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Ground Rules Deep Dive #4: Respect Those With Whom You Disagree

by Milenko Matanovič

September 14, 2017

Together we are capable of extraordinary achievements. Over the years, Pomegranate Center has proven this by encouraging people to uphold a code of conduct that leads to creativity and collaboration. This code of conduct, what we call “ground rules,” is essential to creating a positive atmosphere that focuses on how things can be improved, free from complaints. In this series of short essays, I will look at different ground rules, evaluate why they are important, and share stories from the field.

Opponents are essential for uncovering valuable insights. Enemies are detrimental. They simply shoot down points of view that differ from their own.

Adversaries open our eyes. They help us see a problem from another angle. They remind us that every issue is multifaceted and that the right solution is not in choosing one viewpoint, but to link it to other equally important ones. The solution then can serve multiple uses.

Some years ago, our team facilitated a community meeting with some 60 participants, a vibrant mix of established and new citizens. By and large, the long-term residents objected to changes, while the newcomers saw the blank slate for change.

One of the objectors stated that her life has been steadily going downward. New people who did not even speak English were moving in, there were proposals to build affordable housing for those very same people (“Why don’t they work as hard as we did and buy their own houses?”), and traffic jams, etc., were all contributing to her overwhelming pessimism. To her and her supporters, any changes would further downgrade her neighborhood.

Then we asked if there were people in the room who felt differently and dozens of hands sprang up. They saw a great future for their community, eager to meet the needs for housing close to where people work, create safe areas for children to play and learn, grow local food, and walk and bike. This group of mostly newcomers was eager to change the community.

It struck me that this was our world in a nutshell: two groups walking in opposite directions. One group wanted the community to go back to how it used to be. The other desired change. One group pressed the gas pedal; the other braked. This is not good for the car.

The thing is that both groups are necessary for a vital society, but only if they talk to each other and exchange ideas to achieve greater insights. Either extreme, by itself, is counterproductive and dangerous. How do we know where we need to go if we do not have any idea where we are? Somewhere in between is a change that is gradual but firm, with each step leading decisively to the next.

When we asked the pessimistic lady what specifically she was objecting to, she started to name views, trees, gardens—things she loved deeply. Behind her rejection was the affirmation that was good for newcomers to hear: this neighborhood was not a blank slate, it had history and uniqueness and character and, regardless of what changes would occur, those should be respected. What the lady feared, rightly, was the disappearance of what she cherished. Her fierce resistance to change slowly turned into guidance: how to change without destroying. And the two camps started to understand each other. The project was better for it.

We at Pomegranate Center have learned when participants uphold basic civility and listen to each other, opposing attitudes begin to contribute. Those who favor new developments learn about the past, about the culture of people and conditions of the site, and they begin to shape their proposals to those conditions. Those opposing changes learn that new ideas can make lives better and that the change can be good for them as well as others.

It is okay to have different opinions as long as they lead to deeper understanding. Respect allows this to happen.

Read the third installment in the series, “Everyone Participates,” here.