Our previous neighbours were keen vegetable growers and their raised beds were kept in regimented order, with straight rows of well tended plants, and the best were selected each year for the local show. They've moved on and we now how wonderful new neighbours. Their idea of vegetable growing is much more relaxed and whilst there are some well developed cabbages, emerging onions and baby beetroots, there has been something towering far above them all. "What are they?" I asked, and the response was "Well, we put parsnips in there, so we think they might be parsnips." "Funny, I've got admit I don't actually know what the leaves of a parsnip look like, but they're not what I imagined..."
Life is really a matter of perspective. Sometimes realising that there is another perspective than your own, and that it may be just as valid, can be difficult. But its really important to be able to hear another perspective in many areas of life. I was reminded recently of some consultation work we did several years ago, by an email that arrived out of the blue. It was from a resident who lives near to a large secondary school and someone had been out and mowed the grass.
A few years ago we needed to increase the number of children the school could take to meet local demand and had been consulting with local residents and parents. The school was really popular and there were hundreds of parents applying. The school wanted to be able to offer all the local children a place but needed some extra classrooms. They also needed some outdoor space to enable everyone to get outside for P.E. and they had a pitch they couldn't use because of the slope. Tricky to play well when the ball is always running off down the hill. So we agreed to get planning permission to level it off enough to get a sports pitch on. The kids and the parents all agreed this was a good idea, and an important thing to do, as well as adding the classrooms.
"We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are'"
But that was only looking at the plan from one perspective, from the inside looking out. When it came to consulting the residents it was quite a different matter. The occupants of the houses around the field had been used to a rather pleasant view, for many years, looking out over a gently sloping bank, where the wildflowers grew, the bees and butterflies, and late into the evening, the bats, all flying around. Our plan seemed very different to them. We would be dropping the level of the land close to the school, to make a playing pitch, leaving a sharper slope, and something rather less like rambling countryside.
A number of the residents were very unhappy. Have you ever tried to really listen to someone who is angry? Its not the easiest thing in the world to do. Some of the staff who were undertaking the consultation were struggling. They were feeling attacked and were trying to defend the proposal. Whether or not we want it to happen, that situation triggers are fight or flight response. Narrowing of the vision, diverting of blood away from the brain and into the muscles ready to respond, heart racing. Just at the time they most need to be calm and able to listen.
They were finding one resident in particular very difficult to deal with. I received a number of emails from her which generally started with some version of "you will be aware of all your failings..." I felt she was probably overestimating me, as I pretty sure I am only aware of some of my failings, and there will be be a number of others lurking in the background, waiting to surprise me. I almost wished she would set them out for me in a list, so that I would at least know which one's were on display, but felt it probably wasn't appropriate to ask her.
There was a public meeting coming up, and the team asked if I would come along too. It was to share some of the detailed plans, as part of the planning permission, and not a meeting I would normally go to. "What do you want from me at the meeting?" I asked. "We want you to talk to her, so we can talk to everyone else who comes along". So off we all went and I was put on sentry duty to make myself available as a target for the wrath that was expected to ensue. I didn't need to move in to intercept her, she checked the room to find the most senior people there, and decided that was me.
She was a toe to toe lady, you know that one's that feel like they are right inside your personal space? You step back, and they step forward. No point in dancing backwards around the room, so stand your ground it is. And so the tirade began. I did the only thing that makes any sense to do, I listened with curiosity. Curiosity doesn't judge, so there is no right or wrong, nothing to agree with or defend, and so there is no need for fight or flight. About 15 minutes in I interjected for the first time and gently asked "Is there anything I can say that will let you know you've been heard?"
"Is there anything I can say that will let you know you've been heard?"
"No" came the answer, and she carried on. Well, I was there to listen, and had been clearly told nothing else was required from me at that point, so I carried on listening. To be fair there was a bit of finger wagging too. After another 40 minutes the flow of anger slowed, and the logical arguments had been made. And finally there was space to ask her about her, not the proposal, but instead how she was feeling about it. She lived alone in a flat and loved the view of grassy bank with the wildflowers. She loved watching the birds and the insects, and she really loved seeing the bats in the evenings. We were taking away her view.
And so when an email arrived 4 years later, complaining that someone had mown the grassy bank, I understood her problem. She had learned to accept the change, and it had become a little easier in time as the grass grew high the slope and the wildflowers returned. It wasn't the same view she loved, but it was a view that had once more gone some way to meet her love of nature from the window.
"... I didn't really imagine that parsnips grew that, well, tall." The next day they were gone. "Turns out they were weeds. If they had flowered they could have stayed, because then they are wildflowers, not weeds. But as it is they're out, and now you can actually see the parsnips."
Weeds, or wildflowers, is just a matter of perspective.