The Art of Constructive Diplomacy and Convergence
The cultivation of a diplomatic ethos is an enabler of a viable and sustainable diverse and inclusive human ecology, regardless of whether that community is one of professional, social or workplace derivation. In a world of accelerating moving parts, increased polarisation of views and separatism in certain regions, the headwinds of divergence are gaining strength and it is increasingly challenging to maintain cohesive communities. This paper seeks to identify elements that contribute to greater cohesiveness and explores ways by which these elements can be incorporated into a wide variety of settings and interactions.
One could be forgiven for asking why the term ‘constructive diplomacy’ is being used in this paper rather than ‘diplomacy’. The use of the word diplomacy is usually cordoned off to the geopolitical sphere. Some definitions of diplomacy are surprisingly cynical and are not uncomfortable with divergent outcomes. It is for this reason that the co-authors have used the term ‘constructive diplomacy’, a type of diplomacy that has at its essence a desire for convergence. Constructive diplomacy ‘dials down’ polarisation and prevents intransigence which is a product of failed diplomacy.
The below simple online dictionary definitions that the authors feel capture the essence of constructive diplomacy.
“The definition of a diplomatic person is someone who can be sensitive in dealing with others and who can achieve peaceful resolution to facilitate discussion. A person who doesn’t take sides in a fight but who instead helps others to resolve their differences is an example of someone who is diplomatic”
“If you say that someone is diplomatic you mean that the person is able to control a difficult situation without upsetting anyone”
Another very holistic definition of diplomacy is found in the below extract.
“The ten principles of operational diplomacy:-
- national interest
- confidence building
Some of the best examples of constructive diplomacy can be found with those whom have an ability to see things through the other’s lenses
Nelson Mandela was one such person and his capacity for constructive diplomacy became one of his fortes in the post-apartheid rapprochement years, as illustrated in this quote where he opined that:-
“If you talk to a man in a language that he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. Nelson Mandela.
A key take out would be that one does one`s level best to communicate in a manner that generates a positive emotional reaction with the audience. An application of this approach will involve going through a conscious exercise of swapping lenses or attempting as the great man put it, to talk in the other’s language.
When Mandela was trying to heal deep post-apartheid era rifts, there was no more powerful imagery than when he sported a Springbok jersey at the Rugby Union World Cup final in 1996. Here he was talking to a demographic within the white South Africans community in their language, as the Springbok’s jersey had traditionally been seen as a symbol of apartheid, for there were colour bars that had prevented non-whites from becoming Springbok in the apartheid era. Indeed, when the All Blacks toured South Africa in the fifties and sixties, they were prevented from playing Polynesians as they were classified as being of colour. In 1970 four New Zealander and Pasifika All Blacks, one of Samoan extraction and 3 Maori players “would be admitted under a special pass, giving them what was referred to as ‘honorary’ white status.”
Mandela’s reconciliation initiatives had particular resonance for both writers. Said co-writer did a brief stint at a boarding school in Southern Africa in the late sixties and recalls vividly the group beatings that he was subjected to by certain Africana boarders on account of his English surname. The fact that he was a New Zealander was of little moment, it was his English surname that struck a discordant note with the Boers. The lingering animosity towards some of those of British extraction may have been a hangover of memories of the Boer wars in the early twentieth century. As it was the late sixties, Africana pupils may have been reminded of this conflict by their grandparents, and venting their intergenerational anger.
The said author, as a child, also visited South Africa in the late sixties, at the height of apartheid, where he observed with incomprehensible bewilderment the colour-based segregation on all of the public signage “White Only”.
Public amenities were separated along colour lines, separate staircases for ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Whites’. Imagine the two writers navigating this with their Afro/European multiracial family. Our 10-year-old daughter by law would have had to use the mix race stair; Ethiopian-born son and Tsigereda (in the above photo), herself, the black stair; and the other the white staircase. Were any one of us to venture into the wrong stair – a stint in jail would not be out of the question. It is also important not to overlook the fact that inter – racial marriages were illegal during the apartheid era.
You can take it from one who witnessed this: the abstractions of hearing about it and reading it are very different to the visceral experience of physically encountering it. Seeing it first hand is overwhelming as it generates a physical and mental revulsion and the memories of it 55 years or so later never leave one. This was part of the context that Mandela was dealing with, where there was legally entrenched and institutionalised racial polarisation. The dehumanisation of people of colour in South Africa is a stark contrast to Mandela’s teachings, and any notion of respect for human dignity and individual perspectives.
Seeing the world through the eyes of others
Constructive diplomacy enables one to see the world from the perspectives of others, even through the eyes of one’s foes. Deft geopolitical operatives are wide-eyed observers, have a circumspect, even sometimes jaded, worldliness about them, but they possess an ability to factor in different and competing perspectives in their deliberations. They ‘pay attention’ and ensure that they are not wedded to seeing the world through their own lenses’ and this is how they try to prevent or mollify worst case scenarios.
Can’t you see, life’s easy if you consider things from another point of view… in another way… from another point of view.
A pithy little ditty, yet there is much truth in it, for instance one finds in the ‘COVID world’ that political divides have deepened in some societies. Regardless of whether one is wedded to a particular point of view, an inability to see things from ‘another point of view’ and a steadfast desire to remain preoccupied with ones’ own perspective can test the viability of relationships with even close associates if they march to the beat of a different drum.
The process of seeing things from another’s point of view is certainly not an easy task; one has to flip their lens, as it were. Indeed, it could be considered quite unnatural, as there is certainly a sense of surety tied up with thinking one has acted in the correct manner at first instance. Accordingly, one might be tempted to go down a path of justifying why one has acted a particular way or made a particular decision.
One sees this in litigation all the time – the further litigants proceed down the path of litigation, the more hunkered down, resolute and committed they are. It is why adversarialism, and litigation is inherently adversarial, is being rebuffed by a lot of parties who do business together – usually through innovative dispute avoidance measures.
The theme is that one needs to adopt a reflective perspective and not presume one’s view is the only point of view. When one is reflective, it means an openness to being shown otherwise, and one must be open to being shown otherwise in order to appreciate the ‘other point of view’, even if upon reflection one maintains their original position. This is no more relevant to dispute resolution than it is between everyday social or workplace interactions.
The theme of not being able to see things from the other side was astutely identified by a co-speaker at an address at the University of Western Sydney by the much-venerated late Sir Laurence Street (a past Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court). His Honour at the time was one of Australia’s leading mediators. He said “most disputes are like a coin, both see the same coin, but one sees the head, the other sees the tail.”
Having been a litigator for more than 30 years, one of the co-authors can vouch for this most economically expressed yet insightful of anecdotes. Often the only way a conflict can be resolved is for the adversaries to be cajoled into seeing both the head and tail, and this is what good mediators try to achieve by constructive diplomacy and “convergent socialisation”. This involves transcendence, as there has to be a dialling down of egocentricity. When not ‘on the same page’, if one applies a discipline of not being dismissive of the person holding the contrary view, and one listens with sincere intent and tries to get into their headspace, there is a greater likelihood of rapport with the adversary. Rapport builds bridges.
Be mindful and be accommodating of the others’ background and heritage
Case on point is the personal experience of the writers. Both came from profoundly different cultures and countries; one from the antipodes, the other from the Horn of Africa. Although sharing an intergenerational background in Ethiopia and Africa, both spoke different languages, had very different histories. One hailing from an ancient country, the other from a country very young, yet were married within five weeks of first meeting, some 12 years ago. One’s command of English at the time was limited and the other’s command of the Ethiopian language Amharic was miniscule.
This was emblematic of profound differences in their formative years, heritage and life experience but that which contributed to the success and sustainability of the partnership was an ability to accept the others differences and to work out how to best converge. This involved a determination on both sides to embrace and adopt some of the more utilitarian social constructs of the other which in turn required the letting go of some socialised and culturalized ‘hard-wiring’. That which was also important was the capacitation of the other.
Constructive diplomacy has regard to how that which is verbalised going to land ?
Constructive diplomacy requires adroit message content, careful choice of words and delivery, curated to ensure that the message is delivered in a manner that engenders a receptiveness with the target audience. A failure to master this skill can result in situations where umbrage is taken with the communication. One hears on occasion the lamentation that goes something like this:-
That’s not what I meant to say
I meant to say this
I was misunderstood
It came out the wrong way
The hindsight lament is of the messaging not being what it should have been, a lack of diplomacy and ‘sensitivity in dealings’. On point is the take out from a conversation one of the authors had with a friend and colleague the other day, Brian Donovan of Donavon Leadership, an expert on professional development and skills enhancement. Whilst exchanging views on the importance of sound communications Brian remarked, “when conveying an important message, one needs to consider how it’s going to land.”
Regardless of the communication vehicle, be it email, twitter or commentary stream whatever is said, a key consideration is how will the communication ‘land’. Whether it is a bumpy, smooth or crash landing will depend upon the content and delivery. Careful regard must be had to message content and mode of delivery in order to control the landing. Once the communication ‘flies’, the shelf life for controlling the landing expires.
‘Just as you want men to do unto you, you also do to them likewise’. Mathew 7.12 new testament.
Before expressing a strong opinion there is much to be gained by giving consideration to how it will be received. Altruistic diplomats are live to this and are well versed in the art of temperance.
One of the best ways of determining whether one should say something or an express a particular point of view, particularly criticism, is to consider how one would react to same being levelled at oneself. Is the criticism valid? How best should the criticism be levelled? is it best to level the criticism confidentially and on a one-on-one bases? rather than an upping of the ante and the involvement of others. There is mileage in going through the mental exercise of personalising or having an affinity with the others ‘response setting’.
One of the writers recalls an individual who was having a great deal of trouble dealing with his cohorts because of his fractious and belittling way of dealing with others. The writer posed the following question to the individual: “Have you considered in your dealings with your colleagues treating them with kindness?” The contrarian was not enamoured with this suggestion, stuck to type and ultimately had to move on because he never considered how his utterances would land, even though he never appreciated being on the receiving end of a slight.
If compelled to resort to criticism exercise the greatest of care least it be misconstrued as a personal rebuke
“Before leveling criticism roll your tongue around your mouth 100 times” – an ancient Buddhist saying
Criticism is rarely taken well; a heightened level of delicacy is required when compelled to level criticism. Although necessity may dictate that the substance of the message is not delicate, as criticism is not normally an accoutrement of delicacy, the mode of delivery is best approached with delicacy. If it is perceived legitimately as a personalised attack the old Ethiopian saying comes to mind “the attacked, never forgets the attacker”.
Further, before a criticism is forthcoming, great care must be taken to ensure that it will not come across as being pious or hypocritical and in this regard the phrase “let he who is without blame cast the first stone” is instructive. The writers recently saw this metaphor being played out in a tele drama. An adulterer had been summoned to appear before Pharisees and the consensus was the adulterer be stoned to death. Christ then cautioned those sitting in judgment to contemplate whether they themselves were blemish-free and presented without blame. The room within a few minutes was empty as ‘judges, jury and executioners’, as it were, had vanished.
The quote provides a salutary caution that human failings are not unusual and some would even venture that human failings are part of that which makes us human. The quote seems to caution one against the levelling of a criticism if the leveller lacks sufficient credentialism to throw stones.
Furthermore, in a professional setting great care must be taken in ensuring that there is no transformation of the disliking of someone into unprofessionalism. It is not incumbent upon a diplomat to prefer the company of all, but it does behove him or her to treat all with whom he or she keeps company with diplomatically and this will involve uniform application of professionalism.
When one of the writers was a fledgling prosecutor, (the antithesis of a diplomatic vocation), he was counselled by a mentor that there was nothing to prevent a prosecutor from being diplomatic in his or her dealings. Great care was to be taken in never being personal or vindictive, rather the focus was upon the generation of persuasive submissions for appropriate censure for conduct unbecoming. When submissions regarding the appropriateness of censure and penalty were made there was never to be a belief that, as prosecutor, one had a mandate to play God. It paid to understand that to wield the ‘adversarial bayonet’ was the engagement in an exercise that no human being, good or bad would relish if on the receiving end. Even a prosecutor can have empathy for the respondent, provided that empathy does not undermine the prosecutors resolve in seeing justice done.
Advocacy for strong censure was never confused with advocacy for the demonisation or belittlement of the respondent, yet, in practice, it is sometimes intertwined.
Whatever is said is likely to be repeated
Whatever is said is likely to be repeated. If it is derogatory, disparaging or, even worse, salacious, there is a greater chance that it will be repeated, which is likely to leave in its wake an unintended and uncontrollable legacy.
As stated above, one of the writers used to be an Honorary Consul, and in this capacity the said author along with his co-author, who was consular assistant, had many interactions with community representatives. Understandably, community advocates were interested in a Consul’s view as representative of the government on a whole variety of issues. Great care had to be afforded to anything stated as, whatever was articulated would reveal a position and that position would be repeated and it was critical the position did not polarise or inflame ethnic or regional tensions within the nation state.
Messaging had to very calculated, clear and unambiguous, because the answer would be repeated, potentially to many people within the stakeholder’s constituency. More importantly careful consideration was given to Brian Donavon’s caution on how the communication was going to land, where and to whom it would land, for it was bound to be repeated.
The greatest of care must be afforded to the written word
A key difference between the spoken and written word is that the written word once dispatched is set in stone and it is nigh on impossible to redact. This used to be reflected in the laws of defamation, where at common law libel (written) was actionable per se, whereas for slander (spoken), damages were the gist of the action. This essentially meant one did not need to prove loss to make out an action in libel, but did for slander, reflecting the graver consequences of the written word.
In the age of mass and sometimes profligate communication via the mediums of sharing through local, regional and international distribution, the written word ‘can avalanche’. Savvy diplomats are very live to this.
Great care must be taken in terms of written message content for one never knows when a stray and misconceived line will be revisited upon one and blanched with adversity. Ironically something said in haste can ‘weaponize’ a potential adversary and make the purveyor of the misconceived communique very vulnerable. This is particularly the case online.
Little wonder that those with diplomatic or quasi diplomatic experience tend to ponder content very carefully before committing matters to print. Anecdotally, one of the writers had a column in an online magazine and his articles have had more than 2 million views. When asked, “have you ever attracted hostile feedback?” the response was: “No. Reason being: I always apply a golden rule: ‘never criticise individuals or institutions, be exclusively issue focussed’.”
Another key difference between spoken and written criticism is that the spoken and written word communication platforms differ profoundly in terms of their potential for exponential information dissemination. Spoken criticisms, unless recorded, can often be controlled in confidential settings, whereas the ability to control written communications is more inhibited, particularly if the communications are controversial.
“In this era, be careful of your [written] conversations because you are just 3 seconds way from a screenshot” Daniel Olawale
For there are those that take a considerable interest in the affairs of others and when they witness that which they may consider to be at odds with prevailing doctrine, are prone to record and report that conduct. If immoderate restraint governs conversational content and such content is overheard and capable of offending, or being misconstrued by others, there are an abundance of recording devices that can capture and migrate the narrative to parties that can leverage off such content.
Further, freedom of speech, regardless of whether it is spoken or written, is not an unfettered freedom, hence the law of defamation (referred to briefly above) and anti-vilification laws. The publication of disparaging material that casts aspersions on the character of others, absent a valid defence will often result in defamation actions and sizeable damages awards.
Tsigereda Lovegrove and Kim Lovegrove work for Lovegrove & Cotton lawyers. They met 12 years ago when Kim was visiting an HIV NGO in Addis Ababa that the law firm has had a longstanding association with in light of the fact that Lovegrove & Cotton sponsored the in-house legal position for more than a decade. Tsigereda is a paralegal and the office manager at Lovegrove & Cotton and is about to finish her final year in law with the view to being admitted in 2022. Kim, who founded the original incarnation of Lovegrove & Cotton in 1993, is a senior consultant with the firm and an international law reform advisor. Both Kim and Tsigereda worked in pro-bono capacity for an African Consulate in Melbourne until the end of 2020.
 Cambridge Dictionary, ‘Diplomatic’, accessed at https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/diplomatic .
 The Ten Principles of Operational Diplomacy; a Proposed Framework Paul Kreutzer June 2014 (American diplomacy.web.unc.edu).
 RNZ History /Life and Society, 23 September 2021
 Song: ‘Point of View’ – DB Boulevard.