This post originally featured in The Breakthrough Institute's Winter 2018 Journal.
In hindsight, I don’t blame them for being hostile. I was insufferable. I would come from Boulder, Colorado, with my long, straight hair and peasant skirts to a remote field location in, say, rural Georgia. My job: introduce oil and gas workers to the importance of environmental management practices. After a long flight and drive, I’d walk into a shop smelling of grease and diesel. A skeptical field hand would open a folding table and set up two rows of cold metal chairs. I would set up my projector and laptop and cast images on a white wall, or, if I was lucky, a stand-up projector screen. With all the enthusiasm of an adolescent puppy, I would begin.
Their crossed arms and narrowed eyes stunned me. I was hurt, embarrassed, angry, and self-righteous at the reception I got. If only these people could understand how important this was! They needed to listen to me!
I tried different tactics to soften the atmosphere, some more effective than others. But most importantly, I learned to begin all the sessions with questions. I asked questions, and I listened — about their work, about what was important to them, about what “environmental” meant to them.
By learning the language of these oil and gas workers, by listening to their stories about their work and their lives, I quickly found common ground with them. They cared about their families and their communities. They wanted to protect them. They valued clean air, clean water, and proper management of waste. The key was changing the way I communicated.
To read the full essay, visit The Breakthrough Journal.