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Why diplomacy of all kinds will remain ‘a contact sport’

Tom Cargill
Tom Cargill, Chief Executive

One of the most successful books ever written is ‘How to win friends and influence people’, and despite first being published in 1936 it remains a must-read for anyone who is interested in, well, winning friends and influencing people.

It is a short book, very cleverly written, and contains pithy, practical, numbered lists of things to do to build relationships of influence. These include such things as showing respect, taking an interest in a person, active listening, letting the other person believe a good idea is theirs, being sympathetic, and offering praise and encouragement.

Good diplomats will notice that these qualities are also inherently important to their work. There are many formal definitions of diplomacy. A good one – coined memorably by former chief UK diplomat (now) Lord Macdonald of Salford in the BBC series on the Foreign Office – is ‘Letting the other person get your way’. At Wilton Park, we have been hosting complex diplomatic processes for 75 years this year and usually prefer the idea that diplomacy is about building consensus and relationships, but the root skills remain the same, and of course, apply far more widely than to professional diplomats alone. Business, politics, academia and even science all rely on the ability to convince others of your ideas. Like it or not, for us humans that requires building relationships.

Digital speech bubbles

What does all this mean in an age wherever more conversations are taking place online? Covid has forced many of us to become far more expert and adroit at using Teams, Zoom and a host of other platforms as our principal means of engaging people. At Wilton Park we have hosted a number of conferences (online!), to build an understanding of some of the methods by which virtual meetings can effectively support diplomatic needs. Indeed, the globally respected skills and expertise we have developed over 75 years in running complex, outcome orientated events has stood us in good stead for this age of virtual.

Yet despite, indeed because, so much transactional business is likely to remain online, the role of face to face, in-person diplomacy is increasingly recognised as taking on new and vital importance. No less a person than the UK’s Ambassador to the US, Dame Karen Pierce, summed it up well when she said, ‘Diplomacy is a Contact Sport’. The reasons for this are self-evident to anyone who has a modicum of experience in ‘winning friends and influencing people’, particularly in the context of complex engagements with a group. Perhaps most important, and the area where Wilton Park excels, is the importance of mixing formal and informal interaction, and group and one on one engagements, including the magic of chance interactions, and spontaneous dialogue, the success of which themselves depend upon complex readings of tone, body language and disposition which are impossible to decipher, let alone exploit, online. For real impact this process needs to take place over a focussed 24 or 48 hour period; something that is as unpalatable as it is impossible via a virtual conversation.

Wilton Park's conference room with a large conference table, chairs, a projector screen and a monitor

Another critical advantage of in-person discussion is the heightened appetite to share confidences and speak truthfully which a secure, discrete, welcoming physical space encourages. Conversely, there is growing evidence that online interaction, whatever security measures taken or assurances given, constrains openness, at least amongst a sizeable minority. Many professionals, whether in business, diplomacy or other lines of work, are specifically instructed to limit the degree to which they can share information or insights online.

In combination then, if you want to pursue diplomacy and win friends and influence people, particularly in pursuit of complex, consensus based agreement involving a diverse range of personalities, relationships and requirements for honesty, then there is no substitute for a physical encounter in a discrete, enabling and welcoming space. As James Roscoe,  senior British Diplomat at the UN Says’ “At UN headquarters, virtual meetings have kept the multilateral show on the road during the pandemic.  But I’ve no doubt that we make greater progress on issues when we meet face to face: we listen better, avoid misunderstanding, and engage more meaningfully. There’s something in our DNA that means meeting in person drives us to seek solutions. And being in the same place creates those moments, beyond the formal meetings, where we can informally test ideas, renew friendships and find ways through”. Given the scale and range of the challenges facing the international community requiring just such complex in-person events and processes, expert convenors like Wilton Park, will therefore become more important, not less.