Friday, July 25, 2008

About Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Edwards is back in the news, for reasons that I will happily ignore. One fortunate side-effect of the many articles about her current situation is that it drew my attention to an elegy
she wrote about the death of Tony Snow.

In her article Edwards meditates on an encounter she had during a July 4th parade. There a man walked up to her to wish her well, but not before adding: "although we don't agree on much of anything."

It was not the first time she had heard such a remark, and she offered her customary reply, to the effect that they probably agree on more than he thinks.

What strikes me about this is that so many people feel the need to define their identity as a function of their ideology. Almost as though it is something you should put on your calling-card as an identifying character trait.

It almost goes without saying that many people on the left are as bad as this erstwhile Republican.

It should not, however, go without saying that this man's remark was a sign of nothing more or less than bad manners? What, pray tell, came over him?

Was this man afraid that his expression of concern for a neighbor might be taken as a sign that he was a liberal? Was he afraid that she might try to convert him to the Democratic party? Does his gesture remind you of a pious Christian crossing himself when he comes into contact with a witch?

How did it happen that people do not seem themselves as neighbors but as members of competing cults, even warring tribes? How did it happen that loyalty to ideas became more important than loyalty to community?

Elizabeth Edwards did not take serious offense at the remark. She was puzzled by it; it does not represent the way she lives her live and the way she deals with her fellow citizens.

Much else is wrong with self-identifying by ideological beliefs. High on the list is the fact that it can easily lead to witch hunts. Once you start choosing your friends on the basis of their political or religious beliefs, then you have to be very, very sure that the person in question really believes what he says he believes.

In Renaissance Spain Jews who were forced to convert often underwent pretend conversions, only to continue practicing Judaism in private.

No one includes his political persuasion on his business card. For good reason. If everyone did it and if they would only deal with people who held the right political beliefs it would be nearly impossible to do business.

Yesterday I was giving a talk at the Permal Group about how to negotiate conflict. If you don't know, the Permal Group is a top-of-the-line hedge fund advisory firm. Like other important firms it is always working to facilitate good relations, both with and outside of the company. And it knows that resolving conflict is essential to allowing everyone to do their jobs effectively.

As part of my presentation I created a hypothetical situation. Say you are holding a meeting to choose a new marketing plan. Different members of your group are presenting different proposals. There is going to be a vigorous debate, but then, only one plan will be chosen.

Obviously, the best outcome is that the final plan will contain elements of the different proposals... thus everyone will have a stake in the plan's success. Once you choose one plan over the other, the people whose plans were not chosen will have a personal stake in failure. It is as though they were to open every meeting about implementing the new play with a statement to the effect: I do not agree with you about anything. Again, this is not a good way to run the business.

How does the group leader make it that everyone feels vested in the new plan, no matter who suggested it first. Surely, he must greet each proposal by showing that he has thought about it, that he is impressed with the work that went into it, and that he finds many good things in it. He might not accept it in the end, but he cannot dismiss it out of hand. He cannot pretend that it has no value. And not just because he will demoralize everyone in the room. The other reason is that, after all, he hired these people. If their work is that bad, how could he have hired them.

So, the proposals will be divided into good and better, not good and worthless. In the end the marketplace will make the final judgment, not the team leader.

As I told the group yesterday, I see this situation as an application of the Robert rule, after Chief Justice John Roberts. Speaking before a group of law students at the University of Minnesota Robers was asked what advice he would give to future appellate attorneys.

His answer was simple and direct. He told them that it was bad to stand in front of the justices and say that they are right on the law, right on the facts, and right on the legal reasoning... as opposed to their opponents who are wrong on every aspect of their briefs.

If, he added, the issues were so clear-cut, they would not be in front of the Supreme Court.

Besides, when you say that have it all right and they have it all wrong, you are not presenting a negotiating position and are not appealing to the best judgment of the assembled justices. You are trying to impose your will on them. At the least, this is offensive; at most, it will make them less sympathetic to your client.

It is better to begin by acknowledging the positive elements in the opposing briefs. Then, you can argue that your position is better, more cogent, more consistent with precedent, whatever.

The good news is, you can try this at home. The next time you are engaged in a discussion about a controversial issue with someone you are likely to disagree with, do not reject his or her opinion out of hand. Begin by showing some respect to your interlocutor. Find something of value in his position. You will soon discover that this is far more difficult, even mentally taxing, than simply saying that the two of you agree on nothing and that his or her opinion has no merit whatsoever.

No comments: