Undertand Others

What we can learn from Greta Thunberg

Once upon a time, there was a young women of only 16 who set out into the world with a quest. Courageously she withstood adversity and verbal abuse while continuing to impeach the men and women in power for their failure to act. The public listened. They listened and formed opinions. Opinions of support followed by actions, opinions of disapproval followed by abuse and opinions of the opinions formed. The young women kept sailing through these strong winds, kept following her quest to wake the world up to the urgency that was required to save it. 

Photo: Sandy SQ

By now you have likely guessed, that this young woman is none other than Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who gained followers globally by protesting against the lack of action to tackle climate change.

Reading in the news or social media about Greta makes us feel like we know this young women. We may even make up our mind whether we like her. But do we really know her well enough to decide what type of person she is? It is easy to jump on the bandwagon of public opinions, maybe even reject the very core of what she has to say, maybe only because we adopt the harsh responses of respected politicians. Just as we do when we follow the experts, the very same leaders that we have voted for and trusted to lead us towards a better future. But maybe we were wrong. And maybe we don’t like to be reminded that we were wrong about our votes, or our actions that were determined by the simple wish of leading a better life, to make more money, to adopt the convenience of single plastic use, and maybe we only now realise that we have turned a blind eye to the consequences of our actions. But I don’t want to write about what we collectively may have done wrong and what we should do instead. Neither do I aim to influence your point of view about Greta or her quest to tackle climate change. But I would like you to pause a minute and consider what we can learn from this brave young women who goes out to make the world listen to what she has to say. 

In the past, I have had many encounters with people that I did’t like not for who they were but for how challenged I felt by them. Robert Cialdini writes in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” that we like people who are similar to us.  The argument should hold true for the opposite too: We dislike people who are different than us. The more different people are, the less we find something that helps us to connect with each other. This difference also appears to challenge our status quo that we are not necessarily willing to give up. Greta does challenge this status quo. Her words make us aware of the lack of actions while we go and get our beloved takeaway coffee in a branded single use cup covered by a plastic lid.  

Hoi An (Vietnam) after Thypoon Ketsana, September 2009; Photo: Sandy SQ

It is fascinating that Greta doesn’t offer a solution. Instead she publicly accuses the world leaders to have failed to take action as done in her speech at the UN 2019 climate action summit in New York. Then she points towards the evident consequences that the future generations have to deal with.  

Who wants to be blamed for climate change? I am sure, nobody does. However, the world leaders can not ignore her. The accusation has been made publicly with press and social media coverage. A lack of response would confirm the impeachment made, a lack of action. On the other side, the response could have been either a rejection of the blame or an acceptance of responsibility which results in putting climate change on top of their agenda. The latter appears to be the course that world leaders are taking. But how did Greta get to this point? There may have been a few principles at play that Cialdini describes in his book as “Weapons of Influence”: 

Liking

As already mentioned above we like people who are similar to us and we dislike people who are not like us. When we like people, we are more likely to listen to them and warm to their ideas. The chances are that Greta speaks of what many but in particular her generation would like to say. This have led to many followers with students all over the world taking her lead to demonstrate for the needed change. Which leads to the next weapon.

Social Proof

When we are unsure of something, we look around and follow the crowds. We don’t want to be left out so we try the new restaurant that everybody is talking about for example. Speaking of what thousands belief to be the truth, Greta gained huge support and students all over the world followed her example. However, Greta is not the first activist, there were other young individuals who made their worries known at world climate conferences, there were scientist who have spoken about the urgent need for change and celebrities who have taken actions to raise awareness about the importance of climate change. When Greta stood outside the Swedish parliament with her sign demonstrating for three weeks, enough awareness was raised for the people that deeply cared to stand by Greta. With her growing group of followers she was able to gain access to important platforms such as the UN summit in New York to address the world leaders.

Authority

Reality is that we live in hierarchical structures. We look for that authority to confirm our ideas or to follow guidance. If we are sick we go to a doctor who gives us a diagnosis which we most likely do believe, because they are considered experts in the field of treating illnesses. Without the world leaders attention, Greta’s aim would not been taken seriously enough to initiate change. The simple accusation of them having failed to act before it could be too late is pretty much the same as saying the doctors have failed to treat a cancer detected at an early stage. With world leaders being on risk to lose their credibility they have to react one way or another.

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.” Greta Thunberg

Scarcity

Mumbai (India), 2008 – Photo: Sandy SQ

A few years back when a snow blizzard was to hit Ireland, people would buy bread and milk in bulk in case the shops couldn’t get deliveries due to the wintry conditions. The fear of missing out makes us wanting it even more. Climate change is already under way, there is no time to lose in order to help slowing it down if at all we are able to have a considerable impact. As Greta puts it in her speech in New York: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.” The urgency of changing the way we treat our environment is out of question.

Commitment

There is no doubt that Greta is committed and consistent in her actions and message which is another of Cialdini’s weapons. And the above is only one perspective of looking at what we can learn from Greta. We could also look at the facts of her own personal story. Her founding a way out of a depression may give hope to people who suffer from the same conditions. Or the fact that a schoolgirl is being listened to at world leaders conferences could many have reassessing their beliefs of what is possible to achieve in their lives. 

Many admire this Swedish teenager, others judge Greta for her ideas and beliefs. The reality though is that standing up for what we believe requires bravery at first. Early adopters are needed to gain momentum and to initiate change. But to truly transform the way we think about climate change needs commitment from our world leaders to have it on the agenda. Whether you like Greta or not, she did what she had to do in her belief to accelerate the change she desperately would like to see in the world. Have you done the same for your beliefs?

New Zealand; Photo: Sandy SQ

What do you learn from Greta? The following questions may help you to gain some inside to what you can learn from her. Leave a comment below to discuss your thoughts with other readers.

  • What do you feel challenged by, if at all, when reading about Greta? 
  • Have you reflected on what she has to say? If so, what behaviours if any did you change?
  • What do you learn from Greta? How are you going to apply this learning?

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