On being ... diplomatic

by Ingrid Sapona

As a rule, I don’t tell friends the title of On being … as I work on it -- I like it to be a surprise. The rule isn’t carved in stone, however, so the other day when a friend asked, I told him today’s column would be: On being … diplomatic. Without skipping a beat he said, “but you aren’t”. About all I could muster in response to that was, “Gee, thanks”. (In thinking about it later I took comfort from the fact that, clearly, I’m not the only one sometimes lacking in the diplomacy department.)

Undaunted (as I’m sure all my friend would agree I am -- even if some don’t agree about my diplomatic skills), I’ve stuck with it as my topic because it’s been on my mind as a result of recent of situations where I’ve struggled with the issue of what it takes to be diplomatic.

For a long time I thought that to be diplomatic you have to get along with everyone. It also seemed that an almost dispassionate approach helps, as well as a tremendous amount of tact. Based on these parameters, I’ve sometimes felt I come up a tad short on the diplomatic front. For starters, in terms of likability, I realized long ago that the simple truth is some people like me and some people don’t.

And, because I rarely get involved with things I don’t feel passionate about, I find it hard to even feign dispassion. Worse still, I suspect that my passion and enthusiasm are sometimes misperceived. For example, after a certain amount of discussion and planning on a project, I’m keen to start the ball rolling. I think this sometimes leads people to believe that I’m wedded to a particular method or goal. This often isn’t the case at all -- it’s just that I’m more willing than most to try to do something to break free of the inertia that often weighs a project or group down.

As for tact, it’s not that I completely lack it -- it’s just that my first (private) reaction sometimes isn’t particularly tactful. (I’ve often thought that one of the best things about working alone is that there’s no one to hear me mumble “you’ve got to be kidding”, or “Pa-LEEEEEZ” in response to a particularly stupid or irritating idea.) Fortunately, I’ve learned to count to ten -- or higher -- before even considering how to respond publicly.

Given that I’m not a natural diplomat, I’ve developed a technique that seems to compensate for some of my weaknesses. I’ve tried this in a number of situations where I’ve been annoyed as all get out but where merely showing my annoyance will not do -- both because I’d look like a jerk if I did so and because it’s clear that saner minds (and actions) must prevail.

Perhaps the best way to explain my technique is to give an example of how I use it. Right now I’m involved with a group that’s trying to start a local chapter of a bigger organization. Though I genuinely like all the people, there’ve been a number of times when people have floated ideas that I found so ridiculous I figured no response was required. To my amazement, however, others took the ideas seriously. So, despite my fear of forever being branded the naysayer, I’ve sometimes felt compelled to respond, lest the group go off in a ridiculous direction.

When this happens, I wait until I’ve calmed down and then I figure out all the reasons the idea is dumb or unworkable. (Did you ever notice that most dumb ideas are dumb on many, many levels?) Then I come up with rational-sounding reasons that rebut every aspect of the idea (without ever saying what I’d really like to, which is usually: “It’s just a dumb idea!”).

Though this approach of explaining chapter and verse about why an idea is unworkable is somewhat painstaking (and often overkill), I think it works because – even though you’re refuting the idea -- by offering a very detailed response, you’re giving credence to the idea. (So long as no one perceives any sarcasm in your words – which is why I say hallelujah for e-mail!)

I can’t tell you how many times -- especially with this group -- within minutes of sending out an e-mail outlining my reasons against something, others have responded with simple, straightforward e-mails agreeing with some or all of the points I made. Indeed, my approach even seems appreciated because others who might also have thought the original idea was stupid don’t have to try to craft a polite response, and they sound agreeable and supportive of someone else in the group (yours truly).

Despite my interest in the greater goals of this group, I’ve grown tired of worrying about not offending anyone and of being perceived as a contrarian, so I’ve decided to become less involved. Though I didn’t intend to raise this with anyone, when asked, I did tell one person that I plan on withdrawing for these reasons and I was floored by his response. He sent the most thoughtful e-mail encouraging me to stay because, in his words, “there have been many occasions when you have made a comment that brought us back to reality”.

So, this brings me back to my friend’s comment -- kidding or not -- about my not being diplomatic. After much analysis, I do think that others (perhaps people that don’t know me too well?) find my input useful and presented with enough tact to at least make me seem diplomatic. That said, I do think it’s best that -- early on -- I vetoed the idea of applying for a job in the diplomatic corps, and that I carefully pick and choose the situations I get involved in that may require diplomacy.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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