May a hundred ‘small experiments’ bloom

Climate change today is a failure of negotiation. The re-frame we need might be less high-stakes – and more every day – than you might think.

It was only when Matthew McConaughey, shirtless, battered, and bleeding was wrestling a Malian village strongman in the Dogon Bandiagara that I think I finally understood this recent episode of Conversations on Climate.

Ok, that’s not strictly accurate. The teaching in question comes a few pages earlier in Greenlights, McConaughey’s wonderful 2020 memoir-cum-philosophy of life. (And boy do I recommend that book!) But when I say it shed new light on my guest Kathleen O’Connor’s world-leading research on negotiation, I mean it. See what you think.

The story goes like this: Twenty years ago, McConaughey shaved his head and set off to chase a prophetic dream he had from Hollywood to Africa – a classic quest for spiritual renewal. Eventually, he finds himself in Timbuktu, where he wraps a day of camel racing with dinner for his Malian guides. An argument breaks out amongst his new friends over a question of morality and religion, which becomes increasingly loud and heated. After listening to the two sides, McConaughey decides it is time for his voice to be heard, with unexpected results:

[McConaughey:] “I believe Ali is right, I think-“

Just then, Ali, the guy whose side I was agreeing with, snapped at me,

“It is not about right or wrong. It is ‘Do you understand?!’”

Slightly stunned, I leaned back in my chair sheepishly as Ali stared at me with sobering vengeance…

They are not trying to win arguments of right and wrong. They are trying to understand each other.

A SHIFT in perspective

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you know that climate change has a negotiation problem. More specifically, it is one of those issues – a wicked problem, if you will – which can only be solved through global collaboration, even as it makes that collaboration incredibly difficult to achieve.

The smart people in the room have known this since the beginning, which is why the UN Climate Change conferences system was born from the Rio Earth Summit way back in 1992. Since the beginning, the process has been rooted in principles of discussion, collaboration, unanimity, and (nominal) equality amongst the signatories. And it speaks for itself that, after thirty years of earnest work by the top negotiators in the world, we have just had another record-breaking year of carbon emissions.

Climate negotiation isn’t working – or at least, not nearly fast or far enough to meet the problem. We need to do better.

This was very much on my mind last year – and I’ve hardly been shy about my views of COP. So I was excited to be able to interview Kathleen O’Connor, Clinical Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and a world expert on the psychology of negotiation, for the podcast. It felt like the perfect episode to be released in early 2023, in the hope that it might auger well for another critical year.

Kathleen’s insights were too numerous and subtle to be able to summarise here, but we did close out the show with an explanation of her SHIFT© model, which she uses to teach MBAs and executives how to become better negotiators. The five components are:

  • Separate other people’s interests (what they need) from their positions (professed outcomes)
  • Hear the other person, rather than simply waiting to talk
  • Invest in the relationship, and value each other
  • Frame negotiations as a problem to be solved.
  • Think creativity to find new solutions

Oh yes, I thought – a neat little acronym that is exactly the kind of thing that I used to love in business school. But how is that going to help us get China and the US lined up at COP28, let alone deal with Saudi Arabia?

Enter Mr. McConaughey. His story – as odd as it may have seemed at the top of this article – finally made Professor O’Connor’s pieces come together for me, albeit a few weeks later. Because what she is calling for is a complete reframing of our idea of negotiation itself.

Negotiation is not adversarial. It is collaborative

Negotiation is not about beating someone else. It is about creatively discovering shared solution space.

It is not about expressing the best argument. It is about being able to most faithfully understand the other’s perspective.

“It is not about right or wrong. It is, ‘Do you understand?!’”

Re-negotiating negotiation

I don’t want to spend any more time here on COP and the global climate game. Kathleen’s analysis, models and ideas have deep implications for how we might (re)structure and conduct climate negotiation. Her analysis of why it’s so stuck is certainly worth hearing. Today, I’d rather leave you with something more actionable in your own life.

Beyond the SHIFT model, my favourite part of my conversation with Kathleen was her approach to driving change – what she called ‘small experiments in high-value behaviours:’

‘I love the idea of experiments. I think people are more likely to do something different if they think it’s an experiment than if they think it’s a project or initiative. I think there’s something about experiments that means you can not find success, [but] you learn something, you keep moving.’

I love this too. It’s the best technology for negotiation, and for working with others towards change in general, that I’ve come across in a while. Firstly, experiments lower the stakes; when there is no winner, conflict is de-escalated as we all become part of the same experimental team.

I also think it is a great framework because experiments create direct, experiential knowledge before they invite us to come to a conclusion. That is the opposite way around to the driving forces of today’s culture. Modern media, technology, and culture wars are driven by the idea that we must all have opinions about everything all the time – and that these opinions (because we have worked so hard, genuinely, to parse them out of the info-tsunami) have value.

In truth, mostly they don’t. A lot of modern ‘conversation,’ especially on social media, in the news, and around dining tables, is us all talking about things we have almost no direct experiential knowledge of, buttressed by the borrowed conviction of ‘expert’ filter bubbles (and who amongst us bothers attributing our opinions?) The result is that everyone is ready to talk, but few are willing to listen.

By contrast, a small experiment puts that cultural training on hold. Instead of already knowing what we think, we are invited to find out together, person to person. We find a shared interest; re-frame it as a collaboration; find a creative new approach to try; and the whole thing is an investment in that personal relationship. It is a SHIFT.

Form and outcome

If you want to try this, there are two types of experiment you could run. The first would to trial a climate-positive outcome. Let’s say, for example, you wanted to encourage more shared parental leave at your organisation – because raising the next generation as happy, securely-attached and trauma-free is one of the best things we can do for the planet right now. Rather than decide you need to go negotiate with HR, why not frame it as a small experiment, with yourself as a willing guinea pig?

The alternative, which is where I’ll be putting my focus, is playing more with the form of communication itself. I want to continue my quest to help us all have better conversations about climate and everything else.

For example, I would invite you to run a simple, profound experiment in Non-Violent Communication the next time you have a suitable meeting with a trusted colleague: whenever it is your turn to speak, can you start by summarising what you heard the other person say?

This small ‘experiment’ can have remarkable effects. It helps you listen to truly hear the other. It helps them know they’ve been heard and respected. And it allows you to quickly correct misunderstandings.

Try it and see. And if you’re still not sure how to get that conversation started, here’s one last tip – an opening line:

‘I heard this great story the other day. So Matthew McConaughey was on a spiritual dream-quest in the African desert…’


This article was originally published by Christopher Caldwell, CEO @ United Renewables | MBA, Sustainability Columnist & Podcast host on Linkedin on March 8th, 2023


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