Social Diplomacy, Part 2: Depersonalizing Problems

  • Talking about problems rather than people

To be clear: when discussing political, group, or interpersonal problems, we are always talking about people. What helps is to discuss problems in ways that are not personal.

I’ve heard people savvy in mental health language claim they can identify people with personality disorders, and I am cautious about this. Many of us have personality features that at times resemble disorders, particularly in times of great and unusual distress.

Image of a beachfront town. There appear to be geometric patterns on the beach due to the arrangement of what may be tables and umbrellas. I
Image of a beachfront town. There appear to be geometric patterns on the beach due to the arrangement of what may be tables and umbrellas. Image by Max Boettinger.

My preference is to focus on the impact of behavior, problematic patterns, and systemic issues; giving others the opportunity to stand in good faith and rise to their best selves. If they do not do so, or they do so and later prove they were acting in bad faith, then that is the end of my diplomatic dealings with them. I’m not going to spend my personal time trying to fix or coerce people into constructive behavior.

To break the focus down:

  • Impact of Behavior
    • Rather than accusing you of ill intent, I let you know how I or the community experience your behavior. “When you promise to be kind to me but then make fun of me in front of your friends, I feel hurt and unsafe. I have a harder time trusting your promises.”
    • One of the strengths of this position is that there’s nothing to argue with. I’m not saying you’re a liar. I’m saying if you want me to trust you, this behavior is getting in the way of your goal. It takes the judgment and accusation out while letting everyone involved take responsibility for their experience.
    • This position is necessarily vulnerable and requires some authenticity. The other person might take this opportunity to explode or gaslight. That is a good sign that they’re not acting in good faith. However, if I myself am not acting in good faith, the other person might be responding to that.
  • Problematic Patterns
    • In a systems approach, problems are not caused by one person but arise in relationships in which each participates.
    • Framing a problem in this way empowers all involved to consider how their behavior contributes to the problem, particularly one that keeps recurring. This is particularly useful in intimate relationships and groups.
    • In groups where there’s always one person causing trouble, it’s easy for people to think getting rid of that person is the solution, only to find that someone else takes that person’s place. If that happens, then the problem is systemic.
  • Systemic Issues
    • This takes us into larger contexts than the impersonal, and reminds us to look at dimensions of power, privilege, access, and environment.
    • When I have a problem with my boss, I am always aware that they have more power and influence than I do; whereas my boss might not be, and might think we are having a conversation between equals. 
    • In some ways, we are equal because we’re human. In other ways, we are not equal because we have unequal influence. I find it helpful to name this.

None of these are meant to be excuses or replacements for holding people accountable; rather they are ways of bringing accountability while offering the person an opportunity to save face and rise to their best selves. Too often we attack people’s character and put them in verbal boxes, we offer our criticism as a prison. “You’re a jerk and you never care about my feelings” is a trap, it freezes that person in a role and there’s nothing they can do to get out of it. “I felt hurt when you said that in front of my mother” is feedback that gives the person options to make amends or avoid further problems.

My approach to diplomacy comes from the belief that most of us crave to be seen as our best selves, though we all struggle to be that. I’ve seen people respond well when I frame issues in non-personal ways and invite them to step into their best selves. This topic will be explored further in the next post.

All posts in this series: