The recent Earth Day celebration was an opportunity to celebrate our planet, connecting us with the beauty of the natural world, with which many of us now have increasingly limited experience. Yet, many media stories focused on the politics of climate change, seeking to reduce the Earth Day observance to another partisan clash. Communication about protecting the air, land, and water has been going on for over 50 years. Most Americans have given the issue of environmental protection and climate change some thought and have now chosen connectors and information sources they believe and those they distrust about the issue. The media portrays two entrenched sides on environmental issues who can no longer hear one another. And studies now suggest that additional information about environmental issues actually has a backfire effect with those disinclined to believe new information that doesn’t align with their already held beliefs.  This would seem to be an intractable debate. Yet, unlike other entrenched issues, this one can have long term, irreversible consequences on our natural resources and food supply. So how can two seemingly intractable positions find any common ground to start the conversation?

Context–Value 4 of Cultural Intuitiveness—asks this very question: How do you take your seemingly logically founded plan you have developed in communication with those you have come to agreement with and get others, who were not in your communication circle and may not be so like minded, to respond to it with support—or at least not serve as a barrier?

Considering the context of your plan can help you identify what may likely influence the perceptions of those who are not in your immediate communication and planning circle. Of those who have the ability to help you advance with your plan or halt you in your tracks, are they concerned about the immediate economic costs (especially theirs) associated with your great idea or plan? Will they have to share or give up some (or all) of their power if your plan moves forward? Will their social relationships be impacted negatively by your plan? Will they have to communicate or receive messages that may not be comfortable for them? Appreciating how these 4 conditions—economic, political, social, communication—create the context in which your plan will play out not only can help you anticipate how your plan will be received, but also help you find places where you can find commonality by framing your plan in a way that is important to those that you need to  hear you.

 

Using this approach, we were able to advance a very proactive approach to address substance abuse issues in Kentucky, a Commonwealth which did not have a history of investing state resources in this multi-generational social problem. We appreciated that the leaders both at the state and community level, whom we needed to support our efforts, were most concerned about the allocation of financial and time resources. Rather than approach these leaders with an appeal for resources to support substance abuse prevention programs for at risk youth from the perspective of values for mental health or public health (a more social frame), we therefore approached our appeal using an economic frame. We proposed that supporting effective prevention programs across the state was as “Easy as ABC: Accountability, Best Practices and Cost Savings.”  Effective prevention relied on evaluation of evidence based practices which if supported and widely implemented would save resources (both financial and time) that would have to be spent on the consequences of substance abuse including not only mental and public health, but the education and criminal justice systems as well. This frame was both simple to appreciate and persuasive with our audience. We were able to continue to secure the resources and support we needed to advance our plan because those who may have wanted to detour the plan found this to be difficult since our new supporters appreciated the advantages of long-term cost savings and the accountability in the plan (a language they appreciated and outcomes they valued).

Researchers are now beginning to look at the context surrounding the environmental debate in a similar way. Analyzing the values that each side holds about the environment helps to determine how to best frame the messages so that each side can hear information about the environment in a way that resonates with their values. We would suggest that this is in fact the only way to advance the creation of a critical mass necessary to develop sustainable solutions to environmental issues—or any difficult topic—beyond the current state of partisan rhetoric and move us towards meaningful conversations and action.

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