Listening to and Understanding the Positions of Others: A Requirement for Thoughtful and Fruitful Talks in All Cases

From March 18, 2021 to March 19, 2021 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, a US delegation led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (center right top) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (center right bottom) met with a delegation led by the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi (center left top) and People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi (center left bottom). The two-day meeting got off to a tense start with exchanges of sharp criticisms. Heeding the positions of others, even for diplomats in high stakes bilateral negotiations between world powers, is not always a comfortable thing to do. Still, it is a requirement to effect constructive and fruitful exchanges on issues.

Listening to the positions of others, even for diplomats in high stakes bilateral negotiations between world powers, is not always a comfortable thing to do. Nevertheless, to effect constructive and fruitful exchanges on issues, it is essential. From March 18, 2021 to March 19, 2021 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, a US delegation led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with a People’s Republic of China delegation led by the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi and People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The two-day meeting got off to a tense start, with a public display of the strained nature relations between the US and China. According to a March 19, 2021 New York Times article and many other sources, Blinken told the delegation from China that the US intended to address “deep concerns” over the treatment of the Chinese citizens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the situation with Taiwan. Yang responded boldly, taking a bit of time to express sharp criticism of the US for what he called its struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities, and over its foreign and trade policies. 

Diplomacy has been defined as the established method of influencing the decisions and behavior of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence. In its practice, its key for negotiators to ensure the other side is listening and understanding what they are communicating. That necessitates managing negotiations without arousing hostility. Any awkward situations must be handled with tactfulness. Rather than arguing endlessly over  divergent positions and differing opinions, the time of negotiating parties would be best spent aggregating what ideas are common to both. It is essential that through talks, enough time is taken to collect that information. Through consideration of new information gathered, sometimes just trifles, ways may come to mind on how to turn what may have initially been perceived as a disadvantage into an advantage. Pathways to constructively and comfortably address more difficult issues may be discerned. It is an approach to negotiations sharpened and honed by somber and astute diplomats possessing considerable experience. In circumstances as those that existed in Anchorage, every bit of such experience is required to create the foundation for a future diplomatic breakthrough. Ex notitia victory. (To know, to win.)

To enlarge on the point of listening to and understanding the positions of others, in the October 19, 2020 issue of the online newsletter, Classical Wisdom Weekly, the issue discussed was the difficulty many were having listening to opposing points of view in what was the current political climate then in the US. Classical Wisdom Weekly, the  newsletter of Classical Wisdom, is dedicated to promoting and teaching the classics. It provides weekly information, commentaries and opinions on Ancient Greek and Latin literature both online and through e-mail publications. Founded in 2010 by Anya Leonard and Bill Bonner, it was initially presented by Les Belles Lettres English, a partner of the Parisian publishing house, Les Belles Lettres, which for nearly 100 years has been translating the ancient works. Offering her position on the matter, as well as suggesting readers take time to listen to an opposing political point of view, Anya Leonard, the editor explained: “you need to try to understand the best version of your opponent’s argument. This is called ‘Steelmaning’ their position (as opposed to ‘strawmanning’, which is attacking the weakest version of their point. This will help strengthen your own understanding of the issue).” 

As is customary, after her discussion of the issue, Leonard then invited readers to comment upon questions concerning it. In this instance, the questions she posed were: “Do we NEED to hear Opinions we don’t like? What is the Importance of Differing Views? And why should we try to be objective in the first place?” The response from  greatcharlie to the editor’s her query was published in the November 3, 2020 issue of Classical Wisdom Weekly. Judging its response as pertinent to the matter of negotiators giving close and thoughtful attention to one another in talks, andtimagining that it may be of interest to its own readers, particularly students, greatcharlie presents it here.

On October 19, 2020, the question was: ‘Do we NEED to hear Opinions we don’t like? What is the Importance of Differing Views? And why should we try to be objective in the first place?’ I am usually a bit shy about participating in such things. I hope that you will find some interest in my response. 

Here is something that might be different from other comments. From a military perspective, an opposing force should not be viewed as some inert, non thinking body, waiting to be acted upon. There is an aphorism trained into the minds of mid-level Army officers at the Command and General Staff College that “the enemy has a say.” It falls in line with a teaching of the 19th Century Prussian military thinker, Carl Von Clausewitz, that: one’s opponent (in just about any endeavor, not just war) is “a living force” and military plans must factor in that what is being planned is “the collision of two living forces.” One must have respect for what an opponent thinks to be successful. More specifically, one must objectively gauge what the opponent thinks and what the opponent can do. 

With regard to giving proper attention to what the opponent thinks and one’s objectivity, once again lessons from the military come to mind. To best understand what the opposition is doing, the examination of facts and construction of ideas and insights about those potential plans, must not be colored by emotion, preconception, or bias. Once one’s mind is unluckily turned over to such subjective thinking, even bent intelligence or information can be erroneously collected to “confidently support” an unknowingly wrongful position or belief about the opponent. If one cannot accept the opponent is in a better situation or apparently has a better plan, the pitfall will be to miss those points that actually provided the opposition with a winning advantage. In the end, one might not be able to overcome that advantage. An open-mind to existing realities must be possessed. As aforementioned to a degree in the Classical Wisdom Weekly message, keeping that sort of open-mind requires discipline. Much as Diogenes carrying a lamp searching for an honest man, the process of studying the opponent, in military planning, is an objective search for the truth. 

The present election in the US, by what the news media indicates, still seems up for grabs with less than two weeks left until Election Day. Perchance those who might have the best idea (hint) of how it all might turn out, are those who have carefully, objectively, considered the positions and arguments of both sides.

It is without pretension that greatcharlie freely states that philosophy is not its province. Its practice is to turn to the great thinkers for assistance in understanding issues of the present day. Indeed, it is among the works of the great thinkers that words can be found that are pertinent for any extremity of feeling. On the matter of listening and understanding the positions of others, greatcharlie casts its mind back to the words of the renowned 19th century English philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill. Mill explains in his philosophical essay On Liberty (1859): 

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion . . . Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them . . . he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

Perchance a bit of ancient wisdom for negotiators from the US and China would not go amiss. Recall that it was Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

As greatcharlie stated in its June 30, 2020 post entitled, “Commentary: China’s Coronavirus Tack Includes More Abrupt Officials and Political Warfare; Its Diplomatic Tool Must Endure the Consequences,” if a prime purpose of diplomacy is to prevent war, bilateral and multilateral contacts with other countries, statements, press releases, and other messaging should not have the aim of antagonizing and raising the ire of leaders and other decisionmakers in foreign capitals. Chinese diplomats should prefer to avoid creating a tit-for-tat situation with the US at the negotiation table. Unless cooler heads in Beijing and Washington can prevail, it might lead soon enough to an act of retribution on high-seas or elsewhere surely resulting in one in return. Each new act would heighten the possibility that a serious outbreak of violence would occur. It is hard to imagine how that would serve the purpose of either side. Procedamus omnes in pace. (All move forward in peace.)

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