Yesterday, we launched our new series centering upon the telephone conversation we had Wednesday with Enbridge Vice President Mark Sitek. We’re using that exchange as an opportunity to try and diagnose and account for the condition that causes Enbridge to act in ways that alienate landowners and the general public (not to mention other stakeholders). In the first installment of the series we discussed Enbridge’s defensiveness, its tendency to portray itself as unfairly victimized. The basic thesis of that post was two-fold. We suggested that (1) it’s absurd for the party that wields all the power, has all the resources, and nearly always gets its way to pose as the victim; and (2) that such a pose is the result of an extreme insularity that prevents Enbridge from seeing things from a broader perspective. For that matter, we suggested at the very end of our post, Enbridge seems to have trouble adopting any perspective other than its own narrow one.

In this our second installment, we’ll take up that last point, which is all the more important because it is one of Enbridge’s stated core values. As part of their commitment to “Respect,” Enbridge states that its employees will “take the time to understand the perspective of others.” This, along with their other values, is what Enbridge describes as “a constant beacon by which we make our decisions, as a company and as individual employees, every day.”

Part 2: Understanding the Perspective of Others  

Now, we’ve long maintained that Enbridge has trouble living this particular value. If they were genuinely interested in understanding the perspective of others, they would be much more willing to meet with landowners and citizens, yet they have held very few public forums in advance of and during this project. And If they were genuinely interested in understanding the perspective of others, they wouldn’t have to be dragged reluctantly to township meetings. They wouldn’t have tried to keep the Brandon Township workshop a non-public affair. And spokesperson Jennifer Smith and Lands and Right-of-Way Project Manager Doug Aller wouldn’t completely ignore our repeated attempts to get in touch with them. Even in those instances when Enbridge has appeared at public forums, they haven’t done so to really try and understand why citizens have serious concerns or what has made landowners so unhappy. Rather, they have only attended those meetings– this is certainly true of that Brandon Township workshop– to explain themselves.

But here’s the thing: explaining yourself is not understanding the perspective of others. In fact, it is precisely the opposite.

Which brings us back to Mark Sitek. The fact that he would call and speak with us for an hour or more suggests that he–unlike, say,  Doug Aller– really is willing to take that time. And in fact Mark spent a good portion of our conversation responding to our concerns with phrases like, “I appreciate the things you’re saying. . .” and “I acknowledge what you’re saying. . .” He even went so far as to concede that Enbridge had surely made some mistakes along the way. And at one point, he said, “I’m not convinced this project was done perfectly in every respect.”

We took all of this positively, as if we were finally getting somewhere, as if Mark really was attempting to understand our perspective. A specific example of this involved our remarks about the Marshall spill. We tried very hard to explain to Mark the lingering effects of Marshall– not just the material effects, like the recent revelation that there is still plenty of oil in the Kalamazoo River, but the psychic effects of Marshall, especially after the NTSB report. We explained that Marshall has made many of us– for completely justifiable reasons– deeply skeptical of Enbridge. Yet Enbridge has always seemed to us willfully blind to this fact; they have seemed genuinely perplexed as to why people might not believe the things they say– even though Marshall gave us every reason in the world not to believe them. For Enbridge to fail to understand this simple state of affairs, to grasp this basic fact is to completely fail to understand the perspective of others.

And honestly– though we could be wrong about this–the idea that this existing environment of distrust has been a contributing factor to citizen resistance to how Enbridge has gone about the replacement of Line 6B sort of seemed to be news to Mark Sitek, as if he’d never really thought about it that way before. Yet to his credit, our explanation did seem to make some sort of impression upon him. This is one reason we came away from the phone call feeling cautiously hopeful.

But then we followed up. After our call, we sent Mark an email just to mention a handful of items that we didn’t get to in our phone conversation. Mark responded to us promptly (for which we are grateful). But to our great disappointment, his tone seemed markedly different from the phone call. It was as if our dialogue had suddenly regressed and Mark reverted to the default Enbridge position: don’t try to understand others’ perspectives, just explain your own. Let us illustrate this with a specific example:

One of the most maddening episodes in our original negotiations with Enbridge was a letter we received from their corporate offices very late in the process. The letter was a threat, giving us a specific deadline to reach an agreement or Enbridge would pay us only the amount listed on the original easement (a paltry sum). The letter was offensive in many ways, but what most rankled us about it was the fact that it treated us as if we were the party holding up negotiations and preventing a timely settlement. Yet that simply is not the case. We only met with our ROW agent twice in four months. Our agent would contact us and then essentially disappear for weeks at a time, leaving us wondering about the status of negotiations. For our part, we acted and responded promptly at every turn, always ready to reach a fair, amicable agreement. Enbridge’s own representatives (their ROW agents) were ENTIRELY responsible for the glacial pace of our negotiations. Yet here were the corporate offices not just threatening us, but treating us as if we had been dragging our feet, making not even the slightest effort to determine why a settlement had not yet been reached. It still angers us to think about this treatment.

Yet when we told Mark Sitek about this as an example of how Enbridge sends mixed-messages to landowners, further alienating and frustrating them, his response was not to recognize how Enbridge’s actions actually damaged our relations, further contributed to a climate of mistrust, and actually hindered negotiations. Rather, he tried to explain it away, telling us how these projects are time sensitive, that schedules have to be maintained in order to meet the demands of refineries and suppliers, that it’s important to find ways to ensure that a project that is in the public interest is completed in a timely manner (again, as if these are things we don’t already understand; we swear it’s as if Joe Martucci had written the response.) In other words, Sitek’s response made NO attempt whatsoever to understand things from our perspective.

In our experience, both personally and publicly, this has been Enbridge’s mode of operation from day one. They want to communicate as long as it doesn’t require them to change course at all or to confront unpleasant facts. They want to communicate as long as it doesn’t require them to consider another point of view. They want to communicate as long as it’s entirely on their terms. We thought we’d gotten past that with Mark Sitek; we still have some dim hope that we have. But now we’re less sure.

One final note about all of this. We can hear, perhaps, our Enbridge readers objecting to this post by saying something like this: “But isn’t communication a two-way street? Doesn’t it entail both parties trying to understand the others’ perspective? Shouldn’t you (landowners) also take the time to understand our (Enbridge’s) perspective?”

That’s a fair question, to which we would respond thusly: first, we think we DO understand Enbridge’s perspective. We understand that they’re conducting a business, not a charity. We understand that the project– which we do NOT oppose–is in the public interest. We understand that they have time pressures and customer demands to meet. We understand that petroleum is important in modern life (in fact, we even own cars!).

But secondly, and more importantly, the brute fact is this: even if we didn’t understand all of that, as landowners we are forced to accept Enbridge’s perspective. Enbridge’s perspective is imposed on us by the law and by virtue of Enbridge’s vast resources and power. We do not have a choice.

Enbridge, by contrast, can choose how to wield its power, can choose how it treats and deals with those who are entirely subject to its will. That’s the difference.