For the last several months I have anguished over how best to advocate for Lake Michigan without contributing to the polarization ripping apart our communities, our country, and our planet.
Last month, I attended the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s public hearing on the proposed development for the north side of the Kalamazoo River mouth. I attended the meeting because, while I ended last month’s blog with the question, “who advocates for the water?” in my gut, I knew the answer. We do. We, the people.
I came hoping to hear examples of claims outlined on the NorthShore of Saugatuck website for living in harmony with the environment. Instead, I heard how metal plates will be pounded into the dunes; how over 240,000 cubic yards of sand will be excavated; and how much of that sand—once the floor beneath a boat manufacturer and potentially contaminated with epoxies, solvents and other chemicals—will be spread on the beach adjacent to the Saugatuck Dunes State Park. I wanted to believe the language on the website, tried to remember the owners’ commitment to preserve two thirds of the land, but I struggled to keep from despair.
I was equally disappointed in the comments made by those opposing the development—not all, certainly, but many. I listened to people insist the creation of the basin be denied because of the environmental irresponsibility of boaters and the reckless, destructive behavior of the wealthy and their children. So many labels. So much prejudice.
I left the public hearing depleted of energy.
The 13th century poet, Rumi, wrote:
Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
There is no “field” for dialogue in the formal approval process, no place for the principals to exchange opposing views in a constructive manner that leads to honest, fact-based discussions, compromise, and resolutions that move our relationships and our community forward.
Even if there was such a place, dialogue is difficult.
Marshall Rosenberg explains in his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, that we have learned many forms of “life-alienating communication” that injure ourselves and others. Through its emphasis on deep listening, nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy as it creates “a language of compassion.”
“The key to finding creative space for dialogue in an adversarial situation is to look for common needs,” explained Lisa Gottlieb, a nonviolent communication certified trainer. “All parties want to be heard, know their needs matter. I suspect the property owners want to recoup their investment, want financial stability and safety, a sense of predictability. Most people, certainly those who have taken out a mortgage or loan, understand this.
“While those opposed to the development are arguing for the preservation of the dunes, the water, and the wildlife,” she continued, “it is also in the best interest of the owners to protect the natural resources that make the property valuable.”
While both sides may have different strategies, searching for the similarity in needs is the first step in any conflict resolution.
“If I get too caught up in what I see as the outcome, I lose my capacity to care for another,” Gottlieb said. “The owners become ‘monsters’ only interested in making money. Those opposed become ‘tree huggers who aren’t interested in fair business interests.’ People feel attacked. Values and blame get in the way of finding common strategies. This is not easy. It takes lots of work and a willingness to be curious, to want to learn from one another.”
The public hearing was not a place for such creative listening and learning. And while that saddens me, it is outside my sphere of influence. But I can learn this new language of compassion, change the way I communicate.
Perhaps one day there will be a "field." I promise to meet you there and listen—without judgement; to understand your needs, empathize, and engage in conversation that taps my heart as well as my mind. I hope you’ll be there too.
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