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Ground Rules Deep Dive #8: Listen Willingly to New Information and Allow it to Change Your Mind

by Milenko Matanovič

January 16, 2018

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.

When I ride my bicycle, I scare creatures along my country route: robins fly off and cry out warnings and cows stampede in a panic attack. Noisy trucks and speeding cars, the road regulars, register no such response. When they thunder by, the creatures do not budge. But I, on my slow bike, cause alarm.

Perhaps it is that I, the quieter traveler, startle them. But a more likely explanation is that the truck and cars have become standard and fully accepted parts of their landscape while I, a bicyclist, am unfamiliar and therefore frightening. Forget that I cause them no harm, and trucks and cars can kill them. I tell the animals: flee them, and instead welcome bicyclists and pedestrians. But it doesn’t make any difference. They don’t listen.

I see similar resistance to new ideas and information from some people who attend a community meeting. We try to convince them to open up to new ideas. We tell them: step out of your singular convictions. Rigidity is the enemy. Further insight is your friend.

Take a person who complains vigorously about the bright bicycle lights modern commuters use to negotiate riding in the dark. These lights apparently disturb this person’s driving. Forget the fact that vehicles of all sizes, with much brighter lights, use the same road. These have become the norm, and therefore uncontested and beyond reproach, while bicycles are new to this person. Instantly, the unfamiliar becomes unacceptable.

Public hearings, the method used by municipal and county governments to receive public input, train us poorly for the future. Councilmembers use public hearings to gauge public support or opposition for a proposed project: new park, library, garage, development, etc. Each person signs in, states their name and address, and then has a few minutes to express his/her opinion. In the vast majority of cases, people focus on why they either support or oppose the proposed project. Then they leave and others take turns. Often, a local organization develops talking points they distribute to their supporters. If successful, they will have many individuals strengthen their views, with the same talking points repeated over and over.

I convened some meetings where this happened. It was early in my community work when I was still naïve. Invited by a County staff, I was asked to facilitate a public meeting to determine guidelines for watershed protection. The local species of salmon was in trouble. County wanted to engage property owners in finding solutions. I proposed that we hear from each participant and gather a list of possible actions that could guide the County in making improvements.

It didn’t go well.

A large group came prepared with talking points. The point repeated over and over was that if salmon were indeed in trouble, how come they can buy cat food with salmon in it. In response, the county biologist corrected them: the salmon in cat food is not from the local species that is suffering and could disappear. Property owners, therefore, can develop new practices: Create buffer zones, slow down the water, etc. “Let’s work together to protect your watershed,” was his closing statement.

The next person that stood up wholly ignored this latest information and went back to the same inaccurate talking point. I asked that person how they would respond the biologist’s statement. Nothing, only the repeat of the talking points. Helpful proposals by a few who were there to share constructive ideas were overwhelmed entirely by repeating false statements, each applauded by the supporters.

The event was a waste of time and energy for the County and the hundred people who bothered to attend.

“Watch me not come to the future events,” one participant said while exiting.

The modality of public hearings is inadequate for finding shared solutions. It doesn’t ask us to integrate points of view different from our own, to link together ideas into stronger proposals, to learn from others, or to think into the future beyond personal benefits. It doesn’t prepare us to create a world that is good for our grandchildren.

At the very next meeting, I included this ground rule: be willing to change your mind in view of new information. So when someone insisted on presenting inaccuracies, I was able to gently remind them that we’ve agreed to be willing to change our minds, and I was curious to hear their new ideas that build upon, rather than ignore, the views of others. In response, some huffed and puffed and were offended by my ground rule. But most were able to work with it, and the next meeting was more constructive and more useful. The third session pivoted toward solutions, and people left intrigued. They understood better that they had a role to play in solving the problem, and more eager to collaborate with local agencies.

Our communities are complex organisms, and we will need to see them from multiple perspectives. Others see aspects that may be less familiar to us, but they are as real as ours. As we go along, we will need to listen and reexamine our perspectives in view of those of others. Democracy will be better for it.

We are smart, so I am optimistic. I hope that we can learn this skill sooner than robins and cows.


Read the seventh installment in the series, “Serve the Highest Good of the Community” here.