Aug 05

Be Green, not Elitist

tree-huggerHave you ever gotten in an argument with a friend because they don’t recycle?  I have.  What about made fun of someone for being so materialistic and never saving their money?  Yep, I’ve done that too.  All of these arguments and shallow remarks resulted from an attempt to get someone to change – to see the light (my light!) and commit to a more sustainable life.  Guess how many times it’s worked?  Yep…none.  How many times has it worked for you?

When we feel passionately about something, it’s natural to want others to be just as excited as we are.  We want everyone to know how great it feels to save money and do something positive for the environment.  However, as we all learn growing up, the world does not revolve around us and not everybody shares our passions in the same way we do.  Sometimes this angers us.  Sometimes it can lead to the kind of arguments mentioned above.  Almost every time, it seems to lead to a strained relationship and a missed opportunity.

One major lesson I’ve learned over the years is that when it comes to building relationships and being influential, it’s all about “them,” not “you.”  You must give to get.  There is no way around it.  When you give people what they want and, more importantly, what they need, you get back without ever having to ask.  So, if you’re trying to convince your friend, partner, or family member to adopt some of your frugally green characteristics, what can you do to give them the things they need in order to make such a change?  After some reflection, I’ve identified 3 major tactics that you can use in any situation to amicably foster a change in someone.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

When we argue unrelentingly, what are we really trying to accomplish?  I know that most of the time when I’m arguing, I don’t really expect the person on the other side to concede defeat, but I usually want them to express that they understand my position.  If they don’t admit that they understand where I’m coming from, I feel like I’ve failed in explaining my position.  But, in order to get someone to understand where you’re coming from – to effectively communicate your position – you must know how someone is willing to receive it.  This is something that can quickly be learned by listening (really listening) to how that person feels about your position.

But it’s not just listening to words, it’s listening to how their spoken.  It’s watching their body language for clues about how they feel. It’s all of these things and it’s all at once.  By really paying attention to someone when they’re talking (and when they’re listening), you can quickly pick up how they’re reacting and  tailor your communication in a way that they are comfortable with.  I have a friend who doesn’t recycle.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ribbed him about it only to end up in a little argument that didn’t go anywhere.  I later found out that he actually wanted to recycle, but he was scared to start because he’d never learned how. Turns out we were continuously arguing about the wrong thing!

Help remove passive barriers

So let’s say you employed all of your stellar listening skills and were able to find some common ground. Your work is not done!  In the the example above, my friend wanted to change, but he didn’t know how.  I think everyone experiences a time in their life when they desire to change something about themselves, but fail to do so, at least at first, due to some perceived barrier.  Most commonly, this is knowledge.  Looking at my situation, my buddy wanted to recycle, but he never learned how.  He actually feared recycling because he’d heard that when something non-recyclable accidentally gets mixed in, the whole batch gets thrown away.  He was afraid that if he just started, he would do more harm than good and he didn’t know where to learn.  He’d also remembered hearing people complain about how complicated it was years ago to sort everything properly.  Luckily, he had a friend that was more than capable of getting him up and running with his own, simple, recycling plan.  Once he realized how easy it was, his attitude towards it changed completely.  If I had just written him off as lazy or uncaring, I’d still be arguing (or no longer speaking!) with him. And to think, this could have been resolved ages ago if I had just paid a little more attention.

So often we don’t change something we know we need to because of a trivial barrier that we set up for ourselves.  “I would buy compact florescent bulbs, but they’re so expensive!”  “Air drying my laundry makes my socks crunchy! I hate crunchy socks!” There are so many easy ways to work around these inconveniences.  By focusing on the problem rather than the solution, we allow ourselves to continue to ignore what we know is the right thing to do.  Any chance you get to genuinely help someone work through barriers like these is just as much an opportunity for us as it is them.

Empower, don’t belittle

When you resort to personal attacks, there is only one outcome that can be confidently predicted: absolutely nothing will change. This is the fastest way to make sure that nobody benefits from any dialogue. What is your natural reaction to being insulted?  If you’re like most, it’s either to flare up and respond in kind, taking offense to every word, or to clam up, refusing to speak and trying your damnedest to tune out whatever your attacker is saying. Either way, it’s the end of any useful conversation.

People are receptive, interested in what you’re saying, and willing to change when you instill excitement in them about an opportunity.  Would you want to take someone’s advice who said you were too stupid and lazy to?  What if they pointed out that you’re too smart and driven not to? Which scenario would cause you to be more receptive?

What it all boils down to

When you look at what these points boil down to, you could say that these are things we all learned when we were 5.  That’s very true.  For some reason, though, it’s very common for this advice to get misplaced, perhaps by the tasks and worries that escalate as we develop into adults.  For some, these concepts disappear completely by the time adulthood arrives.  It’s never too late to refresh ourselves on this and remember that those who have made the largest contributions to mankind were often also the most humble.  When we focus on taking care of others, others will take care of us.

So, the next time someone mentions that they drive a big SUV or buy new clothes every month, don’t put them down. Don’t tell them how much better your gas mileage is on your bicycle or that you only shop at the thrift store.  That doesn’t help them at all.  Instead, ask them questions.  Find out what makes them tick. Then, explain why you do what you do and present opportunities based on what you’ve learned about them. You have to build relationships before you can effect change.


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  1. Susie

    Truer words have never been spoken! The WAY your message is presented is almost as important as the message itself. And becoming green(or greener)is sometimes frustrating. For example, every time I go to my recycling center things seem to change about what can be recycled with what. I always go by the rules but the rules always seem to change. If I was new at this not only would I be frustrated but I might consider giving up.

  2. Michael Thomas

    Hi Mom!

    You’re right. Getting started on a sustainable path seems to be getting easier and easier all the time, but with all the advancements and developments, especially in recycling, it’s still a moving target.

    Unfortunately, not everyone has access to curbside co-mingled recycling and I can see how the constant changing of what can be mixed with what could get very frustrating.

    I would encourage anyone in this situation to express their concerns to their recycling center. They depend on your business to thrive.

  3. Kevin@OutOfYourRut

    Tyler–You’re really on to something here! A few years ago some “green” friends were staying with us over the Christmas holiday, and we heard a number of sermons on the wanton destruction of nature happening in the world.

    One night we’re driving and having just such a conversation, when she opened the car window and threw yet another cigarette butt out onto the street! I brought the apparent hypocracy up in a humorous way, she laughed, but that was the end of the green sermons.

    Also, not to insult anyone, but it appears to me that a lot of people are embracing green because it’s the latest edition of political correctness.

    A person who’s going- and talking-green, but lives in a McMansion and drives a monster SUV…isn’t going green. Big companies, IMHO, are largely doing it as a PC marketing campaign.

  4. Michael Thomas


    You may have inspired another article – Be Green, not a Hypocrite! :)

    In regard to the acceptance of green culture due to political correctness – you’re right. Lots of individuals and companies are embracing the green movement to build social capital, feel good, make money, etc. even though they don’t necessarily agree with the ideals. To me, that’s okay. The ultimate goal is to get society moving in the right direction. Whatever motivation someone finds to do that, I’m fine with because, in the end, it’s the actions that matter, not the motivations behind them.

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