Preparing for a Difficult Conversation

Over the last year we have trained over 1000 people in effective MP engagement. We also offer one to one advice- find out more information here.

Over the last year we have trained over 1000 people in effective MP engagement. We also offer one to one advice- find out more information here.

Climate change is a notoriously difficult issue to talk about. Whilst some people have constructive and encouraging meetings with their MPs, for some, getting through to their MP is a real struggle. Others felt they had a great meeting, only to find that the MP didn't follow it up by taking action.

A conversation with your MP is likely to break down if they sense they are being criticised or attacked- they will grow defensive and, more than likely, so will you. Putting your MP at ease and focusing on the areas where you can work together is most likely to have the best results.

Building a Constructive Conversation

It might firstly be helpful to remember that MPs have a highly pressurised job, with long working hours and heavy time constraints. They also have to balance a huge range of different opinions. They may not be very knowledgeable about climate change and feel conscious of their own limitations in tackling such a global issue. MPs can be constrained by their own party line, may be conscious that a particular issue would be very unpopular in their constituency or may themselves have a poor perception of us climate campaigners.

So how can we give ourselves the best chance of building a constructive conversation?

  • Frame yourself as an ally and find common ground - Even if you and your MP disagree, your overall aim is to find a way to work together. Listen carefully for what issues matter to them and focus on how climate change relates to this. Until you have established a good rapport with your MP, we suggest that you ignore areas of disagreement. This also includes what you may consider as lies. Disputing facts can waste valuable time and it is better to first establish your MP's trust and interest. Read our blog about a recent meeting with Justine Greening for an example of how this can work.
  • Be ready to learn - In one sense, action on climate change is very simple- we need to cut our emissions and we need to do it right now. In another sense it isn't. How do we ensure the job security of the thousands of oil and gas workers in the UK on whom we have relied for decades? How do we ensure that a carbon tax wouldn't mean that thousands of people aren't pushed into fuel poverty? Your MP will hear hundreds of different perspectives each week - from their own constituents and in Parliament. Be open to what your MP has to say. If they disagree, find out why and respect their position and you are more likely to find that they will do the same for you. Read our blog about a recent meeting with Guto Bebb for an example of how this can work.
  • Frame your ask in your MP's values - Combating climate change requires the response of politicians from across the spectrum but there is currently a deep political divide around the issue. Therefore the language we use to describe both climate change and its solution must resonate with people of many varying political persuasions. Ultimately, our language must speak to the values of those we seek to engage. Our work draws from the research of an excellent organisation called Climate Outreach. We strongly recommend their resources to you which you can read here. Read about speaking specifically to conservative values here, and read our blog about a recent meeting with Conservative MP Andrew Bingham for an example of how framing your argument differently can work.

Getting Round 'Defensive' Behaviour

MPs see hundreds of constituents each week- if they don't want to engage with an issue, they have plenty of experience in diverting the conversation to where they would like it to go instead. These are some 'defensive' behaviours to look out for from your MP...

  • Holding the party line - refusing to give their own answer and instead repeating their party's position.
  • Controlling the conversation - speaking about what they would like to speak about and for a very long time!
  • Not giving their full attention - your MP may seem distracted e.g. looking at their phone or checking the time.
  • Refusing concrete answers - avoiding committing themselves to a point of view or an action point.
  • Deliberately antagonising - you may find your MP saying something outrageous, knowing that someone in your group is likely to react, either reducing their own credibility or wasting time.
  • Sweet talking - saying all the right things but not committing to any action.
  • Feigning surprise - this is a relatively new one to us! An MP may pretend to be surprised at a policy change to avoid giving a response.

But of course, it's not just MPs who can grow defensive when talking about climate change. We know from our own experiences the frustrations of talking about such an urgent issue. Watch out for some of your own defensive behaviours which are likely to distance your MP even further, including...

“Your passion when talking climate change is important, but one must not be so passionate that the message is lost. An attitude that puts the blame with those you are trying to work with is not conducive to constructive problem-solving. Believe in your argument but also respect your audience.”
— Sir Edward Garnier, MP for Harborough
  • Showing irritation, pushing for answers or aggressively disagreeing.
  • Deliberately exposing an MPs misinformation or knowledge gap.
  • Homing in on one particular issue, particularly a controversial one.
  • Attacking an MPs party instead of treating each MP as an individual.
  • Treating an MP as a means to a particular action, rather than as a human being.
  • A dismissive attitude and sweeping statements.
  • Cynicism.
  • Controlling the conversation and not letting an MP get a word in edgeways!

Overcoming a blockage in the conversation can be as simple as finding some common ground and slowly building your MPs trust. Click below for ideas on how to research your MPs interests, and of which issues you may find are of particular interest to your MP.