Empathy is at the heart of diplomacy.
Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.
I am a United States diplomat. As an officer in the United States Foreign Service, I work in our embassies around the world with foreign counterparts to address a variety of complex diplomatic issues, and I try to make progress on foreign policy challenges in support of U.S. interests and values. I spend most of my time meeting with foreign diplomats, government officials, and other prominent figures, and reporting my judgments back to Washington, D.C. about potential possibilities and pitfalls in my country of assignment. I have just finished my assignment at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in Rome, Italy, as the Deputy Political & Economic Affairs Chief. I served previously at U.S. Embassy Sana'a, Yemen, as well as in the Bureau of European Affairs at the State Department and in the National Security Council at the White House.
Why do you think this work is important?
Diplomacy is at base a profession dedicated to the humble notion that so long as the sovereign nations of the world are speaking with one another, they are less likely to go to war. In addition to resolving and preventing conflicts (the first carrying a far easier measuring stick by which to gauge progress), diplomacy can promote development, create global wealth, and holds perhaps our best hope at mounting a meaningful assault on the looming specter of climate change, through international mitigation agreements. I agree with Secretary of State John Kerry and others' assessment that climate change is our era's gravest threat, and I would like to play a constructive role in heading off the worst that awaits us if we do less than we must.
What inspired you to enter the Foreign Service?
I suppose I caught the international affairs bug (among others) in the Peace Corps, where I spent two years teaching constitutional law and English to budding lawyers and judges at a law school in western China. I had finished law school and was malcontent, my values and life goals at odds with the prevailing winds in the world of New York City corporate law into which I was about to descend. So, I made a left turn and became a volunteer. Going from big firm, big city living to life in the Peace Corps was above all an abrupt shift from all-money-no-soul to all-soul-no-money. I saw diplomacy as a profession in which I could make a difference – and a living.
Communication and persuasion are at the heart of what you do. Tell us more about winning over a listener, whether they are a U.S. policy maker or a foreign government. What makes you successful?
Empathy. If I forget where my listener is coming from and what drives them, or if I judge or dismiss them for having a wildly different perspective than mine, or in more extreme cases if they hold values and exhibit behaviors I find morally repugnant and I show my disdain, then my argument may suffer dramatically. I try to avoid that outcome, especially when I bear the weight of advocating an important U.S. policy abroad. Instead, I take what I know about my listener, imagine what they must be thinking and feeling, place that in the context of their pragmatic considerations, and use that as my rhetorical starting point.
Diplomacy is a never-ending job. What do you do after a setback to stay motivated and focused?
I think the answer is something many of us keep refining well into our Foreign Service careers. Generally speaking, our diplomats are overachievers who emerged from a year-long series of application examinations, interviews, and simulation exercises to earn a spot in an entering diplomat orientation class. A group like that doesn’t naturally lend itself to processing setbacks efficiently. I think many of us simply regard apparent setbacks as successes yet to be achieved. It’s important that people move on when they have reached their setback tolerance though, and several of my colleagues who went through orientation with me have already resigned their commissions to pursue other career dreams elsewhere in the government or in the private sector. I’ve thought sometimes about what I might do after this very big adventure; we shall see.
How does your OES education and experiences feed the work you are doing?
The breadth and depth of my education at OES has held me in good stead ever since I graduated. OES gave me a wellspring of tools to draw on in life and in my profession... indispensable skills like critical analysis, which informs my judgment as I am asked to assess very fluid, sometimes fast-changing developments in the world. I am indebted to OES for nourishing from a young age my ability to communicate effectively. There is a vast chasm between knowing a thing and being able to accurately, precisely, and persuasively express that thing to people. I every day work to bridge that gap seamlessly for my audience of U.S. policy makers.
My class trips and Winterim experiences were really my first chances in life to step out of the comfortable and familiar environments I inhabited and learn how to be a flexible and resilient member of my community at all times. Especially when working with the Vatican, I also appreciate the opportunities I had at OES to grow spiritually as a young person with courses in religion and philosophy. It's so rare to be afforded the chance in our youth to expand our horizons through coursework that is spiritual in nature but at the same time in no way dogmatic – it is a balance that OES carries off impeccably.
Any tips for Americans traveling abroad?
At this point in our collective globalization march it is important to take proper safety precautions like sharing your itinerary with friends or family not traveling with you and enrolling in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at www.travel.state.gov. Above all, maintain situational awareness when in an unfamiliar environment and pay attention if you ever get a gut feeling that something is “off” around you.
Beyond that, I think talking to local people, even if they have little or no English and gesticulation wins the day, is one of the most enriching aspects of traveling to a new place. It’s easy to focus on historical buildings, works of art, or breathtaking panoramas. All those unique sights, sounds, and smells of a new place are priceless, but connecting with different people and encountering up close our shared human experience and surprising similarities – that’s what has kept me exploring after all these years.
Looking back, is there anything you would like to say to current OESians as you reflect on the time you spent at OES?
Take your time. Be present in the moment. Enjoy the luxury of your time at OES and consider what you learn there as the apparatus you will need to navigate a dynamic 21st century global community. As small as the world seems to be getting, it remains a very big place, and you will be well-equipped as you come into your own within it.
Any final thoughts?
If you always endeavor to move through the world with open eyes, an open mind, and an open heart, your chances of leading a life imbued with meaning and happiness will increase exponentially. And go Aardvarks!
- peace corps