Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Meaning of Wilderness

The debate in New York's Adirondack Mountains region had become increasingly polarized; interpersonal and interorganizational relationships had deteriorated. The Public Conversations Project convened a group of about 20 environmentalists, developers, forest industry people, sportsmen, and others with diverse views. The aim of the dialogue was to have individuals, however polarized their viewpoints, come together for two days as people, rather than as parties or positions, and understand each other. People were to attend voluntarily as individuals, not as representatives of organizations or constituencies.

Given the potential volatility of the meeting they were asked to explicitly agree to a set of ground rules detailed in the invitational letter. One of the ground rules stated “… avoid making negative attributions not only about those in the room, but also those not present.” This was especially important in this case because some attendees at previous dialogues in this region had verbally attacked others.

Well into the meeting, the conversation turned to the topic of wilderness and its implications for the future of the region. Some participants expressed the view that wilderness areas did not contribute to the regional economy and were not valued by residents. Others felt that wilderness areas were essential to maintaining the environmental and economic character of the region. One individual, Jeff, asserted, “the people who support wilderness areas are outsiders, they don't live here; local residents who have to make their living here don't see any value in wilderness.” In response, Betty claimed, “I know hundreds of residents who support wilderness!” To which Jeff snapped, “I don't think you even have a hundred friends!"

As facilitator I interrupted abruptly and alerted the group to this violation of ground rules. I physically turned to John, who was sitting away from the fray and asked him, “what comes to mind when you think of wilderness?” He replied, “Pristine, untouched lands where one can observe nature on its own terms.” I asked if anyone had a different interpretation. From across the room another participant said, “I had in mind what it says in the Adirondack Park Agency law, that a wilderness area is a designated area in which motor vehicles are not permitted; there can be trails and lean-tos, just no motor vehicles.”

I turned back to Betty and asked her which definition she had in mind when she said she knew hundreds of residents who supported wilderness. “The definition in the law,” she replied. Then I asked Jeff, and he replied, “the pristine wilderness.” I followed up with him and asked, “do you think that residents support the designation of areas in which no motor vehicles are allowed?” “Yes,” he replied. I paused and then remarked, “So hurtful words were spoken because there were different meanings in use for the same term.” I paused for a long time, resisting the temptation to ask Jeff if he wanted to apologize, and hoping that he would, but none was forthcoming.

I felt good that I intervened immediately before there was any escalation in this potentially volatile situation. Also, I felt I had done an outstanding job in diagnosing a potential source of miscommunication, the meaning attached to the word wilderness, and I turned out to be correct. Nonetheless I felt that I failed to adequately address the basic violation of the ground rule, nor did I help the group deal with it emotionally. In a way, by dealing with the conflict substantively I undermined the ability of the group to deal with it interpersonally.

Professor Russell Martin drilled into me as an undergraduate, “meanings are in people not in words.” When there is conflict ascertain if it is genuine, or based on miscommunication. If the conflict involves the use of a particular word or phrase, define it; to avoid the misconceptions that are created when multiple meanings are inferred from the same word, stop using the word and instead use its longer definitions.

© 2000 Sandor Schuman. Permission is granted to use or adapt this story so long as the title above is used and attribution is given to the author. For suggestions on how to use stories like this in training workshops, see my post on Stop Action Storytelling.

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