Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Gentlewoman's Guide to Engaging with Activists

Perhaps the best culmination of my last 5 1/2 years is to share what I've learned about engaging with activists, or with anyone really.  But it’s the activists that require the “Gentle” in “Gentlewoman”.

A few weeks ago shared an off-the-record breakfast with one of Fractavia’s most renowned activists. This breakfast reminded me that I’ve learned more than just a truckload of facts about oil and gas development in my COGA tenure. I’ve learned to engage thoughtfully, civilly, and persuasively.

I’m not expecting to score any points from activists with this blog. I’m entirely out of patience with rhetoric, fear mongering, and “solutions” that are completely disconnected from the reality of energy demand and our way of life’s interdependence with oil and gas. The audience I want is the oil and gas worker, supporter, or thoughtful user, who wants to engage in discussions with integrity, patience, and hope.

The First Rule 

The rules of engagement are simple on the surface. In reality, they require self-awareness and more commitment to having a conversation than on being right. I probably don’t need to mention that this can be very challenging. But, you’re banging your head against a concrete wall unless you try something new, so you might as well give these rules a try.

Gentlewoman’s Rule #1: Everyone gets treated like a concerned citizen, even if they look and act like an activist. 

It’s too easy, and frankly lazy, to dismiss people who look or sound like activists as professional nuts. Industry advocates do this a lot and it is not helpful. It alienates an awful lot of people who can, should, and ultimately will join the pragmatic conversation about energy development.

Many, many community members get worked up and scared over what they have heard about oil and gas development in general or fracking in particular. Many of them have no idea what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what’s relevant to their life. So, step one is to respect their fear, and seek to understand it.

Upon encountering that first challenge, whether over a family gathering or keg of beer, take a deep breath. Engage your curiosity and ask yourself, I wonder what is driving their perspective?

Here are some example questions that you might ask your protagonist, to get this conversation started on the right foot:

  • That’s an interesting perspective; can you tell me a little more about it? 
  • I have never heard that before, but I have some understanding of the topic. Can you tell me more about where you got your information? 
  • It sounds like you are really focused on that issue. What is most concerning to you? 
  • I have access to some information, would you like to gain another perspective I have some experience with this topic, would you like to hear about what I’ve learned? 
You’ll notice that these are questions, not statements. Which brings us to the second rule.

This Is About to Get Interesting 

Gentlewoman’s Rule #2: You are a student of the conflict.

It’s easy to find ourselves defensive in discussions about oil and gas development because others will often take what they believe to be the higher ground. It’s quite fashionable in many circles to be opposed to fracking, for example, and without much thought, people become accustomed to being in the right, whether they are or not.

Too often, we play right into the villain role by becoming angry, condescending, or spouting facts. It’s important to let go of the good-guy bad-guy paradigm and make a calm study of the conflict.

By putting our attention on the conflict, rather than being right, we allow our curiosity to drive the conversation to the next level. Make yourself a relentless student of understanding people who feel like opponents. What makes them tick? What motivates their thinking, behavior, actions? What will they consider a win?

You will be much more effective advocate for oil and gas development, and, incidentally, a much better conversationalist, if you understand who you are talking to. And there is a distant chance you just might enjoy the exchange.

Getting to the Point 

Gentlewoman’s Rule #3: Let the conflict lie. You cannot win.

The biggest mistake we advocates for energy make, because truly we generally do have scientific facts overwhelmingly on our side, is to lord these facts over others. In fact, THIS IS NOT THE POINT. The engaging conversation is the point. Learning about what people fear, why they are motivated, and how we can engage more effectively is the point.

Humanizing the industry is the point. Building trust is the point. In a discussion about oil and gas, who is the most influential person to your average citizen? Someone they know who works in industry. It’s not because that person will know everything, or have all the facts, it’s because ultimately this is about building trust. And you can’t win trust by spouting facts and winning. You build trust by conversing, and listening, conversing, and listening.

Be the Change, Even Though it’s Clich√© 

Gentlewoman’s Rule #4: You’re the face of industry. Be trustworthy. 

Whether you’re an employee, a supporter, or a consumer, it’s important that the conversation about responsible oil and gas development become about people, not faceless opponents. We can be labelled big oil or crazy hippies. These labels are the cop-outs we all use to blame faceless others for conflicts that we don’t want to take responsibility for or take part in. Enough already.

There is not any “they”. Every group is made up of people. If we aren’t going to cede the most important conversations happening about energy to all the nutty extremists, it comes down to each of us sucking it up and participating in a meaningful way.

Yes, I know you want to run to the bathroom when that awkward conversation begins, but you can’t. Each of us is the face of oil and gas, because each of our lives is entirely interdependent on the resource. So engage with grace, patience, and compassion. And I’ll join you. Even though I’m leaving COGA, I’m not leaving the conversation.

1 comment:

  1. Diffusing a possibly controversial scenario is always difficult. And this is even more true when dealing with activists. But your rules make the process so much more easier.