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How can we accelerate the Green Building Movement? Kathleen O’Brien, LEED AP, CSBA Responds.

KathleenOBrien-web When serving on a panel for the Living Future Conference last spring, an audience member, noticeably distressed, asked: How can we move towards sustainability faster? We don’t have time to waste!

This is not the first time I’ve heard this question. Indeed the sentiment of urgency around sustainability and green building in particular has been around for as long as I’ve been involved (since 1983 – although we didn’t call it by those terms then), and I’m sure it was before I came on the scene. Here’s my take given nearly three decades of working in this field.

First, it doesn’t really take “time” to change. It takes willingness. Anyone who has personally surrendered a position, relationship, or other situational circumstance knows that before there is the decision to change, there is resistance. The latter is an energy burner for sure, and can seem like an utter “waste” of time. It’s also painful! The decision to change takes but an instant. And once the decision is made, tremendous energy is released for the actual change, so much so that it seems effortless. We don’t care that it’s taking time, because we are DOING something we consider worthwhile. As our friend and green building pioneer Gail Lindsay would say, it’s JOY-FULL!

So then comes the question…How do we create that willingness? Accelerated or not, I believe it takes an incremental approach. Depending on circumstances (both external and internal) an individual or organization can quickly move through the steps necessary for positive change – or not. In self-help world, there’s a process of positive change called the “three As” – awareness, acceptance, action. If we skip either of the first steps, we might take an action, but it will be ill-informed.

In terms of green building, we need to work on the first two steps. At this point, we have defined the actions very well. We have lots of tools and standards available to the willing. And certainly awareness has been raised, but I will venture to say that green-washing has muddied the waters mightily – making the acceptance (acceptance of what?) questionable. For all of our work in green building…the practice is still the exception and not the rule.

As committed change agents, we need to be as informed as we possibly can about whose actions it is we are hoping to change. What do they care about? What “returns” are they looking for? To know this requires true listening. In a recent masters-level course on Servant Leadership I learned what communication specialists know well – the impact of spoken communication is primarily (55%) non-verbal. And much of our verbal impact is not in the words we use but in qualities such as tone, inflection, and loudness. Thus we cannot listen effectively through e-mail. Repeat, this cannot happen through e-mail! Only 7% of our communication impact is through the words we use. Understanding that we cannot always be in the same location, I am becoming quite enamored of Skype or similar tools, and still rely heavily on the phone, where we can at least pick up verbal qualities along with the words.

Unfortunately, listening is the least taught forms of communication (writing is the most taught, followed by reading, then speaking). So one of my suggestions would be to practice active listening – where you suspend your own inner dialogue as much as possible, ask clarifying and gently probing questions, and recap what you’ve heard, correcting as necessary. Robert Greenleaf – the forward-thinker who coined the term “servant-leader” in 1970 – said that “people grow taller when you listen to them.” It’s a good image to take with you for your client meetings (and for proposal interviews!)

An interesting concept introduced by Zweifel in his book Communicate or Die (2003) is the idea of “listening to listening.” This means becoming aware of how others are listening to you. In this way we can create rapport, deepen the communication, and tailor what we say so we can be understood – which is the point, right?

In addition to learning to listen better, we need to have a robust understanding of the technical problems and the pathways to solving them. This means continued and in-depth study. It isn’t enough to listen; we have to have something substantive to say! A casual reference to buzz words such as the triple bottom line concept or the “three E’s” of sustainability is insufficient. We need to know enough to effectively match the varied solutions available to the unique situation at hand. This means personal study, and taking advantage of the many good educational programs that are now available through local and national green building organizations as well as green building consultants.

By listening astutely and by keeping our knowledge base up to date, we keep the case we need to make finely tuned and compelling. We are much more likely to foster acceptance and pave the way to action for the vast majority of decision-makers we meet on a day-to-day basis.

Note: We have been discussing how an individual can foster change in other individuals or organizations. Stay tuned next week for Part II: a discussion of how the community-at-large can foster positive sustainable behavior, and in the particular the role of government.

Kathleen O’Brien is Editor of the Building Capacity Blog, President of O’Brien & Company, author of The Northwest Green Home Primer, and a firm believer in life-long learning. She is also the Program Director of the National Sustainable Building Advisor Program, which offers the Sustainable Building Advisor course and national credential (CSBA) for working professionals at continuing education providers around the country. Check out O’Brien & Company’s Building Capacity Marketplace for on-line learning as well as customized live training.

Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like these Building Capacity Blog articles: 
Interview with KCR’s Larry Eyre
How Can Communities Accelerate Change Towards Green Building?
Interview with Eco-Logica Magazine’s Stuart Vazquez
Green Building Public Education: Writing to Make a Difference
What is a Blogathon and Furthermore What is an EcoCribz?

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