Final Post in the Series Six Things I Learned after Thirty Years in the Foreign Service: People Remember you more by how you say Goodbye than how you said Hello
November 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
We are so often told – and it is true – that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. It is equally true that last impressions are those that endure in the memory of others when we are absent. In our rotational lives as diplomats, the way we take our leave is how we truly convey that we will continue to care about our friends, even after we have left.
In 1996 I was preparing to leave from my second posting which was in Addis Ababa. It was an exhilarating and exhausting assignment. As a junior diplomat I was responsible for Canada’s political, trade and consular affairs in Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti. It had been a rewarding three years, but it was time for me and my family to start a new chapter. I had been diligent in my professional and official work. However, it wasn’t until I was in the airport ready to depart the country that I was able to recognize an error I committed on the human side. A man I had worked with saw me at the airport and asked me a question that I was unable to properly answer.
“Why didn’t you say good-bye to me?”
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had insulted him by failing to pay him the courtesy of a respectful farewell. In my mind, I had been a responsible bureaucrat, focusing on the work I did for my country instead of myself as an individual. I thought it was better to stick to my work right to the end and avoid the expense and effort of a good-bye reception. My behaviour sent the signal that I placed a low value on my relationships.
The final thing I learned after 30 years is that people remember you more by how you said goodbye, than how you said hello.
March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
The stereotype image of diplomacy is cold and calculating men in suits projecting national interests in the lofty heights of global power. I think this is wrong. Like all meaningful human endeavor, diplomacy requires personal relationships between people and we are emotional beings. Trust is our most precious asset and trust is about feelings and personal conduct. Nothing good can be achieved without it.
When we opened Canada’s Representative Office to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Palestine in 1998, there was an overarching economic priority. This was our promise that, following the signature of the 1997 Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement, Canada would secure an agreement with the Palestinians that provided them the same market access benefits. Prior to the opening of our Representative Office in Ramallah in 1998 we tried and tried but couldn’t close the deal. We were under pressure to conclude the agreement in a hurry. This was because the plan was to combine inauguration of the office with a signature of the trade deal.
We wondered: “What could the problem be? This is a good deal.” Then out of the blue, the Palestinians gave us the thumbs up.
In the corridor I asked a young Palestinian negotiator: “What happened?”
She told me: “We met after the negotiations and we talked about your team, and then we decided that you understood our aspirations. After that, we decided that we could make an agreement with you.”
Ultimately, the issue was trust – trust that we would not exploit their vulnerabilities and that we personally cared about the success of the fledgling Palestinian government. Of course, this is not necessarily the case for all trade negotiations. But when there are asymmetric power relations, trust among the players is an essential underpinning for lasting agreements.
Trust is difficult to define, and represents a very high order of human relationship. In my experience it needs direct and repeated human contact, in multiple settings over time. Meetings and memos are inadequate. Sharing a meal in the home is an ancient practice for building trust that enjoys universal recognition and for which there is no substitute.
In our work we often talk about people as “contacts” and ascribe high or low value to them. I think it is important to step beyond this reductive approach and consider systematically who are the people with whom we need to have relationships of trust, how to achieve that trust, nurture and build it. Developing this diplomatic asset requires time and sincere emotional investment. We have to give of ourselves for our job.
In the end, a trust based approach to key relationships leads to more rewarding international policy work, and friendships that can last a lifetime.