Picture yourself driving in slow-and-go traffic toward Santa Barbara on a sunny fall day. Suddenly a little red sports car zooms past you on the shoulder, cuts in front of you, and zigzags its way through the traffic ahead.

What thoughts cross your mind? Are you amused? Happy that car is getting somewhere quickly? Probably not. More likely you assume the driver is selfish and arrogant, and you can just picture his smug grin as he cuts you off. You find yourself hoping he gets pulled over and gets an expensive speeding ticket.

A little later as you approach the Pueblo Street exit in Santa Barbara, you notice that same red sports car stopped in a line of cars exiting the freeway. As you pass it, you glance over and what you see surprises you. Behind the wheel is a nervous-looking young man. In the passenger seat you see his very, very pregnant wife sitting awkwardly and working to control her breathing. You suddenly realize they are trying to get to Cottage Hospital in time.

In that instant, how do your thoughts about the situation change? You probably find yourself hoping they have no further delays and get there quickly. It is the same driver who cut you off just a few minutes earlier—nothing changed about that. What did change was how you perceived that driver. You initially assumed he was a self-centered jerk. But later you discovered his actions had an explanation you had not even considered.  

A few months later, you read an article in the Coastal View News about a new development proposed in town. The article quotes a successful Orange County developer who describes his plan for a large industrial facility plus a significant amount of high-density housing. He drones on about what a wonderful project it is, how much the community will benefit, yadda, yadda, yadda.

You shake your head assuming this is just another get-rich-quick scheme by an outsider who doesn’t care about Carpinteria. You are shocked as you read positive comments by city staff and even City Council members. You decide to go to the next City Council meeting and speak your mind about this travesty.

At the City Council meeting, you are frustrated that you must sit through presentations by the city staff and the developer before you can speak. But while you are impatiently waiting, you learn a few things.       

The residential part is to be low-income housing and transitional housing for local homeless. The industrial part is a non-profit job training center for the residents, who will train abandoned puppies for search and rescue. The graduate dogs will work at disaster locations worldwide, and the dogs who don’t graduate will be adopted out locally. The developer is now retired, moving to Carpinteria, and hoping to share the bounty of his successful career.

When your turn to speak comes up, you find yourself unable to say anything negative. You have a déjà vu moment as you experience the same feeling you had when you saw the expectant parents trying to get to the hospital.

Over the next few days you reflect on these experiences. How was your first instinct so wrong? You recognize that in both cases you assumed the worst motivations of others. You expected that an aggressive driver was just self-centered, and you “knew” that an Orange County developer was only interested in profit no matter what the effect was on the community.

It dawns on you that if you assume the worst intentions of others, you will oppose them before you know any of the details. But if you assume positive intent, you are better able to ask questions, gather information and engage in conversation. You might then conclude the other person’s motives really do conflict with your interests and what is good for the community. But that is something you learn rather than assume.

For example, imagine someone who plans to make a zillion dollars by replacing Linden Field with a toxic waste dump that could poison everyone within miles. Understanding their motivation to make money to support their family does not mean you have to agree with their proposal.

The key is not assuming the worst but being curious and asking questions before forming an opinion.

It is also a good idea to do your best to avoid cutting anyone off on the freeway whenever possible.

Mike Wondolowski is president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (CarpinteriaValleyAssociation.org), a local organization dedicated to maintaining the small beach town nature of our community. In his 30 years of involvement in planning issues, he has witnessed visionary successes, as well as decisions that were later widely regretted. When not stuck indoors, he can often be found enjoying Carpinteria’s treasures including kayaking and snorkeling along the coast, running or hiking on the bluffs or the Franklin Trail, or “vacationing” as a tent camper at the State Beach.

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