Good Conflict, Part 1

Image of a black and white background overlaid with a black and white pencil

“Any modern movement that cultivates us-versus-them thinking tends to destroy itself from the inside, with or without violence.” So states Amanda Ripley in her must-read book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.

In the oil and gas industry, we find ourselves describing public hostility to our work in black-and-white terms, such as “fight for our lives” and “energy wars.” These characterizations serve a purpose: They unite oil and gas workers, give us a sense of shared purpose, and mobilize us to serve as industry ambassadors to the world. But could this kind of black-and-white thinking — which seems to strengthen our collective identity — also lead us to our demise? Now that’s worthy of contemplation.

Engagement tactics that used to work don’t anymore, as I discussed in Stop Trying to Educate Them. In this and an upcoming edition of Both True, I’m going to share the mission-critical wisdom in High Conflict that will ensure game-changing leaders don’t unwittingly participate in destroying our industry from the inside. Instead, we need to take simple, actionable steps to reframe the energy wars into the meaningful — if difficult — conversations that catalyze what Ripley calls “good conflict” about the future of energy.

Both of these things are true:

  • Oil and gas leaders and employees are passionate about the importance of the work we do, our foundational part in building and maintaining prosperity, and our mission-critical role in the energy future.
  • We often find ourselves playing out a caricature of ourselves in the energy wars, defending that caricature and demonizing our critics.

The situation

“High conflicts are magnetic,” as Ripley says. We are all attracted to the siren song of the fight, its drama and urgent relevance. High conflicts feel like clashes between fundamental forces of good and evil, in which we are righteously engaged. How do you know if you’re in a high conflict? When you feel despair, stagnation, and a sense that the dynamic of the fight itself has eclipsed the subject matter. In other words, you have become more committed to the conflict and your righteousness than to resolution. We see this escalation daily in the political and public conversations about the role of oil and gas in the energy future.

Ripley’s four accelerants to high conflict actually map quite well to the climate wars: group identities (check), conflict entrepreneurs (check), humiliation (unfortunately, check), and corruption (depends whom you ask). It’s hard to reframe an entrenched high conflict when there are so many accelerants (not to mention players) perpetuating it. It’s easy to see these accelerants on the “other side” of the conflict — and it doesn’t take much self-reflection to recognize the role our own organizations, leaders, and supporters play in keeping things stuck on “attack!”

Grandiose language is another sure sign that we are participating in a high conflict. In both our allies and ourselves, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the ways that we contribute: using the language of war, righteousness, terrorism, or evil. These are sure signs that we have signed up for a holy war and have perhaps gotten caught up in the fight, rather than the important objectives that we began with.

Ripley points out an interesting side effect of high conflict: We as participants may begin resorting to actions and responses we know to be ineffective — humiliation, for instance. Although humiliation is prominent and dramatic, it’s never an effective teaching tool. And yet over and over we find ourselves caught up in an imaginary tally of facts, figures, right, and wrong where we score more points and ultimately prevail. We imagine we score these points when we humiliate our opponent. This is not how hearts, nor minds, are won. But (again) it is the state of play in today’s rhetorical tendency toward mutually assured destruction.

Understand that I’m not making a case for avoiding conflict altogether — which is another human tendency. A key takeaway of Ripley’s book is that good conflict is vital to our growth and success. Good conflict brings us the healthy tensions of life that make us question our assumptions, improve our actions, engage in our communities, and wrestle through challenges with our families. Good conflict is something we can embrace and nurture. Good conflict is precisely the kind of nuanced, complex conversation that we want to have about the role of energy in the present and the future.

When you’re aiming for good conflict in conversations about energy and climate, what does it look like? First, you’re moving away from black and white to acknowledge the wide array of variables, forces, knowns, unknowns, and tensions at play in these conversations. And you’re having these conversations with regulators, eNGOs, employees, and neighbors in ways that respect their motivators and differing opinions. You’re seeking to hear, understand, and reflect back your understanding to them. Good conflict does not have a hero nor a villain. Good conflict acknowledges that there is not one right answer nor one path forward. Unlike high-conflict exchanges, good-conflict conversations don’t end before they’ve even begun. In fact, they may not end, because there is so much to be discussed.

Seize the day

The ball is our court. As oil and gas leaders take the mantle of leadership in building the energy evolution, we must explicitly extract ourselves from the high conflict of the climate holy wars. And to do so we must first remove ourselves as individuals. When we at Adamantine advise our game-changing clients on this topic, we offer practical places to start:

  • Who is your why? What will be the legacy of your energy leadership? And to whom will you leave it? It is useful to invoke your most heartfelt connections to drive yourself to break the addictive cycle of high conflict. That’s how you can start the work you want to do: building solutions.
  • Embrace good conflict. It’s funny that we spend a good part of each day avoiding the healthy, good conflicts in our lives. Instead, we need to build our engagement muscles: listening well, learning other perspectives, providing our thoughts, and working toward compromises.
  • Cultivate curiosity. When my kids were in preschool, a wise teacher advised a frazzled parent, “When you just can’t take it anymore, sing! You cannot simultaneously yell and sing.” Similarly, I advise evoking your curiosity. You cannot simultaneously participate in high conflict and be curious about what drives your opponent. Curiosity fires a different part of your brain and nervous system. It allows you to show up differently. As Ripley states, “Get curious. It is infectious.”
  • Curate complexity. Like curiosity, complexity transforms high conflict. Letting a struggle evolve out of a black-and-white cartoon into a range of complex, interchangeable, confusing components is both healthy andmore reflective of reality. It makes us engage differently, with more interest and compassion.

Moving from high to good conflict is so fundamental to our ultimate success as leaders in the energy evolution that I will take this discussion further in an upcoming Both True.

Want to talk this 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.

More Articles

Much To Do about Methane

Because reducing methane emissions is an effective step to mitigate climate change, and the oil and gas industry solutions are well known, all eyes are on our industry to lead the way.

The EJ Evolution

Environmental justice is evolving. With rapidly changing definitions, requirements, and regulations, it is imperative for oil and gas leaders to understand what’s already here and what’s coming next.

Make the Most of Federal Climate Action

In this Both True, learn how new federal funding is increasing expectations for climate action from your company. With these growing expectations come new opportunities for you — and new risks.