David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.
I created a firestorm with my response to last week’s question about the crucial conversations world leaders are having about climate change. Like most people, I obviously have my own views on global warming. However, I didn’t intend to write a political column and I am sorry it came out that way. I got more than 40 negative responses on the blog and our editor received several as well. Ben Semadeni echoes many readers’ reactions when he says, “I was disgusted with this column . . . It illustrates that even the ‘experts’ totally botch the process.” But then he goes on to say, “I’d love to see you take another stab at this topic.”
I like Ben’s suggestion. However, rather than dig back into the climate change content, I’d like to use this column for its real purpose—to learn about dialogue. I’d like to apply the crucial conversations principles to last week’s column and its resulting controversy. My guess is that we all find ourselves in this unfortunate position from time to time. I hope my transparent application of these conversation tools will also rebuild my relationship with some of you with whom I may have lost faith.
1. Explore Others’ Paths. Our readers are a pretty gentle crew, so when they write, “you’ve lost credibility,” “you’ve used this forum as a soap box,” and “what unprofessional text!” I know people are deeply upset. I’ve seen and felt the heat of their sentiments and to understand what I’ve done to cause these feelings I need to backtrack to the facts behind these stories.
Backtrack to Facts. Most of the letters I received focus on an assumption I made and never actually acknowledged. I now clearly see this oversight. In my response, I called four statements about climate change that leaders from the BASIC nations had agreed to as “facts.” While the leaders in their agreement also called them “facts,” they are better characterized as “conclusions.” Not only did I label these conclusions as “facts,” I also applauded their agreement because I felt it represented “progress in their dialogue.”
Here’s the rub. Many readers disagree with these “facts” and don’t see “progress” in this direction as a good thing. When I described these as “facts” and as “progress,” it caused these readers to question my credibility and motives. They saw this as an unfair use of the opportunity this forum provides me.
2. Start With Heart. I need to look inside myself and decide what my goals are.
Work on me first. My honest, first reaction to the criticisms was frustration because I felt most comments didn’t deal with what I saw as the topic I’d addressed. Instead of focusing on Copenhagen and the dialogue and disagreements between world leaders, readers focused on disagreements they have with world leaders. That wasn’t my topic.
However, I see now that this reaction on my part was a way of bypassing people’s legitimate frustration with my use of this column.
Focus on what I really want. I need to ask what I really want. As far as this forum is concerned, what I really want is for people to discuss dialogue and influence skills in a way that advances our shared understanding. And I want to be fair and honest in my author role. I really don’t care about advancing or exchanging facts about any political agenda. In the article, I included an undiscussed assumption that many readers saw as a political position, and that was not my intention.
3. Restore Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose. This is where actions speak louder than words. I care deeply about this forum, so let me begin.
Mutual Respect. I’ve violated mutual respect in two ways. I’ve disrespected some of you by stating a position in a way that came across as underhanded; and I’ve shared an opinion that some of you see as naïve or misguided. I want to apologize to you and clarify my intent.
I’ll try to “practice what we preach” by using a contrasting statement. I didn’t mean to be underhanded. I did try to answer the question posed by one of our readers. Here is what happened. The way the original question was posed (“what dialogue should world leaders have?”) and the way the leaders in Copenhagen framed their agreement (“we’ve agreed on these facts”) created a blind spot that I didn’t see.
I was narrowly focused on the Copenhagen dialogue and failed to remember the broader dispute. As a result, it didn’t occur to me that readers who disagree with global warming would be offended. It was never my intent to either persuade others to accept global warming or to offend readers who don’t accept global warming. I’m sorry I was insensitive to your views.
Mutual Purpose. I see our purpose as building and sharing dialogue skills. We’re not a forum for presenting political views. I will redouble my efforts to avoid doing so. At the same time, we’d like to be able to examine topical political dialogue. We think social and current issues are rich turf for crucial conversations. It would be a shame to put them totally off limits.
I hope you will see this week’s column as more consistent with our community’s purpose. I’ve tried to share how I am applying our dialogue principles to my dilemma. I did not want this to simply be an apology because that would be misusing its purpose as well. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate that I care about what we teach by showing how it helped me through a tough week.