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Mastering diplomacy: how to get what you want when agreement looks like a mirage

Diplomacy has deeply ancient roots: historians and anthropologists found traces of it in the Middle East, China, and India in the first millennium BCE. Chinese diplomatic apparatus included leagues, missions, a system of polite discourses between “warring states”, and even resident envoys who served as hostages to guarantee the good behavior of those who sent them. The Greeks, who set the foundations of modern diplomacy, made their diplomats immune under the protection of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The art of diplomacy was – and still is – used to mitigate countries’ relationships that would have otherwise quite inflamed. If successful, this approach ensures to avoid the explosion of a war at the least and to make all parties satisfied at the most. 

As for today, we might not be diplomats, foreign affairs operators, or military leaders, but still in our daily life, in our relationships, we all have our good dose of conflicts that need to be soothed and require a fair amount of diplomatic skills. 

These peculiar times have got us stuck at home with our parents, siblings, or flatmates and so much time spent inevitably together makes divergences and incompatibilities emerge. Sometimes our stubbornness and impatience, or just the circumstances – let’s blame it on the circumstances you hot-tempered folks – put us in a difficult position: we would really like to get a certain result, we don’t want anything to get in the way, but still the other person would not collaborate. Exactly when an agreement looks like a mirage, it is the perfect time to pull out our diplomacy skills in order to avoid a fist fight and still obtain more or less what we wanted.

Engaging in diplomacy means putting forward an idea or a cause without ceding accidentally to rage and causing a messy disaster you might regret. Before going practical, it is imperative to keep in mind that what undermines agreement is the multitude of facets of human nature which must be received with caution and acceptance. To make our mission more doable, the article lists some helpful guidelines we can use on the battlefield based on psychological insights regarding all people taking part in a negotiation.

  1. The argument is the tip of the iceberg: behind a person’s angry way of arguing there lies a demand for respect and appreciation. When we defend a relatively small and irrelevant point with so much fierceness, what we are actually defending is our power position in the relationship. The obstinacy we have in getting things done our way while rejecting the other person’s views is a signal of our claim for establishing our authority and feeding our self-esteem.
  1. Don’t state your wishes too directly: everyone has flaws, if you take pride in spotting your opposer’s and shout them out loud, first you won’t be of any help, and second you ultimately won’t achieve what you desired. For instance, if you want someone to be more open-minded, less defensive, or more hard-working, instead of just “diagnosing” the issue that is bothering you, try to put yourself in their shoes and letting them see that you are trying to understand them and seeing their point, despite the clear differences. With a more constructive approach, you will turn mere criticism into a bridge between you and your adversary, who will gradually react more gently and receptively.
  1. Lies are allowed: despite what mainstream morality claims, when on diplomatic duty, it’s ok to lie – just remember not to exaggerate. Little white lies may be put in service for a greater truth, or in other words, you can emphasize some points while underweight some others and no one gets hurt. However, it must be noted that more significant lies can have the opposite effect: they can send the wrong message and make the position we stand in less clear. The basic idea is always to be aware of the possible reactions of the person we are facing: if a little embellishment can drastically improve that reaction, then go ahead and put some sugar in the medicine.
  1. Stay calm: when facing accusations, mean remarks, a loud tone of voice, a loss of temper, don’t lose it, disengage from it and maintain composure. Imperturbability is incredibly hard to master unless you are naturally endowed with it; in any case, when you are on the verge of blowing up, take a second to pause and think. In that moment you are the target of a person’s rage; it might be useful to notice that you are a target. Instead of focusing on the provocation per se, tell yourself that you should not take it personally, that such provocation is rather an expression of your opponent’s mood. In a heated conversation, a calm reaction can possibly surprise your counterpart and defuse the looming explosion. For example, when you are attacked with a harsh criticism, instead of going defensive, claim that you’ve often said such things to yourself with a laugh. This dynamic can be depicted as two people pulling a rope in the opposite direction: just stop pulling and see what happens.

As a good diplomat, you must be aware that your opponent will inherently be irrational, unreasonable, impulsive, afraid, and biased. You will observe that her judgments tend to be inaccurate, she will spill her frustrations on you. The other person, will need to be reassured and encouraged from time to time, will feel the urge to demonstrate her strength and bringing her on your side will require a fair amount of accommodations and patience. Lastly, your negotiations are destined to be even more successful if you notice that the “opponent”, the “other person” in the article is you, most of the time. 


Cotton, J. (2020, September 23). How to Be Diplomatic –. The School of Life Articles. 

Freeman, C. W. and Marks, . Sally (2020, December 14). Diplomacy. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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