The Art of Diplomacy


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 niceness does not mean seeming nice,
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 diplomat succeeds 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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