Social Diplomacy, Part 1: Conflict with Connection

A while back, I wrote a post about how much we need the art of civil discourse. Since then, I’ve heard more about the need for this kind of approach to dialogue and conflict in a world that feels increasingly fractious and polarized. We know we need to have hard conversations but struggle to do so with diplomacy and tact. No single blog is going to turn the tide, but for the next several weeks I am offering posts with the premises and practices that help me in navigating conflict.

According to Merriam Webster, diplomacy is “skill in dealing with others without causing bad feelings”. A synonym for this is “tact.” Diplomacy is not about conflict avoidance or being a doormat. Indeed, diplomats stand for something, rooted in loyalty to a core set of values or a community; they are simply willing to extend themselves in dialogue and effort across lines of conflict. Diplomacy enables us to meet hard truths and advocate for change in ways that include, that call people into the process. Diplomacy is a set of practices as much as it is a path. We are all capable of developing these capacities.

Image of a person from behind wearing a metal crown and a red cape with furry white fringe. The person is facing a backdrop of trees.
Image of a person from behind wearing a metal crown and a red cape with furry white fringe. The person is facing a backdrop of trees. Photo by Pawel Furman

What we seem to default to, however, are shame and alienation. When someone does something wrong, it’s too easy to pile on, call out, shame, and chase people out of our social circles. Everyone who’s left behind feels momentarily satisfied, having been an “us” against a different “them,” but then all live under the threat of being the next person to step out of line. There are times when people’s behavior is toxic, disruptive, and intractable and the community must be unflinching in its rejection or face dissolution. I do believe, however, that we can become so guarded and protective that we assume bad faith too quickly. I have also noticed that toxic and disruptive people become adept at using shame and alienation against others.

Diplomacy offers us a set of practices to invite in more good faith in our interactions. “Good faith” is the assumption of honesty and sincerity. Whether we think someone is coming to us in good faith or bad faith tremendously changes the way we experience another person’s behavior. If you behave in a way that feels disrespectful, but I believe you are acting in good faith, it is easier for me to manage my reactivity and let you know how your behavior affected me. I assume that you do not want to hurt me and did so on accident. Good faith elicits harmony, respect, and coöperation. If I believe you are acting in bad faith, I am going to wall off at the first sign of disrespect. Maybe I’ll explode at you with a barrage of insults and shame, or maybe I’ll behave in a completely friendly and civil way to your face but go around to all of our friends talking badly about you. Bad faith fosters division, discord, and distrust.

The next few weeks will feature posts on principles and practices that I find helpful in developing diplomacy. These include:

Where I come from: I am a cisgender White gay man who is able-bodied. I have a history of painful shyness and conflict avoidance, yet I’ve often been inspired by the great reformers. People who stand for justice and change in ways that pushed societies to transform, although there is always more work to do. I’ve worked hard to become more conscious of issues of power and injustice in my communities, and I continue to push myself to engage the hard conversations. I do not believe unfriending someone on Facebook is an act of courageous activism, though sometimes it’s what I need to do.

And I’ve messed up and embarrassed myself. I’m not being self-deprecating. I’ve said and done things for which I now feel regret, and I’ve been called out for it. I’ve responded to call-outs with defensiveness and self-justifications, making matters worse. I’ve confronted the limitations and consequences of my privilege. I am not “done.” I will say embarrassing things in the future. I will say things that are worthy of critique. I will likely respond at times with defensiveness, but hopefully less and less often, with less damage.