15 August 2010

Just a spoonful of sugar...or maybe a pound

I've spent a lot of time this summer thinking about the art of diplomacy.

In my current work-in-progress, one of my secondary characters is a diplomat. So far, he hasn't said a word.

And in a way that illustrates how art mirrors life, in all my job interviews this summer, I've been asked what former employers would consider my strengths and weaknesses (or "challenges" if the interviewer has a public relations background).

Now after a few years in the professional world, anyone with an ounce of self-awareness knows what she does well and not so well. So it's a fairly easy question to answer.

I am not a natural-born diplomat.

OK that's an understatement. I can be rather blunt, more than a bit cynical and entirely too likely to say what everyone else is only thinking. I've been told not to admit this to prospective employers, but I figure it's better to give them a heads up. No sense in having them think they've hired Shirley Temple only to find themselves across the conference table from a less-witty (but more sober) Dorothy Parker.

What's interesting is each time I give this answer, the interviewer has smiled and said, "sounds like me. I'm always saying things I shouldn't."

I laugh, but also wonder if he is merely being diplomatic or if diplomacy is truly a rarified skill that we all wish we had, but few actually do. Who among us hasn't said something he shouldn't? How many times have you blurted when you should have been reticent?

After a lot of thought, I've decided that diplomacy isn't the ability to tell someone to go to hell and make him want to go (that's charisma) but the genius to tell hard truths yet still make peace. Mary Poppins reminds us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but finding the correct truth to sugar ratio is a skill worthy of a medieval alchemist.

This insight should help my diplomat character in his struggles to find the words that will prevent war (we'll know for certain after I write that chapter). And hopefully it will remind me to walk a little more carefully through the forest that is human interaction.

After all, writing requires we type what others only think, but reading it and hearing it are two very different things.


Bernadette said...

Ah, candor. A seriously undervalued and over-maligned trait. I always try to sweeten mine, but there doesn't seem to be enough sugar in the world to make some people accept the hard truth when they want a pretty fairytale. And killing the messenger is still the most popular response. Yeah, that fixes it. (Not!)

Jeffe Kennedy said...

We had an interesting discussion at my local chapter meeting yesterday when someone passed along the tip from a workshop at RWA National that a writer should try to move internal dialogue to spoken dialogue because it creates more conflict. I noted that this is the opposite of life, where we have to try NOT to verbalize what we think, in order to minimize conflict. Interesting intersection with your post here.

Bernadette said...

Interesting, Jeffe. I often find that in novels, as in life, the true conflict lies in what isn't said, or what only comes out between the lines. Tougher to do than either internal or external dialogue, but so effective in the hands of a master.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Good point. This was advice for popular fiction. I could see how each direction could be useful and something for the author to weigh.

Keena Kincaid said...

Wish I'd made it back yesterday to take part in this conversation (I napped instead). It is an interesting intersection of thoughts. Often, between my first and second drafts, I move a lot of the internal dialogue to the external, but probably not enough.

Bernie, great observation. You've given me something to work toward.

Keena Kincaid said...
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Stephanie Burkhart said...

Keena, interesting thoughts. I suppose with my political sciene background, I would call diplomacy the "art" of influencing people to your way of thinking. That can never be easy because most of us firmly believe in our convictions.

I always admire those people who say their mind becuase it usually comes with a candor and honesty I find refreshing, but I'm usually more tempered when sharing my opinion. I think a good dipolmat finds a tactful way to say something the other person doesn't want to necessarily hear. Just my ramblings.


Unknown said...

KEENA--Jeffe said more dialogue would create more conflict than internal dialogue. And yet, I've had a couple of editors want more, more, more internal dialogue, deep stuff, so the reader will fee exactly how the heroine doesn. So what to do? Where's the fine line. I do know I don't like to read dialogue, page after page. There's a good mix in there somewhere.
I had to laugh about your silent diplomat.Many of them should keep their mouths shut. Celia

Mona Risk said...

In my opinion, a diplomat is someone who knows how to sugarcoat what he says, so that he doesn't hurt people's feelings and yet manages to convey the truth.

Keena Kincaid said...

Celia: the fine line between internal and external dialogue is sometimes hard to find. Plus some characters are simply more chatty than introspective.

I agree, Mona.

Lilly Gayle said...

Great blog. And I totally know what you mean about the sugar to truth ratio. I have a hard time sugar coating things myself. My warning advice to those who know me is this: Don't ask my opinion if you don't want to hear it. Because like you, I can be brutally honest! I'm working on a bit of diplomacy myself!

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Lilly. I have a very similar warning: don't ask me a question if you don't really want the answer.

Liana Laverentz said...

I'm the same. In meetings and groups and such I can be the soul of diplomacy (because I know feelings can be hurt by things said/aired in public) but privately or one on one don't ask me if you don't want to know. Excellent post! I'll be thinking about this for a while...

LK Hunsaker said...

Great discussion. It's funny how so many say they want people to be honest, even bluntly honest, and yet if they hear a truthful blunt statement they don't like, they pull away.

No, I think most people don't want honesty. They want to feel good about themselves and honesty often impedes with that.

The diplomat can manage to do both. Most of us can't.

I think the internal/external dialogue is the difference between characters doing just small talk and characters really talking about what they feel more than hot or cold or so on, and about what they truly think. Is the dialogue taking you inside that character or only showing what she's willing to say? There's a difference.