Dialogue and Someone Else’s Vested Interest

Is it possible to engage in dialogue when you’re representing someone else’s interests?

This comes up more than you might think. A few concrete examples to get us started:

  • You’re on a committee as a representative of XYZ organization. The head of XYZ has asked you to “make sure you promote what we can do.” But when you get to the first meeting, you realize “what we can do” doesn’t fit the agenda at all.
  • As part of fundraising for your favorite nonprofit, you visit a potential major donor—and discover that she has substantial concerns about the way it’s run. The more you listen, the more her concerns become your concerns.
  • The leaders of your faith tradition have called you to spread the word about your faith. As you talk with a close friend about his life, it becomes clear he’d be better off in another faith entirely.
  • You are the head of the management team negotiating a delicate labor situation for a Fortune 500 company. At the first session, your labor counterpart makes a compelling point that runs against your position.

In my book (which—shameless plug here—is now available for pre-order), I talk a lot about the need to suspend our preconceptions and vested interests, however temporarily, to fully enter into listening and dialogue with the other person. But these situations are different. Our whole reason for being there involves the preconceptions and vested interests. It makes no sense to suspend them. Do we aim for a balance between promoting our message and listening to the other? Is it a matter of seeking common ground? Is dialogue simply the wrong model for these situations?

I suspect that I err too much on the side of dialogue. My instinct is to lay aside the interests of whatever I’m representing and simply engage the situation as it is, responding to its reality rather than seeking ways to inject my assigned message. My hope is that, by building trust and credibility in this way, my effort to be dialogic will eventually serve the interests of who or what I’m representing.

It doesn’t always turn out that way.

Lest this seem arcane to you, imagine how it might play out on a broader scale. If the dynamics of dialogue can improve communication in these contexts, how that might impact U.S.-China trade negotiations, or the give-and-take in a congressional conference committee, or the labor-management example mentioned earlier? Could suspending our vested interests connect us with our adversaries just enough to make the proceedings more effective?

What do you think? How do you handle these situations? How does that work for you? How would you like to handle them better?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted August 21, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    This topic is near and dear to my heart. Thanks, John. I would love to see more people develop an understanding of the power of truly listening.

    • Posted August 22, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      So would I, Barry. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Jan Verbanck
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    These are thought-provoking ideas, John. Does one indeed, as a representative, consider oneself as nothing more than a serving hatch for preconceived ideas, or does ‘representing’ also require for you to be present in the situation, as who you are, truely taking the place of the person or the organization you are representing? I would think: the latter, in which the representation is based on genuine mutual trust, so as to encounter the inevitable unexpected as open-mindedly as possible. At least, that is what I’d hope for, wouldn’t you? (jhv)

    • Posted October 4, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      My apologies, Jan, for not responding earlier. Somehow WordPress neglected to tell me your comment was here!

      Yes, I would hope for that too: “representing” as being present in the situation, being who you truly are. This is exactly why, for me, the purpose of an election campaign is to acquaint us with a 360-degree picture of the candidates: their stances on current issues, yes, but also the way they think in general, the influence their backgrounds have had on them, their character flaws, etc. If I have that picture, I can more confidently vote for a candidate and thus more easily trust her–even if she occasionally takes a position with which I disagree.

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