Social Diplomacy, Part 3: Inviting Us into Our Best Selves

  • Recognizing that we want to be seen as our best selves

Image of a boy surrounded by bubbles, either running or playing in front of a house.
Image of a boy surrounded by bubbles, either running or playing in front of a house. Photo by David Schap.

My approach to diplomacy draws upon the concept of self-evaluation motives, the premise of which is that people are motivated to have a positive self-concept and seek to have that self-concept validated in their relationships with others. In other words, we want to be seen as our best selves. And we are not always our best selves. In my observation, every person I’ve met has contained complex and contradictory, sometimes opposing, parts, impulses, or desires. We contain multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, and in those multitudes are a host of parts that are not always helpful. 

Most of us are, at one time or another, hypocrites. We say or believe we want to be one way, but we are not always that way. We might let ourselves get away with behavior we would not tolerate in others. There are things we consider “wrong” that we insist we would never, ever do, completely blind to the fact that we’re doing them. Or, we’re hoping no one will notice that we’re doing them. This is a human problem, but it is not an excuse. It is the irritation that spurs us toward greater integrity. We can make our beliefs and our behavior more and more aligned, but it requires practice, patience, contemplation, and openness to feedback.

When another person notices that our words and actions don’t line up, we may respond defensively. When someone points out a quality that we don’t like about ourselves, we often respond defensively. It’s easy to experience shame and humiliation when someone sees and names these contradictions. Even the most gentle, loving call-in may stir Shame Dragon.

When the Shame Dragon stirs in me, I’m not very open to growth or positive feedback. I don’t sit in the moment, thoughtfully reflecting on the lesson you are offering—not without a lot of deep breathing and emotional self-care. (Also: writing and deleting several drafts of comments on Internet arguments.) Even if you are 100% correct and I recognize this, I need time to soothe my shame before I can fully take in what you’re saying and make effective changes.

Typical unproductive responses to the rousing of the Shame Dragon include:

  • Denying the contradiction or wrong
  • Emotional shut down
  • Responding with toxic insults
  • Walling off with excessive and fake politeness
  • Breaking down into excessive apologizing or self-abasement until the other person backs down or says it’s okay

The person who is lashing out because the Shame Dragon scours their inner landscape has work to do. In a confrontation, it’s not our job to soothe their feelings, but diplomacy offers tools to deal with contradictions and hypocrisy that help us reduce the intensity of these responses. It comes back to acting in good faith and inviting people to their best selves, addressing problematic behavior as though it was an unrecognized mistake or failing from someone who aspires to be better.

From this position, we can invite people to recognize their behavior and return to their best selves while allowing them to save face. We’ve already begun discussing these strategies by talking about the problem instead of the person. More will be the subject of future posts.