I recently found myself at a zoning board hearing about a cell tower proposed for my area. People in the vicinity of the proposed location, concerned about the impact on their own property values, health, and, in some cases, lovely scenic views, were asking demanding questions and airing their concerns.
The attorney for the cell tower company, standing at the front of the room, interrupted one speaker. Do you have a cell phone? he asked the speaker, in a pretty unpleasant tone. Then he turned to the room of us, “Ok, show of hands,” he demanded. “How many of you own a cell phone?”
Gotcha, I thought, he’s pulling a Gotcha.
Audience members looked at each other, as though wondering whether they had to answer the question. Then…but wait, let me back up.
Up until then, I wasn’t sure whether I opposed the tower proposal or not. I have deep concerns about siting towers in rural residential areas where they’d be uncharacteristic of the surroundings, and yet I acknowledge the need and even demand for a good wireless infrastructure.
The attorney’s Gotcha comment was so arrogant, so intended to trap and manipulate, that I wanted to stand up right then and yell, Why are you trying to create more conflict when you don’t need to? I wanted to say, Do you own a toilet? Then you should have no problem with a municipal waste treatment facility near your home. But I bet you would have a problem with that!
Gotchas don’t work. They feel like a victory in the moment, but it’s fleeting. Instead of victory, Gotchas…
- Irritate, because they’re an attempt to “show up” the other side in some way. The Gotcha the attorney in my story used was intended to show the audience their own hypocrasy.
- Cause a defense reaction, because no one wants to be dressed down or shown up. In the zoning board meeting, do you think most audience members appreciated publicly being labeled a hypocrite, even if that word was never spoken?
- Escalate the conflict, because people want to regain face that’s just been taken from them.
- Escalate the conflict, because the Gotcha is usually superficial in quality…most conflicts are more complex than a simple Gotcha will address.
- Escalate the conflict, because Gotchas are nasty, manipulative and intended to show the speaker’s supposed superiority. That’s not the making of good negotiation by any decent standard of measurement.
So we’ve established that Gotchas escalate a conflict instead of serving to resolve it.
And that’s just what Mr. Cell Tower Attorney achieved. Some members of the audience raised their hands, looking chagrined. Some crossed their arms defiantly. A buzz started in the room, with phrases like, “But it’s not that simple…” The air in the room changed, for the worse. The meeting turned nastier. As I would have expected it to, given this particular attorney’s (thankfully, not all attorneys have his attitude) repeated missteps with some pretty basic dialogue and negotiation techniques. He came prepared to battle and did a darn good job of creating one.
What a shame. I come out of public meetings like that one saddened by all the missed opportunities. There is another way but the players have to choose it.