Want to become more successful in dealing with people from all walks of life? Etan Smallman takes a new Foreign Office course for diplomats (photo: Chris Eason)
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“A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip,” American writer Caskie Stinnett once quipped.
Sir Simon McDonald, the head of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service, put it slightly differently in a recent BBC documentary. “Diplomacy is the art of letting other people have your way,” he said.
Perhaps we could all do with a bit of training in this art of cunning yet courteous statecraft to help us to succeed at work and maybe even in our relationships.
Helpfully, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is sharing its secrets online. The Diplomacy in the 21st Century course, developed in partnership with the Open University, was originally designed as an induction for UK Government staff. But it is now open to all – free – at futurelearn.com, with almost 9,000 people having already signed up.
I log on to brush up on “the trilateral relationship between representation, communication and negotiation”. My fellow students range in age from 18 to 90 and hail from 174 countries. There is a teacher from Myanmar, a journalist from Zimbabwe and a public prosecutor from Pakistan.
One of the main aims of the initiative is to aid FCO recruitment, so there is a strong emphasis on racial, gender and LGBT diversity. Former British high commissioner to Australia, Menna Rawlings, talks about conducting hundreds of same-sex weddings under British law in her Canberra residence, before gay marriage had been legalised Down Under.
It was a fine line to tread. Rawlings wanted to celebrate this demonstration of UK values without passing judgement on her host country. “Aussies hate nothing more than being lectured to by the Poms, of all people,” she explains.
Course co-creator Jonathan Marshall, the head of learning for the FCO’s Diplomatic Academy, tells i that the programme aims to teach people that the department is not “a priesthood with secret skills”.
As such, the training does not gloss over the FCO’s own chequered history. Until 1973, women were forced to resign when they got married. Before 1991, homosexuality was deemed a “character defect” and a reason for dismissal.
“Some people might recognise skills they already use,” says Marshall. “The classic diplomatic skills are used in every walk of life: influencing, negotiating, analysis, cross-cultural working. But it’s interesting to reflect: how are you using them and could you do better?”
On “purposeful” networking, Kevin McGurgan, British consul general in Toronto, recommends adopting his “OMS” principles: focusing on your Objectives, your Messages and Standing out with your own networking “brand”. McGurgan’s brand, we are told, includes “green-rimmed spectacles and a weakness for red shoes”.
Trainer Martin Bell advises to never forget that “the person who wants to see you today who seems very unimportant and perhaps even boring, might become incredibly important tomorrow”. Then there are the “delicate points of diplomatic protocol”. “Should you take a selfie with someone more senior than you? Which end of the sofa should the guest of honour be invited to sit?” Week two covers online international relations and after completing the six stages of learning, it is hard to escape the feeling that the programme is a masterclass in how Britannia still rules the diplomatic waves.
Is the course itself actually a grand exercise in soft power? Now that really would be smart diplomacy.