Bringing the safe inner space to climate change communication

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Research has given us a lot of good ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ on how to communicate about climate change. It tells us that:

  •  information doesn’t by itself change people’s minds
  • confirmation bias means that people seek out facts that confirm their existing views
  • people find it hard to understand risks that are not immediate and tangible
  • fear appeals have mixed effects

However we rarely talk about the inner state of the person we are communicating with and how this relates to the creative, innovative, whole-hearted and committed responses we need. If we are to help people avoid the flight into false certainty and paranoia that I wrote about last month, what kind of emotional state should be trying to foster?

Origins of creativity and the ‘safe space’

What we need to do is to awaken people’s inner capacity to respond creatively to difficult problems. This means tapping into what I call the ‘safe inner space’ – the capacity inside most people to feel secure enough to want to explore, feel, react and experiment. It’s a state of mind in which reason and emotion are deeply entwined, in which shame and guilt play little part, and which has its own dynamics of tension, experimentation, creation and release. Psychotherapists often quote Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’ when trying to explain this state of openness and curiosity: ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’[1]

Writings on child development give us some clues about its origins. Most children are naturally curious. Unlike adults they do not automatically reject the new. Babies reach out for everything and place it in their mouths as soon as they can grasp and manipulate objects. Is it edible? Is it alive? What does it feel like? What happens if I drop it? Is it gone forever? Can it come back? Toddlers are into everything – feeling, exploring, sensing, imagining. The pre-school child is inventive and questioning. Each new experience is a delight. The psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott believed this creativity took place in what he called the ‘potential space’ between mother and infant, a place which was neither ‘inside the individual nor outside in the world of shared reality,’ [2] and he thought it was the root of human creativity in its widest sense.

Safety and fearfulness

Of course there are some babies and children who struggle to develop this state. The infant of the depressed mother flops listlessly without making eye contact. The fussy toddler rejects food as if it were poison. The nervous pre-school child is afraid of the dark, of people, of the climbing equipment in the park or of getting their hands dirty.  All small children are like this sometimes. For most it is a passing phase or an occasional occurrence, occurring when there is just too much that is new or overwhelming. Sadly for some it becomes the norm.

What usually makes the difference between these withdrawn and fearful responses and the energetic and creative ones is the basic feeling of safety offered to the child by its mother or primary carer through what Winnicott called ‘good-enough’ mothering. This is mothering that is sufficiently responsive and well-enough attuned to help the growing child develop a sense of going-on-being. It produces a state of inner confidence that the world is a roughly OK place, that people are on the whole good, that one’s own destructive impulses can be kept reasonably in check and that one’s love and creativity are welcome and interesting to others. Most people get an amount of this but it is often overlaid with later disappointments and setbacks. It is not always easy to be our most creative and responsive selves. However, this is the state that we need people to be in if they are to solve the difficult problems that we face.

Truth vs protection

We cannot protect people from the difficulties of climate change any more than we can protect children from some of the difficult things which they have to face – from such universal discoveries as the need to share their parents with their siblings, accept that they will not marry mummy or daddy and that they will not live forever – to the sadly unavoidable hardships of neglect, loss and poverty that some childhoods contain. With any difficulty, it is recognised that it is important to speak the truth to children in ways that they can understand, in settings that make it safe to experience and express what they feel.

Similarly, when we appeal to adults about climate change, we have a difficult dual task. We have to speak the truth but simultaneously we need to try our best to activate people’s creativity, their innovativeness, their invention – all those things that as small children made them welcome the world. Both tasks require a safe space.

Creating the safe space

We know a lot from psychotherapy about how to create this safe space in interpersonal situations, much less about how to activate the inner safe space when we conduct an advertising campaign, talk to journalists, speak in public or propose a new policy. My checklist would have some of the familiar items such as

  • think carefully about your audience, their interests and concerns
  • frame what you have to say personally, using stories, memorable language and metaphor
  • tell the truth, without activating unbearable anxiety or guilt

but I would also suggest thinking more deeply about how to trigger that inner state of mind where people find the strength to both process the pain of the difficult problem and respond creatively to it. I can offer no easy rules of thumb but it may help to:

  • think about how to communicate reliability, trust, respect and openness as background themes
  • imagine the state of creativity you hope to evoke in your audience – what tools or triggers for the imagination can you provide?
  • think about what might connect your communication to people’s inner sense of safety and their capacity to feel comfortable in that state of ‘uncertainty, mysteries and doubts.’

[1] Robert Gittings (ed.).(1970) Letters of John Keats. Oxford University Press 1970 p.43

[2] Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. Penguin Books. P.129.


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