Friday, November 20, 2015

In Pursuit of Dialogue

By necessity I became a pioneer in what is now called “reputation management” during the last half of my now long concluded nearly four decade career in community destination marketing.

This involved standing up for the communities I represented during that span.  In the words of an IBM exec in Durham who came to my defense, I was just insisting on what was “justly due” that community.

With the backing of a grassroots group of residents we called Image Watchers, we turned the community’s reputation around over a span of about nine years.

A turn-around is marked by when a negative positive-to-negative ratio climbs into positive territory.

As you might expect, reaching this milestone was not without a cost to my personal reputation, which to the consternation of friends and supporters, I never defended with the same passion.

There may have been more if you consider the spectrum of sycophants but there were only a handful of detractors that were publicly vitriolic judging by their thinly disguised verbatim comments on community-wide surveys of my performance.

One even passive-aggressively returned a business reply envelope with a hand-written epitaph and taped to a brick hoping to run up the cost to my organization.

You can see the handiwork of one of these detractors who was then a public official if you Google my name.  Though not the one quoted in the story, this official planted the story along with misrepresentations he knew to be false.

Even though it was explained that my severance upon retirement was not a severance but a payout of income that had been earned month by month over two decades but deferred, I suspect the temptation to juice up the story headline and lead in without revealing the source was too much.

During the last decade of my career, I added satisfaction with my leadership to periodic surveys of several hundred civic and business leaders to help my governing board discern if the complaints these individuals were making to them were generalizable.

They weren’t, but one or two board members always worried about the effect those efforts to undermine me might have, so I was annually tasked with meeting with each of them to learn more about their concerns.

But I had already met with each of these complainants numerous times, including one time four-on-one and would continue to do so until I retired, but to little avail.

It didn’t help that I could provide data-driven responses.  It seemed they could never really articulate what bothered them, especially those who didn’t have an issue but sought to curry favor with someone who did, essentially the definition of a sycophant.

But I sensed it had to do with a misunderstanding of roles complicated by misperceptions of power and influence, seasoned with a little envy.

In other words, politics.

Only two or three of these individuals were ever constant.  When a couple would drop out, replacements who were unfamiliar with the facts or previous discussions were recruited, perpetuating yet another round of meetings in pursuit of yielding understanding.

No one likes to have enemies, but meeting with people who disagreed with me and/or the organizational strategic direction we were executing was something I had made a practice during my entire career.

The habit took root when I ventured to meet with a powerful official who had set out to get me fired from my first community destination marketing organization in Spokane.

It was second nature when a clique attempted to do the same in Anchorage.

So it wasn’t a matter of if - but when - a handful in Durham began to take shots at me, for I had learned that truly being a change agent inevitably invites discord and carries risk.’

It is temping to either pander to these interests or to write them off instead with the 18th century French saying “on ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des oeufs” or “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

My goal in meeting with people who were openly contrary or covertly hostile to either me or our mission was always to gather understanding, but often the questions I was able to answer also begrudgingly garnered respect.

It helps to keep in mind when going into meetings such as these that there is a difference between someone being uninformed and ignorant.

You have hope for the former but be prepared to face the latter or at the very least understand that changes of heart and mind take time, often occurring after you are gone.

In the words of Seth Godin, "Ignorant’ used to be a fairly vague epithet, one that we often misused to describe someone who disagreed with us.

Today, because it represents a choice, the intentional act of not-knowing, I think it carries a lot more weight.”

In his short but inspiring book entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker J. Palmer wrote of such seemingly inscrutable encounters:

“A movement can be saved…only by openly engaging those who disagree.”

Through much of my career, I made it a practice to meet with at least one person every week who disagreed with me while learning to listen carefully and only intervene when asked a question.

That, for me at least, was really hard work as was learning not to tell myself a story based on microaggressions.

Unfortunately, those habits I learned through necessity and experience are now increasingly rare.

For instance, NPR journalist Alan Greenblatt reported that “Indeed, over the past 50 years, the percentage of people who said they would disapprove if their children married someone from the other party has spiked from 5 percent to 40 percent.”

But just meeting with someone with whom you disagree does not guarantee dialogue even if they are brave enough to be vulnerable and explain why and how they disagree with you.

In an essay published a few months ago entitled “Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Your Political Opposite,” the co-authors of You’re Not As Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) defined genuine dialogue:

“Perhaps it would be a step forward simply to recognize that genuine dialogue must entail the bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons, two unique perspectives and ultimately two distinct agendas.”

They continue by writing, “The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be “dialogue.”

It is an easy trap to fall into when the answers you get are, “just because,” or “I just don’t agree.”  Over time, I learned that in these encounters I had to dial back my passion and determination.

In the essay, the authors also happen to quote from a book I had been assigned to read back in 1971 while earning a degree in history at BYU entitled The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire an expert in the philosophy of education:

“Dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants.”

It is unfortunate that this book might not now be permitted at BYU.  Freire felt that education could not be neutral.  It either functions to bring about conformity or functions to develop critical thinking which can lead to transformation.

Transformation was inherently my job during my entire career.  But in the words of a 13th century Monk and later adapted by President Abraham Lincoln:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

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