Five words in the recent BBC documentary, Inside the Foreign Office, made me sit up and take notice. They were spoken by the chief civil servant, the Permanent Under Secretary in the Foreign office, Sir Simon Macdonald, as he was briefing a new ambassador. The background to his comments was the regular criticism of the British Government about their engagement with non-democratic governments who may have poor records on human rights or the environment or some other issue that the British hold dear. So here are the chief diplomat’s five words: ‘Engagement does not imply approval.’
It’s a problem for so many of us - especially if we hold deep convictions arrived at over many years. Brexiteers with Remainers, Republicans with Democrats, believers with atheists, old with young, or straight churchgoers with members of the LGBT+ community. Should we invite engagements with people whom we already know are unlikely to share our outlook on life and our values? How might we navigate the unknown choppy waters of their views? How can we engage with them without being influenced by the ‘others’?
Inside families and communities and churches, some of us are facing similar issues - wanting to manage toxic relationships. How to engage neutrally - without approving or disapproving. We may simply wish to exist amicably alongside someone with whom we disagree - a neighbour or a colleague. Or we may need to make decisions, to negotiate, to make plans with an individual or a group, with a member of the family, a member of the church? How can we engage when we already have some evidence that makes us critical of the values or behaviour of that person.
The most important thing to understand about difficulties with engaging is that, often, they are based on anxiety. Perhaps we will be unable to hold on to our ideas and values in the presence of someone who doesn’t share them. Maybe we will get angry and betray ourselves. Perhaps we fear some loss of identity in the company of people who disagree with us. We fear that engaging with them will draw us into being too easily persuaded and forsaking our own values. Then who might we become?
If we don’t want to live in ghettos and we do want to develop the spirit of diplomacy of which our world is sorely in need, I believe that regular conversations with someone on a different side to our own are vital.
So, if you are interested - here, in no particular order, are some strategies I teach for successful conversations with people with different views. I wish I was better at following them!
Be curious. Expect to learn something.
Do some homework about the particular point of view that you disagree with. Find out what ‘the other side’ really believes and why.
See if you can write the view of the other person as if it were your own.
Know who you are. Check out your own beliefs and assumptions, especially those that you hold with the most fervent certainty!
Watch your tone of voice. Recognise that holding definite views can make you sound superior. Dogmatism is one of the surest ways to destroy useful conversation (she said dogmatically!)
Be self-aware. Recognise that even in your own holding of views, you are often inconsistent, even uncertain. Allow others to be the same.
Ask open not closed questions. Give yourself and the other person room to explore ideas rather than come to conclusions.
Step out from under the responsibility to ‘fix’ the other person.
Share a joke - and learn to laugh at yourself.
Listen, listen and keep listening!