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We tend to associate diplomacy with embassies,
international relations and high politcs.
But it really
refers to a set of skills that matter in many areas of daily life, especially at the office
and on the landing, outside the slammed doors of loved ones' bedrooms. Diplomacy is the
art of advancing an idea or cause without unnecessarily inflaming passions or unleashing
a catastrophe. It involves an understanding of the many facets of human nature that can
undermine agreement and stoke conflict, and a commitment to unpicking these with foresight
and grace. The diplomat remembers, first and foremost, that some of the vehemence with
which we can insist on having our way draws energy from an overall sense of not being
respected or heard within a relationship. We will fight with particular tenacity and
apparent meanness over a so-called small point when we have a sense that the other person
has failed to honour our wider need for appreciation and esteem. Behind our fierce way of arguing
may lie a frustrated plea for affection. Diplomats know the intensity with which humans crave
respect and so though they may not always be able to agree with us, they take the trouble
to show that they have bothered to see how things look through our eyes. They recognise
that it is almost as important to people to feel heard, as to win their case. We'll
put up with a lot once someone has demonstrated that they at least know how we feel. Diplomats
therefore put extraordinary effort into securing the health of the overall relationship so
that smaller points can be conceded along the way without attracting feelings of untenable
humiliation. They know how much beneath pitched fights over money or entitlements, schedules
or procedures, a demand for esteem can stir. They are careful to trade generously in emotional
currency, so as not always to have to pay excessively in other, more practical denominations.
Frequently, what is at stake within a negotiation with someone is a request that they change
in some way: that they learn to be more punctual, or take more trouble on a task, that they
be less defensive or more open-minded. The diplomat knows how futile it is to state these
wishes too directly. They know the vast difference between having a correct diagnosis of how
someone needs to grow and a relevant way to help them do so. They know too that what holds
people back from evolution is fear – and therefore grasp that what we may most need
to offer those whom we want to acknowledge difficult things is, above anything else,
love and reassurance. It helps greatly to know that those recommending change are not
speaking from a position of impregnable perfection but are themselves wrestling with comparable
demons in other areas. For a diagnosis not to sound like mere criticism, it helps for
it to be delivered by someone with no compunctions to owning up to their own shortcomings. There
can be few more successful pedagogic moves than to confess genially from the outset,
'And I am, of course, entirely mad as well…'' In negotiations, the diplomat is not addicted
to indiscriminate or heroic truth telling. They appreciate the legitimate place that
minor lies can occupy in the service of greater truths. They know that if certain local facts
are emphasised, then the most important principles in a relationship may be forever undermined.
So they will enthusiastically say that the financial report or the homemade cake were
really very pleasing and will do so not to deceive but to affirm the truth of their overall
attachment, which might be be lost were a completely accurate account of their feelings
to be laid out. Diplomats know that a small lie may have to be the guardian of a big truth.
They appreciate their own resistance to the unvarnished facts – and privately hope that
others may on occasion, over certain matters, also take the trouble to lie to them, and
that they will never know. Another trait of the diplomat is to be serene in the face of
obviously bad behaviour: a sudden loss of temper, a wild accusation, a very mean remark.
They don't take it personally – even when they may be the target of rage. They reach
instinctively for reasonable explanations and have clearly in their minds the better
moments of a currently frantic but essentially loveable person. They know themselves well
enough to understand that abandonments of perspective are both hugely normal and usually
indicative of nothing much beyond exhaustion or passing despair. They do not aggravate
a febrile situation through self-righteousness, which is a symptom of not knowing oneself
too well – and of having a very selective memory. The person who bangs a fist on the
table or announces extravagant opinions may simply be rather worried, frightened or just
very enthusiastic: conditions that should rightly invite sympathy rather than disgust.
At the same time, the diplomat understands that there are moments to sidestep direct
engagement. They do not try to teach a lesson whenever it might first or most apply: they
wait till it has the best chance of being heard. At points, they disarm difficult people
by reacting in unexpected ways. In the face of a tirade, instead of going on the defensive,
the diplomatic person might suggest some lunch. When a harshly unfair criticism is launched
at them, they might nod in partial agreement and declare that they've often said such
things to themselves. They give a lot of ground away and avoid getting cornered in arguments
that distract from the deeper issues. They remember the presence of a better version
of what might be a somewhat unfortunate individual currently on display. The diplomat's tone
of reasonableness is built, fundamentally, on a base of deep pessimism. They know what
the human animal is, they understand how many problems are going to beset even a very good
marriage, business, friendship or society. Their good humoured way of greeting problems
is a symptom of having swallowed a healthy measure of sadness from the outset. They have
given up on the ideal, not out of weakness but out of a mature readiness to see compromise
as a necessary requirement for getting by in a radically imperfect world. The diplomat
may be polite, but they are not for that matter averse to delivering bits of bad news with
uncommon frankness. Too often, we seek to preserve our image in the eyes of others by
tiptoeing around the harsh decisions – and thereby make things far worse than they need
to be. We should say that we're leaving them, that they're fired, that their pet
project isn't going ahead, but we mutter instead that we're a little preoccupied
at the moment, that we're delighted by their performance and that the project is being
actively discussed by the senior team. We mistake leaving some room for hope with kindness.
But true kindness does not mean seeming kind, it means helping the people we are going to
disappoint to adjust as best they can to reality. By administering a sharp, clean blow, the
diplomatic person kills off the torture of hope, accepting the frustration that's likely
to come their way: the diplomat is kind enough to let themselves be the target of hate. The
diplomats succeed ultimately because they are a realist; they know we are inherently flawed, unreasonable,
anxious, comedically absurd creatures who scatter blame unfairly, misdiagnose their
pains and react appallingly to criticism – especially when it is accurate – and yet they are hopeful
too of the possibilities of progress when our disturbances have been properly factored
in and cushioned with adequate reassurance, accurate interpretation and respect. Diplomacy
seeks to teach us how many good things can still be accomplished when we make some necessary
accommodations with the crooked, sometimes touching and hugely unreliable material of human nature.
If you're interested in coming to San Francisco to meet us at the end of March
please click on the link on your screen now to find out more. We hope to see you there.
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The Art of Diplomacy

2211 Folder Collection
Elma Kung published on June 15, 2018
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