How to overcome conflict when engaging audiences

How to overcome conflict when engaging audiences

Readers who join my email list receive a 1-question survey in their ‘welcome’ email that asks:

“What is the biggest challenge you face with motivating audiences to take conservation and environment related actions?”

This series of articles respond to a selection of these challenges that I’m sure many can relate to. They’ll cover topics of: managing conflict when engaging audiences (below), reaching tourists as an audience, avoiding audience fatigue, balancing results and getting people to care more.

Want to get in on the ‘influencing article topics’ action? Then join the crew here.


Two readers described similar situations where critically important audiences were unwilling to listen to, collaborate on, or implement the proposed conservation solutions.

Excerpts of their submissions are below, which have been edited for privacy and brevity reasons.

Conflict situation #1: We’re working to get recreational fishers to agree to a fisheries management system – and they DO NOT want to. They believe they have every right to catch as much as they can and that it’s completely wrong for the “enviros” to ask them to cut back or put limits on what they can do.

So, they aren’t ignoring messaging about the need for management, they are seeing it and vehemently disagreeing. It seems they have already made a conscious decision not to do it.

Conflict situation #2: One of the biggest challenges I face with reaching my audience is the lack of listening and dialogue. Some people in the audience refuse to talk, saying that we, conservationists cannot understand them, that we do not live their lives and that therefore we cannot understand their challenges/problems.

In the case of my audience, it is linked to conflicts they had in the past with animal activists. They say these people did not respect them, so why should they respect their point of view?

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced something like this in one of your own programs.

So sorry I can’t see if you’ve raised your hand, or if you are currently reading this in a public place where someone wonders why in the world you’re raising your hand to your computer or phone. But we’re with you in spirit!

So, what’s going on? (cue Marvin Gaye…again)

There is a lot to unpack in these two challenges. Although I can’t see the full scope of what’s happening, I have heard many similar stories.

Based on what the readers shared, it seems like the following deterrents may be preventing their audiences from being partners in the mission.

A lack of trust

In both cases, they are encountering skepticism about the solutions being brought to the table.

That skepticism is likely not about the solution itself, but rather stems from a lack of trust between the audience segment and these particular organizations (or, of conservation organizations generally).

This may be due to previous bad experiences they’ve had with “outsiders” coming into their community looking to change things, who either didn’t treat them well or didn’t deliver on their promises.

When an outside organization that isn’t connected to the community just “appears” with suggestions and ideas on how they should be behaving (i.e. living their lives), it creates skepticism, defensiveness, and wariness among the audience.

Identity conflict

For most people, their way of life is incredibly intertwined with their sense of identity.

Suggesting big shifts in that lifestyle can raise fears that they will no longer be the person they are, and therefore, no longer part of the identity group they belong to (especially if generations before them were part of that same identity group).

Side note: the movie Moana touches on this quite a lot.

Additionally, it sounds like there’s an “us versus them” dynamic happening in both situations with the use of the terms “enviros” and negative perceptions of “animal activists”.

This connects to lack of trust and highlights identity conflicts of “we are not YOU, and you are not US”. Therefore, how can you possibly know what is best?

Lack of proof

The amount of skepticism described in both scenarios makes me wonder if the audiences have previously seen or heard of the recommended solutions.

Brand new solutions that have not been heard of before makes people wonder where the idea came from and raises questions on how will they know if it works for where they live, and how do they know there’s not a hidden agenda behind it (especially when presented by “outsiders”).

Lack of buy-in and early engagement

My gut says that the biggest issue here is that these audience groups were not engaged or involved in the process of (a) determining the conservation issue and (b) coming up with solutions to fix the issue.

A lack of early engagement and involvement in the process will often result in a lack of buy-in and collaboration, especially when it’s on topics as personal and sensitive as livelihood/lifestyle issues.

Where to go from here?

These can be really hard situations to rebound from. Here are several suggestions for recovering from conflict, which can also be used to prevent conflict from occurring in the first place.

Take a step back and (re-)engage

For community-based projects, it is critical to solicit the audience’s input early in the process.

This can be achieved through a series of stakeholder workshops facilitated in an open and safe manner that helps resource users identify current challenges, possible causes for the problems, and feasible solutions to consider.

I have seen local fishers map out great marine “land-use” maps in workshops like these and ultimately agree that more rules and regulations are needed. The goal with these workshops would be to get everyone to collectively sign-off on a strategy that solves their pain points.

Switch up the messenger

If there is an inherent lack of trust between the audience and the organization, then maybe it’s a better idea to engage a local NGO that has existing strong relationships with the community.

Or collaborate with an individual audience member who seems open to the partnership and ask them to assist with the workshops and meetings.

Look to see if there are influencers in the community willing to publicly support or represent the project. Securing their buy-in as individuals could be an important step in the project that helps others feel more open and willing to engage.

Switch up the message

This comes more naturally with a change of messenger, but it’s important to switch from “you need to implement better practices” towards “let’s save our resources!”

Going from YOU to WE is really powerful, especially when it comes from other people who rely on the same resources.

Additionally, re-position the need for greater resource management around benefits the audience will receive directly for making changes in their practices.

What will THEY get out of these changes (besides more resources for the future)?

What’s in it for THEM?

How will these changes reinforce their sense of identity rather than feel like a loss of identity (back to the Moana example)?

Show them what it looks like

When I worked in the Rare Philippines program, there were a few communities that had similar reservations about the proposed fisheries solutions.

To overcome these hesitations, program managers took a handful of community members to visit a neighboring community who had previously implemented better resource management practices. They could see firsthand how this community was thriving even with stricter fishing restrictions and ending their days with bigger fish.

They didn’t have to take the “enviros” word for it – they could speak to other fishers and hear an honest account of what was hard about the change, what the process was like, and why they are happy they did it.

Upon returning home, they would excitedly share their experience and ideas for adapting the solutions to their own context with other community members.

Essentially, sparking the movement.



I hope my perspective and thoughts here are helpful to others experiencing similar challenges.

However, I do acknowledge that these are difficult situations which can be very context specific and my suggestions may not work for all people and places.

If you would like extra support in working through a challenge like this, then consider booking a working session with me to dig into the details and solutions.