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Ground Rules Deep Dive #5: Reject the Practice and Tactics of Blame

by Milenko Matanovič

October 16, 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.

We have a president who loves to blame and complain. And, perhaps inspired by such modeling, community meetings now have more and more people who show up to do the same.

Pomegranate Center’s approach has always focused on possibilities. We want to create an atmosphere where the participants can express their hope and offer ideas for how things ought to be. We encourage all to see the gathering as a new beginning, to move beyond what we like or dislike personally and toward what will work for all.

Nothing dampens this creative ambiance faster than complaints and blaming. If not careful, a complainer focusing on what is wrong triggers an avalanche of reactions that distract from what the community can do. One person can cause the proceeding to spiral downward into negativity.

Here is an undesirable scenario: “This meeting is a sham. The council is trying to shove their ideas down our throats. They don’t listen. Has anyone else experienced this?” Asks the first participant.

The second adds, “Yes, I attended a meeting with the City and shared an idea. They completely ignored it. I suggested flowerpots at the street corners, and I do not see any.”

The third: “The City has already made plans, and we are only here because they are required to have a meeting. They are not interested in our ideas. They’ve never been.”

The fourth: “Yes, and….”

Before we know it, complaining and blaming take over. It doesn’t help anyone, and it leaves a bitter taste for all.

Here is a more positive scenario: “This meeting is a sham. The council is trying to shove their ideas down our throats. They don’t listen. Has anyone else experienced this?”

Before anyone else can speak, I respond: “I understand. Let’s have a beer afterward, and you can tell me about this. But right now we are collecting ideas for the future. What is yours?”

“I have plenty of ideas that I shared many times before and none were incorporated into any of the City’s plans.”

“Yes. But tonight we are collecting ideas from all so everyone can hear all the ideas. Solutions will emerge from the community’s collective wisdom. What is your idea?”

“I have many.”

“Just give me one.”

“Car-free streets like I’ve seen in Europe. I also….”

“Thank you. I will circle back to collect your remaining ideas later.”

Our ground rules do not create instant results. Asking the participants to refrain from blaming does not magically turn them into saints. Their value, initially, is that the code protects the facilitator from getting into battles. I can say: “I thought we’ve all agreed that we will restrain from blaming at this meeting. So I ask you again: What is your idea?”

On rare occasions, the complainer gets angry and stomps out. But everyone else is grateful to have a chance to constructively share his or her ideas.

The longer benefit is a gradual change of meeting habits. A participant might stop their neighbor from going on a blaming tirade: “Marty, I know you are angry. But all the rest of us want to solve a problem at hand. Please offer something or pass.”

And slowly, a new habit is formed. In time it becomes a custom.


Read the fourth installment in the series, “Respect Those With Whom You Disagree,” here.