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How to Make Decisions People Will Accept

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… Nearly every community has … tales of projects delayed and defeated by small but determined groups armed with protests, public-relations campaigns and litigation. Developers have answered the delaying tactics with lawsuits of their own, called strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits. But these counterattacks only deepen public cynicism, widen divisions within communities and stifle legitimate disagreements. …

Is there a better way to get people to accept unwanted change, a way that actually brings people together?

A number of academic experts and others think there is. And a large part of the new approach depends on how you handle your job as planning commissioner. Here’s their advice:

Let people have their say. “Whenever people are confronted with change, they need the opportunity to react, to articulate their ambivalent feelings and work out their own sense of it,” writes Peter Marris, who has studied slum clearance programs around the world. Your job as a planning commissioner is to listen intently and respectfully, even if their comments are illogical or unfair. “The main thing people want,” adds Barbara Ann Blue, an organizational consultant in Tampa, Flordia, “is to feel they’ve really been heard and understood.” …

Preserve as much of the familiar as possible. One of the first things people do, in moving to a new home, is hang a favorite picture on the wall. There’s an important psychological principle here: the need for continuity. You might urge the developer to preserve part of the property — an old stone wall, for example, or prominent oak trees — as a way of softening the change.

Prepare yourself for the inevitable question: If this project is so wonderful, why don’t you take it in your neighborhood?

Explain your decisions. When you ask people to make a sacrifice, it helps if they see something good coming from it. Make the benefits as tangible as possible, in terms of jobs added, property values increased, shopping enhanced, traffic problems eased, or tax base enriched. Be sympathetic, but forward-looking. Look for compromises that will ease the transition. And then prepare yourself for the inevitable question: If this project is so wonderful, why don’t you take it in your neighborhood? …

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