Be a Helper: Why We Need Diplomacy When Things Get Ugly

By: Dr. MaryJo Burchard

Just a few days ago, the unthinkable happened in my community.
My city – one of the safest cities in the U.S. – experienced a tragedy beyond imagination, and we are all still reeling from it.

Having worked at the City of Virginia Beach for four years, I knew people involved. I held my breath as friends confirmed they were safe; I broke down when I saw the faces and the names of the fallen. The biggest shock to everyone was that the perpetrator was an insider - seemingly just a normal guy.

To Members (employees) of the City, he was family. After living and working together for so long, the victims cannot so easily turn the shooter into a demon or a monster. He was a human being. And his shocked and heartbroken family that he left behind still needs compassion.

This is the reality that my City is facing. In the midst of so much shock and pain, they are trying to remember the humanity of every person involved. It’s messy. It’s horrible. It’s anything but simple.

More than any time in my life, I am profoundly aware of our need for a nearly-lost art: Diplomacy.

Look for the Helpers

Diplomacy is defined as “effectively and tactfully handling difficult or sensitive issues.” Difficult and sensitive issues are inevitable. Knowing how to help others around you face tough realities without crushing them – and then actively helping people with drastically different perspectives find common ground – is crucial to effectively managing through these tough times.

Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Diplomacy is what makes people helpers. Diplomacy enables true leaders to be part of the solution, even when problems are big and complex.

In sensitive times, some are convinced that diplomacy is ineffective and impotent. Throngs of opinions emerge seemingly out of nowhere with inflammatory accusations, insults, arguments, digs, and attacks. This radical insensitivity is the consequence of exposure to a story without real connection to it. It's just too easy for people to turn real situations into "idea debates" when the story doesn't touch them personally.

People may think they are showing compassion with their accusations and arguments and "demands." But it is never heroic to stand over the grieving and argue. We cannot afford to lose touch with the human-ness of what real empathy means. We can do better. We can embrace diplomacy.
We can be the helpers.

How To Practice Diplomacy

Diplomacy is real help, because it shows empathy for every person involved.
Diplomacy is HARD, because it begins with understanding, appreciating, and being sensitive to other people’s opinions, beliefs, values, perceptions, and feelings BEFORE attempting to communicate.

Diplomacy is rare because it requires an integration of several tough skills to be effective. Here’s what you need to do first:

  1. Listen with your whole self. Listen to understand and listen with an open heart. This so much deeper than acknowledging the content of someone’s words. This is an empathetic immersion. Deep, whole-self listening requires coming alongside other people who may be very different from you, sitting in the situation with them, and doing all you can to capture their world in that moment: their perceptions, their feelings, what is important to them. Open-hearted listening requires you to be present with others in their understanding of the universe in that moment.
  2. Withhold judgment. Right now, you are not there to fix their perception or correct their response(s). You are there to understand it. You are there to affirm the Other’s value as human beings, regardless of all the differences.
  3. Reflect back their reality. This is when you will discover how well you have truly done the first two things. Ralph Waldo Emerson described himself as becoming “a transparent eyeball.” This is a radical “transparent eyeball” experience. Can you forget about yourself and your own agenda long enough to truly represent the Other? The ultimate goal here is to be able to describe their deepest feelings, articulate their challenges, represent their values, and share their needs better than they can do it themselves. When you have mastered this, they should emerge from your description with a deeper insight into their own situation than they had before you came alongside them.
  4. Adjust your perspective. What insights did you gain from your immersion? How has your understanding of the “truth” been shaped by your care for the Others (all of those affected) as human beings?
  5. Build a bridge. Adopt the language and behaviors that embody the needs, interests, and perspectives of the Other – to express your own concerns, interests, and needs. This is not changing the essence of your concern, but rather honoring the other side enough to present your concerns in a “package” that is familiar and consistent with the heart of the other side(s).

You cannot skip to the last step and be effective. Diplomacy takes real work – internal work (emotional intelligence, social awareness, communication skills, empathy, etc.), and external work (awareness of the environmental factors, logistical awareness, cultural sensitivity, etc). It’s so hard. But every single day, I am watching my heroes – the leaders and Members of my City - wage diplomacy in the face of shock and grief, choosing honor in the midst of so much ugliness.

Think, Then Act

Here’s the bottom line: There’s a time and a place for everything worth doing. In work and life, in the really ugly, messy, sensitive moments, before you respond with your own thoughts and agenda, stop. Be careful not to see yourself as an advocate before doing the hard work necessary to gain that status.

Ask yourself if your response is constructive. Ask yourself if you are being part of the healing. The world has enough articulate venters and trolls. Be someone the young Mr. Rogers would search for.

Be a helper.

Choose diplomacy.

The world will thank you for it.

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