"Rational thought, not emotional silliness"

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 8, 2003

Last week's column on getting peace right in 2003 generated some great responses. One in particular deserves special attention.

Jeff Perkins, a consultant to the chemical industry and longtime coffee companion, writes:

DEAR WARREN, in your column of Dec 31, 2002 about RCMP Sgt. Mike O'Rielly and his approach to conflict resolution I was excited about the quote: "If an appropriate system of relationship building can overcome mistrust between conflicting parties prior to an actual crisis, then those prenegotiation efforts are more likely to lead to successful interactions prior to, during and following a conflict, and could in fact prevent a conflict."

For 16 years I have been involved in an initiative by the Canadian Chemical Producers Association called Responsible Care. It is an approach to doing business which aims to establish good relationships with all people involved in the chemical industry. Indeed, the strength of Responsible Care is the development of relationships with suppliers, customers and end users, distributors, transporters and, most importantly, people who might be affected by these chemicals being in their communities.

My first involvement in the ethic of Responsible Care was as a member of a national advisory panel which helped establish codes of practice. I have since been a member of verification teams which, every three years, examine just how well a company is meeting its obligations.

Those companies which have a board of directors committed to Responsible Care have found, as suggested by Sgt. Mike O'Rielly, that by working hard at dealing with potential issues in an open and respectful way, mistrust can be overcome and potential conflicts worked out to everyone's advantage.

Different companies have had different levels of success. Let's face it, the relationship building can only be achieved by individual people. Those who have a problem in respecting the opinions and experiences of others will be less than successful. Fortunately, the members of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association, for the most part, employ individuals who build relationships based on respect.

I have been amazed at how community members stand up for and defend large chemical plants which they know could create life-threatening hazards. I have not only spoken with plant neighbours in Ontario, Quebec and all Western Provinces but also in New Zealand and Chile. Everywhere, neighbours know that there is risk but are convinced of the professionalism and capabilities of the companies to deal with a serious incident. Such trust is based on the ongoing commitment of relationship building.

Gone are the days when "Trust us, we are engineers and we know what we are doing!" was the relationship building technique!

Canada led the way in Responsible Care and now almost fifty countries have embraced it. That's something we should be proud of. For chemical companies the commitment to Responsible Care is not the answer to all problems which face them. As they have found, however, good and respectful relationships have helped avoid misunderstandings and ultimately, crises.

One major problem outstanding is that for all of these efforts, the chemical industry is still held in low esteem. Indeed, one so-called environmentalist told me that the whole chemical industry should be closed down! As I pointed out, that would mean no more food, clothing, housing, medicines, transportation, diapers or beer!

I think Sgt. O'Rielly's approach is the answer: rational thought, not emotional silliness!

—Jeff Perkins, Calgary

THANKS, JEFF, for affirming the importance of cool-headed approaches in building ethically responsible relationships between community and industry. What you are saying has implications for many other areas of life, including an area I work in: the media.

And since I've raised the issue of the media, have you noticed the amount of fear mongering going on lately in newspapers and magazines, and on TV, radio and the Internet? It's anything but relationship building! But more on that next week.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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