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  • Shari Melto

Climate Change Cafe: Dialogue for Social Change

Why is dialogue important for our future leaders?

In the blink of an eye, today’s youth will become world citizens and world leaders. They will face " the first time, never seen before” challenges, like working with people across the globe to create break-through technology solutions, when 9 billion humans from fossil fuels and ensure that we all make a deliberate, cooperative transition to a sustainable world. Daunting tasks!

Although science and technology capabilities are necessary for success, they are no longer sufficient. Interpersonal capabilities like dialogue, empathy, listening, negotiation and collaborative problem solving (and cultural agility) are becoming important for building the trust, understanding, and collaboration we will need to navigate through diverse worldviews. Unfortunately, these skills have been sorely neglected. As a result, our current level of emotional and social skills (EQ) is far below what our future leaders will need to succeed on the global stage.

Deborah Tannen, the author of The Argument Culture – Stopping American’s War of Words, says the problem begins with our “argument culture which urges us to approach the world – and the people in it – in an adversarial frame of mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get things done -- the best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate.”

Our growing dependence on technology is creating an “empathy gap,” even among children. Middle School teachers already see symptoms on the playground: “Twelve-year-olds play like eight-year-olds...They don’t seem able to put themselves in the place of other children. The kids aren’t cruel. But they are not emotionally developed.”

Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, shares an alarming fact: EQ (Emotional Intelligence) among college students has plummeted 40%, mostly in the past decade. It is a trend that researchers link to the growth of digital communications.

And the lack of emotional and social intelligence among many leaders in the political, mass media and corporate arenas is frightening.

Time is short, and the stakes are high. As we navigate through the coming decades, conflict around climate change will be inevitable. However, we can eliminate some of it, de-escalate much of it and tap the potential in the rest of it if we learn to ‘think together differently.’ We will need to reduce our dependence on debate just as we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And then we can replace argument with more productive, more sustainable ways to think together.

“A sign of success would be that whenever conflicts and disagreements arise,

our first reaction will be to ask ourselves how we can solve them through dialogue and discussion rather than through (argument or) force.” – The Dali Lama

“It’s important not to confuse the difficult with the impossible." We can make significant progress if we begin today to develop dialogue skills in every classroom and in every community. As a new civic engagement program, the GOMI Climate Café provides teachers and students with powerful dialogue skills that they can use every day to help shape a better future.

What is a GOMI Climate Café?

The GOMI Climate Café is based on the World Café, an international organization whose goal is to “awaken and engage collective intelligence through conversations about questions that matter.” The GOMI Café has the following specific targets:

Help students develop dialogue skills, e.g. advocacy, empathy, inquiry, deep listening;

Create opportunities for students to practice these skills in conversation with peers, families, and communities around the issue of climate change; and

Prepare GOMI students to become engaged community citizens and to act on behalf of the environment.

Following is a recent example of a Climate Café ...

Twenty people drifted into the Climate Cafe to find card tables decked out with red and white checked tablecloths, drawing paper and colored markers. Each table included a student from the Newburyport GOMI team and three adults. After everyone settled in with their coffee or tea, Maddie Conway, GOMI student, welcomed the group, shared the purpose of the Climate Café, and posed the question for the day that had been created by the Café host – the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist (FRSUU) Climate Change Project. Then Sarah Simon, GOMI student, set the stage by delivering the speech that twelve-year-old Severn Suzuki made at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Climate Conference which famously "stopped the world for five minutes."

After Abigail Moore, GOMI student gave participants brief instructions about the dialogue process and explained their ‘cue cards,’ everyone took a few quiet moments to gather their thoughts and sketch out his or her response to the drawing paper in front of them. Then each person had ten minutes to share their ideas while tablemates listened intensely, asked clarifying questions, and paraphrased what they heard. After everyone had a chance to share ideas, there was time for open discussion followed by a quick debriefing from each table for the benefit of the entire group. The Café was closed after an hour – but many people continued their conversations, even as we began to pack up.

Feedback from our host team and Café participants were very supportive. “(The GOMI students) Could not have been more thoughtful in designing their presentation, which was thoroughly competent, and the skillful manner in which they engaged the ensuring discussions was exemplary. It was a wonderful opportunity for the students to participate with the larger community on this critical issue. Other comments: “exceptional; wonderful, so knowledgeable, well-spoken and poised; they give us all hope for the world!” The exciting news is that our host wants to co-sponsor another GOMI Climate Café this fall.

Climate Cafés at our monthly GOMI team meetings have generated a lot of productive “thinking together, " and students have been enthusiastic: “This was the best meeting we’ve ever had!” One lively discussion, “How can students engage more teachers on climate change issues?” resulted in an action plan that students will work on together and present to the principal this fall.


Shari Melto has more than 20 years working in organizational development helping leaders and organizations perform at their best. At McKinsey & Co, she led global leaders through challenging organizational changes. With the support of a MacArthur grant, Shari, worked with non-profits to help them move beyond a founder-led model to long-term sustainability. Her background, combined with her passion for the environment and training as a teacher helps GOMI create an exciting and sustainable future.

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