Make Your Sustainability Pitch a Dialogue, Not a Soliloquy

Jennifer WoofterWhile sustainability can be a very complicated and technical challenge, at its core sustainability is about people. And when something is about people, you can bet that personal dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and emotional intelligence come into play.

I’m always on the lookout for ways to increase my persuasive abilities, and so I was glad to come across 5 Ways to Have a Great Conversations, a recent article in Fast Company written by Harvey Deutschendorf, an emotional intelligence expert, speaker, and internationally published author.

Written below are Duetschendorf’s five suggestions, followed by my own reflections and commentary. For my fellow sustainability practitioners, I believe there are a lot of gems to learn and utilize here. I look forward to trying out some of these strategies on you the next time that we meet!

1. Get out of yourself and make it about the other person

In an article I wrote a couple of years ago about why I’ve stopped pitching the business case for sustainability, there were some great comments posted by other sustainability-minded folks. One of my favorite came from Elaine Cohen, a brilliant and incisive sustainability practitioner, who said:

“We consultants often live in the world of the obvious. Sustainability should be OBVIOUS. But, regrettably, it’s not… and many CEOs still do not understand why it’s relevant to their business. And I mean CEO’s of large global companies, not small,l two-people outfits. We see our ability to help business leaders understand the “why” of sustainability as part of our mission as consultants, and this means making the business case in many different ways – sometimes it’s a hard numbers ROI story, sometimes it’s about reputation, local competition, and sometimes it’s attracting and retaining employees.  Each CEO needs a different hook. It’s easy working on the “how” with those who are already enlightened. But, let’s face it, that’s still a very small percentage of overall business leaders. We should not give up on the rest.” 

Of course, Elaine is absolutely right. Thus, my reply:

“I should also distinguish between “making the general business case” and making the “specific business case”. Many of my engagements with clients are centered around how sustainability aligns with their goals, stakeholder expectations, and internal resources. So there is a little bit of navigating how to best apply the business case.”

There were several other comments along these lines–namely, that the more we are able to make the business case for sustainability about a specific person (their priorities, their worries), an industry (their risks, their pressures), or a company (their workforce, their business goals) the more rewarding the conversation becomes.


2. Practice active listening

I am naturally a Type A personality. I have opinions, and I want you to know them. That said, I have learned (often through very hard life lessons) that charging ahead with my perspective is one of the fastest ways to break the conversation. Now, I am much more measured in my conversational flow. I am careful to make sure that I really understand where my conversational counterpart is coming from before I open my big mouth and let my opinions fly freely from it.

I am careful to make sure that I really understand where my conversational counterpart is coming from before I open my big mouth and let my opinions fly freely from it. 

Now–simply closing your mouth and letting the other person finish their sentence isn’t enough either. You need to be engaged in active listening while taking proactive steps to engage in the conversation, but while in the passenger’s seat.

Need some strategies for active listening? Here are a couple of my favorites from the excellent Forbes article 10 Steps to Effective Listening by Dianne Schilling:

  • Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying.
  • Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your “solutions.”
  • Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions.
  • Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.
  • Pay attention to what isn’t said—to nonverbal cues.

3. Move the conversation to a deeper level

Sustainability is wrought with aspects that render a conversationalist vulnerable. It’s complex, which may lead people to not share their true thoughts or opinions for fear of seeming naive. It’s associated with a political slant, which may make people leery of discussing it in “polite company”. It can be seen as a fluffy issue, which may make hard-nosed business people uncomfortable.

Whatever the situation, find a way to build an authentic rapport with your conversation partner. I often joke with executives on the other side of the table that I’m not a tree-hugger, and that I wouldn’t go into a rain forest if they paid me. (The bugs! The incessant rain! The humidity!) That confession almost always results in a collective sigh around the table, as we all realize that we’re coming from a similar perspective.

Even when I vehemently disagree with the person across from me, I find that I can almost always find some similar value or virtue that can serve to build trust and bring the conversation to a deeper level. When all else fails, we all love our families, right? Love for family and wanting the best for them can be a powerful opening to a larger conversation about responsibilities, decisions, and obligation.

4. Ask good questions

Good questionOnce you’ve gotten a good grasp of the basic situation, try delving deeper to unearth your conversation partner’s motivations, pressures, and hesitation- issues that often undermine every good sustainability discussion. Whether you are talking about sustainability at a very theoretical level (e.g. how you would save the world if you were in charge), or very practical (e.g. how should next year’s sustainability budget be allocated), these are questions that I repeatedly return to that will drive the conversation deeper:

  • How has your thinking on this topic evolved over the last couple of years?
  • What are the biggest unknowns about this topic, and how might they affect our decision-making?
  • What would a successful outcome on this topic look like? What are we really driving at?

5. Consider time and space

Don’t forget to consider practical logistics during your conversation. Arguing about climate change in the middle of a crowded trade show is not likely to elicit meaningful dialogue. Similarly, asking probing questions about an executive’s love of his children is not going to go over well in the middle of a board meeting. Choose your time and place thoughtfully, and recognize when the setting of the conversation is derailing the value.

I find that some of my best conversations with clients come when we go out for dinner. Outside of the office, with a good meal and a glass of wine, the conversation inevitably brings us closer, gives me a new perspective on the project at hand, and continues to build the trust that I vitally need in order to be an effective sustainability consultant.

Now I’m curious…fellow readers, what are your best tips for engaging sustainability-related conversations? Which of the five suggestions above do you practice (or need to practice) the most? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Twitter. I’m @jenniferwoofter and I promise to listen actively to your thoughts.
Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model, and providing coaching and training to sustainability professionals. She tweets at@jenniferwoofter.