Let’s step back to examine the ethical foundation for conversation as seen by Socrates, who engaged in dialogue to converse.

This process involved asking and answering questions with the intent of sharing views in pursuit of a common goal towards a common good. This would then create a mutually accepted direction preventing any one person from pursuing a self-interested good.

Socrates felt these conversations allowed each to hold the other to account if what was presented was untrue. This process of back and forth questioning and answering draws on qualities of friendship, such as sharing, and allowing equal and fair time to respond, all while acknowledging the value and importance of each other’s points of view.

But what if you’re not friends? Or what if you feel your view should be prioritised? Conversations become essential when there is an urgency to resolve disagreements and there is a complex array of relationships with stakeholders who could be harmed or could benefit from the decisions that need to be made.

We are seeing this play out in all parts of society in attempts to address climate change.

There was a time in the 1900s when mining was crucial to the colony, with steamships, railways and steam mills playing a vital role in developing Australia’s economy. Today we recognise that past behaviour has and continues to contribute to the climate crisis.

Different organisations will be at different maturity stages in their path to a net zero future. There will be unintended consequences and changes in trajectories. To trust this process so that we can feel confident in addressing the trade-offs, we need to better understand it and be comfortable having these conversations.

What is missing that is preventing discussions from being focused on the ‘common good’?

Currently there is a stalemate at the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona between two Australian mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto, and the Native American activist group, Apache Stronghold, claiming the land is sacred and shouldn’t be mined. The copper is needed to produce renewable energy and electric vehicles. 11 federally recognised tribes are part of the formal consultation process and they all have differing views around the project. At this stage conversation has failed and they are waiting on the law to determine next moves.

In 2023 a windfarm in Kaban, 49km south of Mt Emerald, QLD is due to start operations powering 96,000 homes. The project area includes 129 hectares of threatened species habitat and is home to greater gliders and the brood frog. The work done to date has come under heavy criticism from local conservation groups who see destroying the rich biodiversity as a means for greater wind energy as a complete oxymoron.

The issue is polarising for the general community, though, with some people seeing the project as a positive opportunity for employment and making the most out of a situation they feel they have no control over.

Others, like traditional owner Joyce Bean, broke down and cried after seeing the destruction caused to the land, saying “we didn’t have a say in it”. Traditional owners don’t have veto rights over projects on lands they claim native title on.

The acknowledgment of people’s dignity and worth is a principal element of a conversation. Has a lack of power or recognition eventuated in the local community being omitted from the conversation?

A TED Countdown Summit in Edinburgh was a platform for a difficult and at times emotional conversation on the trajectory of decarbonisation. The guests included Royal Dutch Shell’s global CEO, Ben van Beurden; Chris James, founder of the activist fund Engine No. 1; and Lauren MacDonald, a Scottish climate activist. The platform was formatted in such a way that each speaker was asked to present their position in addressing decarbonisation and the other two could ask a question of them which would then be answered – much like the Socratic method of enquiry.

The conversation broke down when MacDonald passionately presented a statement and question to van Beurden but was unable to stay sharing the  stage to hear the answer with the person she felt was responsible for a crisis situation in Scotland. The organisation had lost legitimacy in her eyes. The result was no conversation.

Greg Joiner, VP Renewables and Energy solutions at Shell, recognises how difficult it is to turn people’s views when trying to explain Shell’s corporate strategy  to reach net zero by 2050. He explains that playing a significant role in transitioning the energy sector ‘is not linear, it’s dynamic and iterative and there are unintended consequences”. He says that often models need to be redesigned creating discontinuities which are challenging for everyone and leave an organisation open to greenwashing accusations.

Does this suggest the best way forward is to not have conversations but rather do the work, meet the targets and let the results speak for themselves?

What is the benefit of conversation? As much as the exchange of ideas and thoughts is important, the ability to listen may be more so. In conversations we learn about people’s values and principles and emotional investment. We also gain insight into how others interpret and evaluate our ideas. All of this helps to develop empathy and think of new ways to approach a complex situation.

If we want to embed ethics into our business and decision-making, we need to continuously encourage conversations that monitor the circumstances and be willing to change our minds.

Trying to change people’s views or omit them from the discussion hinders or prevents the conversation. As humans we are fallible and opening ourselves up to different perspectives, even those we disagree with, creates new possibilities. If we want to protect ourselves, the animals and biodiverse planet we live on, we need to have conversations.

A Socratic discussion shows that how we communicate is often more important than what we say. We don’t need to be friends, but if we start conversations from a place of curiosity and respect, sharing and providing equal opportunity for reciprocity, then the conversation can remain mutually supportive, and we can successfully pursue a ‘common good’.

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.