On Fight or Flight
(Oregon Planners' Journal, February 1998)
By Richard Carson
Feeling panic in a stressful public meeting is a normal emotion - it is also useless primordial genetic programming. A primary right-of-passage into the planning profession comes when you personally present a controversial piece of public policy before an appointed or elected body, and are faced with a hostile audience of angry citizens.
As a planner, you are going to be the point person for a lot of public meetings. You need to understand your own emotional reactions to stress, and that the "fight or flight" response is primeval in origin and is old genetic coding. It is of no practical use in a public meeting or hearing. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, tell us that this is a latent human response stretching back millions of years. They say that "the rudimentary ability to think was superimposed on the preexisting, genetically programmed behavioral repertoires" In other words, when early humans were faced with a dangerous predator they had a built-in survival mechanism that allowed them to make an instant decision to either stand and fight or to take flight. This bit of genetic coding kept them alive long enough to use their brains to analyze their situation. Priority one - buy time, then think!
Most heavily disputed planning actions will bring together a more or less organized resistance. The opposition tactics may include exaggeration, accusation and posturing. Expect the audience to respond with catcalls against anyone disagreeing with them and applause for their own. This is the politics of intimidation. It is the mob mentality of "us" against "them." They are trying to bully you and the officials into doing their bidding.
In 25 years of professional experience, I have never met a planner who has been physically assaulted during or after a public meeting. I don't think that you have either. You may get called names, hear outright lies about you or be falsely accused of being part of some greater government conspiracy. This usually consists of a claim that you intentionally didn't provide notice to them or the ever-popular missing tape segments. Our first response is to fight and to strike back in anger. This is the evolutionary equivalent to shoot first and ask questions later. However, please remember that any cutting retort from you will be looked down on by both the officials and the citizens. Yelling, "That's a lie!" may give you momentary satisfaction, but it is exactly what the opponents are hoping for. They are appealing to the latent "reptilian" part of your brain that wants to mindlessly strike back in fear.
Since most of us realize that verbally attacking the citizens is bad both professionally and politically, we are left with only one overwhelming desire - to get the hell out of there! Sagan and Druyan describe the symptoms of the flight or fight response as causing "... sweaty palms, increased heartbeat and muscle tension, shortened breath, hair standing on end, a queasiness in the belly, an urgent need to urinate or defecate, and a strong impulse for combat or retreat."
The greatest defense against such physical manifestations is to realize they are caused by your emotions. As planning professionals you can only do so much in terms of facilitating a fair process and delivering an understandable product. The history of human governance is littered with bad decisions made by a few fearful officials. There are a few people in the same room with you who hopefully are weighing the facts - and they are the decision-makers. The decision-makers are going to take some of their emotional or intellectual clues from you.
If you want to he a planner, then EXPECT IT! Public hearings are great civic theater. It is democracy in action. Everybody gets to be William Jennings Bryant for 5 minutes. I recommend you enjoy it and never let them see you sweat. The fact is, you have done your job, and now it is between the elected or appointed officials and the people they represent. Laugh with the audience. Listen to their presentations with real attention. You may learn something new, or you may get asked a question based on their comments. Relax, you have a tremendous tactical advantage. You probably know more about the issue than 95 percent of the people in the room. If you don't know the answer, then you have the ability to say so and offer to do further research.
If the old primordial programming freaks you out, then I suggest you look at the unruly audience or speaker, and think: "Hey, there's no T-Rex here!"
Richard Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and the director of Community Development Department for Oregon City.