Social Diplomacy, Part 4: Identifying What Matters

  • Identifying what matters

Diplomacy requires we know what we value, what I am trying to bring about in the world: deep values like Justice, Equality, Liberty, or Respect. In the larger sense, these values are always aspirational—they point in a direction but they are rarely a destination at which we’ve arrived. Having a clear sense of values helps guide my thinking and behaviors. I can name what’s not working for me and suggest a direction I think would work better.

What’s useful about knowing my values is that it keeps me in balanced relationship to my “side.” Knowing my values is also to some extent recognizing my “side,” my home team, my people. The traditional role of a diplomat is one who crosses boundaries to help a relationship between two larger groups, particularly to represent their home group’s interests in that relationship.

Image of a bird, white with black spots. Image by Giovanni Calia.
Image of a bird, white with black spots. Image by Giovanni Calia.

With that, however, the diplomat comes to know and understand everyone else’s perspective and appreciates the reality that no one can get everything they want. They also begin to see how the other “side’s” arguments and criticisms of the home group make sense from their position.

Nationalistic or tribalistic attitudes resist this kind of diplomacy. They want to split groups into all-good and all-bad, and the home group is “naturally” the all-good one. Warhawks on each side would rather push for conflict and dominance and not engage in the compromise and mutual understanding that is the diplomat’s turf.

I find that becoming defensive or overly protective of problematic behavior interferes with effective conversation. It becomes clear I’m less interested in a solution and more interested in promoting my “side”. None of us are free of problematic behavior or exempt from criticism, though some of us have more power and potential to cause damage with our problematic behavior.

Knowing what matters also helps me to focus. In any discussion there are so many issues that arise and opportunities for bad behavior that it’s easy for issues to become wholly derailed, or lost in a sea of problems. In any confrontation, we need to be focused yet flexible, able to honor the complexity while also staying centered around the particular value that matters most. It’s rare that I will change someone’s mind in one conversation, so I might consider the most important task to be stating my case effectively, listening to and addressing arguments, and then walking away so we can all think about it. Other times, I need a specific change to happen and I’m not going to leave until I’ve gained ground on it. 

What I value about diplomacy is stepping out of the need for one side to be right and the other wrong and instead building workable connections. With this value, I am willing to listen to other “sides” and attempt to understand what’s valuable about their perspective. I do not have to wholly agree with their viewpoints, but if I can find something of value in their perspective then I have an opportunity for connection and transformative conversation. I will discuss the promises and pitfalls of this further in the next post.