Park - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e10-learning-teaching-boston-latin-school-youthcan-alumna-rebecca

Climate Conversations S3E11: Learning to Lead with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Co-President Susan Tang - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e11-learning-lead-boston-latin-school-youthcan-co-president-susan

Climate Conversations S3E12: Turning Learning into Habits with Quinton Zondervan, City Counselor - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e12-turning-learning-habits-quinton-zondervan-city-counselor

Climate Conversations S3E13: Season 3 Wrap-up: What Have We Learned About Learning To Change? - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e13-season-3-wrap-what-have-we-learned-about-learning-change