Good Conflict, Part 2

Two men having a disagreement and one woman in the center, taking a deep breath.

When we’re in conflict, we want one thing: for our opponents to see the light! And that’s whether we’re arguing with our kids at home about why they should wash those pants on cold or arguing online about the fundamental uses of oil and gas across society.

This desire to make our opponents see the light can warp our perception so badly that we start seeing social and economic trends as simplistic evidence for our arguments, not the complex and nuanced phenomena they are. (We saw this recently in a Both True edition about the multiple interpretations of energy prices.) “Wishing your opponent will see the light is a fool’s errand,” Amanda Ripley writes in High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. It is kinda obvious when put like that.

Conflict can be addictive, as we saw in Good Conflict, Part 1 — which also explored why we have to exit the kind of no-win standoff Ripley calls “high conflict” and instead cultivate what she terms “good conflict”: an interaction that produces knowledge and mutual respect for both sides. In this edition, I cover the ways we at Adamantine advise our clients to engage differently, both internally and externally, in the challenging conversations about oil and gas, climate, and our energy future.

Both of these things are true:

  • Generally speaking, oil and gas leaders have a complex and nuanced understanding of energy and environmental issues that we want to share with (i.e., explain to!) our critics and stakeholders alike.
  • Listening and understanding deeply are the key skills required to creating good-conflict conversations around energy.

The situation

Knowing how to recognize high conflict and replace it with good conflict will help us as energy and civic leaders to cultivate meaningful and pragmatic conversations about the future of energy. Game-changing leaders recognize that the current state of political polarization and the high-octane battles around energy, environment, and climate do not serve anyone.

At Adamantine, here’s what we advise our clients: Extract yourselves from high conflict and then engage your “opponent” differently, drawing on your interpersonal and leadership skills. But first you must recognize when you’re in high conflict. It announces itself through the following signs:

Grandiose language. The language of war, black-and-white characterization, good and evil, right and wrong alerts us to the likelihood that a conflict has gotten out of hand. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you will notice how pervasive this language is in the news and our daily conversations. As a culture, we’ve embraced high conflict as a mode of day-to-day engagement with difficult topics. It does not have to be this way.

Rumors and conspiracy theories. Last year I was on a panel discussion where a passionate industry supporter (from outside of industry) cited the “environmental conspiracy of the left to end life as we know it.” Before that, I had never heard anyone in our industry say “conspiracy” out loud (although it was often the implication of, say, suspected coordination between environmental groups and regulators). So hearing someone use the word in a public forum was shocking. Today, I find it increasingly accepted.

We need to call this out — it doesn’t serve our path to energy leadership. (Besides, in my experience, very few people or organizations have the foresight and bandwidth to organize actual conspiracies.) Seeing conspiracies everywhere is a way of assuming the worst of our opponents — and assuming the worst is a sign of very low trust. In a low-trust environment, as Ripley says, “it is very hard to create a consensus about the facts.” And consensus about the facts is an ideal we can work toward.

Binary extremes. In a way, high conflict is a self-perpetuating machine. The reasonable, the pragmatic, the peripherally involved tend to withdraw as the conflict accelerates and polarization intensifies. This leaves two ever-farther-apart sides without anyone to bridge the gap.  When you see a binary conflict, you are in a high conflict. In the end, the conflict will have generally eclipsed the original difference of opinion and become about perpetuating itself.

Seize the day

It’s not easy to find a way out of high conflict; participants can rarely do so on their own. Adamantine works with our clients to develop and operationalize the skills required to subvert high conflict and instead expand the role of good conflict.

The importance of being understood. In high conflict, the emotion is real. Participants are not exaggerating; they are conveying their distress. As a result, listening — really listening — is mission-critical to de-escalating unproductive conflict. As Ripley points out, “Being understood is more important than money or property. It’s more important even than winning.” More important than winning. Wow!

The skill of looping. Ripley’s book introduces an important conflict de-escalation skill: looping. In looping, you not only listen and repeat back your understanding of what you heard (active listening), you add a step. You ask, “Did I get that right?” I’ve been practicing this, and it is a life changer. Because most people cannot convey exactly what they mean the first time, they get a chance to clarify, and you, the listener, get another shot at understanding. Try it in your next conversation. Try it even on low-stakes topics: “So you say you want pizza for dinner. Did I get that right?” No, she wants you to pick up the pizza for dinner.

The magic ratio. Relationship experts have determined that the magic ratio for a resilient marriage is five positive interactions for every negative one. This requires a kind of coin jar approach to relationships: + coin, + coin, + coin, + coin, + coin… – coin. Shared meals, caring small talk, brainstorm activities, light-touch check-ins. These efforts apply all types of relationships, allowing us to cultivate resilient connections that can tolerate disagreement.

Conflict hacks. So you’re in the middle of an intense, high-conflict interaction. How do you rise above the addictive, passionate drama?

  • Breathe deeply: in for four counts, hold for four, out for four;
  • Focus on your attention intentionally on something else, to get some distance and perspective; and
  • Reframe the situation to provide more empathy, such as by imagining the perspective of a neutral third party.

In this work, we are not necessarily trying to create agreement. We are striving to understand and engage with people with whom we disagree, even disagree passionately. We are building our resilience muscles so we aren’t so fragile and therefore reactive in conflict. We are becoming more self-aware, integrated individuals. We are becoming more effective leaders.

Leadership is no joke! This work is personally and professionally challenging. It’s useful to talk these challenges through with an advisor you can trust. I’m taking on a limited number of executive advisory engagements in 2022. Reach out to schedule your consultation. If this post was forwarded to you, please take a moment and subscribe here.

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