Diplomacy: Hallmark of the Skilled Administrator
By Nicholas Martin
As published in "The Texas Study," Spring 2004

Journal of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP)



A great sultan called on his three wise men to predict his future. The first said, "Oh, great master, I see a terrible future ahead for you. You will lose all your loved ones and die a bitter and lonely, old man."

The sultan was horrified by the prophecy he heard and immediately banished this man from his kingdom. He then called his second wise man, who said, "Master, I see that you will bury all those you love and hold dear."

Again the sultan was horrified. He now became enraged and ordered this wise man to leave the palace and never return. He then called the third and last of his wise men, who said, "Great master, I see that you will live a very long and healthy life."

Upon hearing this, the sultan was so much relieved that he gave him a handsome reward.

It is easy for us to recognize the importance of diplomacy. Yet there can often be a big difference between acknowledging a truth and being skilled at expressing that truth. We often understand diplomacy far better than we can do it! The topic can be approached in terms of four interrelated perspectives:

  1. Communicating so as to be well-received by our listeners
  2. Responding as opposed to keeping silent
  3. Saying "no" in a way that preserves a positive relationship
  4. Knowing what to say when we don't know what to say


As a training exercise, I will sometimes present a group with a list of true statements, all of which may be very well-intentioned and yet clearly too direct, insensitive, or even blunt. The group is then asked to "translate" these statements "from well-meant to well-said." A few examples will help clarify the key ingredients that make for success.

Let's assume that every one of the following statements is absolutely true and just focus on the wisdom of phrasing our truth in such direct terms. While some may think of themselves as "just too honest," it is rarely our honesty that gets us in trouble - more often it is our tact (or lack of it) - "Truth without kindness can be devastating."

1. You're not alone - a lot of people feel overworked and stressed these days.

Yes, many people feel or have felt that way. And yet, to equate the individual's experience with that of a group can easily be seen as minimizing, or "trivializing," the feelings that that individual may have. It can also be seen as judging that person for holding the feelings that they do (and it's a safe bet that anything suggesting that "you shouldn't feel that way" is only likely to add shame, insecurity, and negative reactions to whatever other feelings are already present). Instead, we can avoid comparisons and just respect that person to feel as they do, perhaps by saying something like, "This can be hard for some people - how are you doing with it?" We should feel however we do; and we can make it okay by affirming others, whatever their feelings.

Another example: 2. You only feel bad because you believe we don't care.

Again, this may be absolutely true: if we believe others don't care about us or our feelings, we probably feel any of a number of negative feelings. And if we believe it, even when it is not true, we still feel those same bad feelings (perception can seem more real than truth). But what are the likely repercussions of confronting someone in such terms? Aren't they likely to feel belittled or rejected, and certainly not supported, valued, or safe? Instead, we can ask them to share their thoughts and feelings with us, knowing that acknowledging feelings helps to move and resolve them, and that clarifying and "owning" our negative thoughts often leads to their reassessment and revision. Thus, asking the person, "Have I said something to upset you?" might open the door for clarification and expression, without pointing fingers at them in any way. Another helpful approach might be to simply share your good intentions: "Mr. Jones, I really want to be on your side," and perhaps expressing what you feel and what you want: "My fear is that you may see me as uncaring, and I really want to fix it if that's true."

3. You're being totally unreasonable and not listening to anything we say.

If so (that they're not listening), why might that be? Is the person feeling attacked or controlled? Have they heard something that leads them to feel a need to defend? Maybe what is most needed here is to first "yield the floor" and provide an opportunity for them to speak and be heard. "Diffusing to the group" may be more effective than confronting the individual, perhaps in saying, "Team, I am wondering if we are all having a chance to speak and be heard. Maybe it would be helpful if we each had a chance to say what we think. Mr. Jones, what are your thoughts?" In so doing, we may accomplish several important things: we can look for the underlying feelings; we can encourage direct self-expression; and we can avoid pointing fingers at any one member of a group.

4. Anger is a secondary emotion - what are you really feeling?

It is absolutely true that anger always follows some other feeling, something closer to our hearts, that we are feeling first (often hurt, fear, frustration or injustice). But to ask, "What are you 'really' feeling," is to suggest that he or she is not really feeling anger, which is only likely to fan the fires into some more very real anger! Also, to confront someone with not sharing underlying feelings can seem critical and even be embarrassing. Most people are not highly aware of their feelings, and few feel safe enough to share them fully and openly even when they are aware. So, in this example, we can "lift the lid" on the pressure cooker by encouraging this person to express their feelings in whatever way feels most comfortable for them - for example, "Mr. Jones, I sense this issue is important to you. Can you tell us more about it?"

5. You're interrupting me and raising your voice again.

This is an example of a technique of intervention involving "confronting the individual." It certainly has its place, but very often a softer touch would be more effective - perhaps, "Mr. Jones, I really want to hear your thoughts about this." Then, after he has had a chance to speak and really be heard, we can ask for permission to shift focus: "May I respond to what you've said?"


  • Want to be supportive, understanding, and encouraging (the big "W").
  • Look for underlying feelings and encourage their acknowledgment.
  • Respect feelings and thoughts at all times, even when our own are different.
  • Encourage clarification of thoughts so they can be "owned" and reevaluated.
  • Use the softest possible touch and the least necessary force.
  • Remember that truth without kindness can have very sharp edges.



  • Minimizing or generalizing the individual's experience.
  • Pointing fingers at anyone other than self (use "I" terms).
  • Confronting or embarrassing anyone in front of a group.
  • Pressing anyone to talk beyond their comfort zone.


THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPONSE School administrators are busy. No doubt about that. And, understandably, we can often get very focused on our most pressing concerns, trying hard to do our best under challenging circumstances. As a result, what may happen is that other people, their issues, and their feelings can sometimes get overlooked. Messages may not be relayed, calls may not be returned, questions may not be answered, tasks may not be completed. Of course, very often, these messages, questions, and tasks are "in motion" and will be taken care of. They may not really be lost, merely delayed amid a long list of other responsibilities. And now comes the "but"....

But what are the implications for harmony or discord when we get so busy that we neglect to respond to one another in a timely and professional manner? How does Mr. Jones feel when he calls the school, leaves a message, and gets no reply? How does Mrs. Smith feel when she writes a letter that remains unanswered? Silence can leave a void, and we generally fill such voids with negative fantasies. That is, when we have nothing to go on, we mortals tend to be very creative and fill the gaps with assumptions and interpretations, usually based in our past experiences. All things being equal, people will generally paint their pictures more negatively than perhaps they should. We do well, therefore, to recognize the extreme value of response, as opposed to silence, and to consider just how valuable a few minutes of our time and attention can be in promoting trust and respect, and maintaining good will and cooperation.

A few recommendations in this regard.... We can make notes on our calendars about sending friendly reminders, or when and with whom "touching base" might be a good idea. A simple call or email to say we are looking into such and such, or have not forgotten their question or issue, can pay big dividends in team spirit and conflict prevention. If we are too busy to do so ourselves, we can often ask an assistant or coworker to help with this task - "Mary, would you mind calling Mr. Smith and letting him know we got his message and are looking into the matter?" If we have no news, a simple note to that effect can be very reassuring: "Mrs. Green, just wanted to let you know we are still waiting for the test results we spoke about. I don't have any news but did want you to know I hadn't forgotten." We rarely, if ever, get in trouble for being too concerned, too respectful, or too helpful. We do well to stay aware of who is asking or waiting for what, and of how we can keep them informed and show that we care.

SAYING NO when appropriate is a skill that all of us must have in our "toolbox of life." At the same time, saying no inherently means that we are not giving someone whatever it is they are asking for. For obvious reasons, therefore, this topic provides an elevated need for diplomacy, and the ability to "say no without losing friends" can sometimes be a challenging task. How can we say no without someone feeling offended? How can we preserve mutual respect and team spirit when at the same denying someone what it is they have said they want? As with all aspects of diplomacy, the probability of success or failure will depend very much on how we say it.

Four elements to consider when saying no include:

  1. Providing an explanation
  2. Offering an alternative
  3. Showing support for the other party's position
  4. Inviting the other party's response


Imagine that Mrs. Doe is asking that her son, John, be moved to a different classroom where she feels certain he will have a greater chance of success. Let's examine some alternatives in the way we might reply and see how each of the four keys may make a difference in the likely outcome.

Example #1: I'm sorry, but that really is not an option at this time.
If this is how we respond, is there any hope that Mrs. Doe will feel good about the answer she received? Highly unlikely. Note that this sample response includes none of the four keys listed above.

Example #2: I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, but we really can't do that. District policy is such that we cannot move children to a different classroom unless it has been clearly established that their educational needs can not be met where they are currently placed.

How did we do? Is there a much greater chance that this explanation will be well-received and that team spirit and positive relationships will be preserved? Well, we certainly did provide an explanation, which is one of the four keys. But one out of four leaves lots of room for improvement. Let's look at some of our other options....

Example #3: I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, but we really can't do that unless Johnny's educational needs can not be met in his present classroom. What we can do is a careful review of his progress, and see whether his needs can be met there, and then perhaps consider the possibility of moving him.

In this third example, we not only provide an explanation but also propose an alternative - one that may address the parent's concerns. This example includes two out of four of the features that make for success, and probably improves the chances of a favorable reception, but we can still do better. Our next example adds the third key element of showing support, simply by acknowledging what the parent might be thinking or feeling:

Example #4: I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, but we really can't do that unless Johnny's educational needs can not be met in his present classroom. What we can do is a careful review of his progress, and see whether his needs can be met there, and then perhaps consider the possibility of moving him. I can imagine that this might seem "long way round the mountain" and even very frustrating for you.
As a final example, and one that incorporates all four of the keys, consider this one, which adds the final ingredient of inviting a response:

Example #5: I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, but we really can't do that unless Johnny's educational needs can not be met in his present classroom. What if we do a careful review of his progress, and see whether his needs can be met there, and then perhaps consider the possibility of moving him? I know this might seem like a waste of time and be very frustrating for you, am I right? How would that sound as a possibility?

Notice that the alternative of reviewing Johnny's progress is phrased not as a statement but as a question (asking is affirming). Inviting the parent's response is further enhanced by specifically asking whether our assumptions are correct, as well as how our proposal sounds to him or her. If we ask such questions with caring and true openness, it is amazing how often we maintain and perhaps even strengthen team spirit, even when saying no. Would you disagree?

WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY presents yet another kind of challenge. Perhaps we feel at a loss or stuck, or maybe we feel uncertain or intimidated. Perhaps we don't yet know the answer to whatever question or issue is at hand. In any of a variety of possible situations, we benefit from knowing what we can say or do when we really don't know what to say.

We mentioned earlier that saying or doing nothing can leave some uncomfortable spaces that will often be filled with negative assumptions. We also know that there really is no such thing as "doing nothing," so if we are keeping silent because we don't know what to say, then most likely what we really are doing is suppressing our feelings and avoiding the situation.

Most people who "don't know what to say" are feeling some form of anxiety and have decided (consciously or not) to handle it through some form of avoidance. A more helpful alternative at such a time is to "share the conflict." For example, if a group at a meeting seems to be losing a focus and wasting time, I might find myself feeling irritated but not sure what to say. I could then "share the conflict" by saying, "Team, I am a little concerned about the time and am not sure what to do." Note also that, in the interests of diplomacy, I might reframe feeling irritated as feeling "concerned."
While there may be a great many situations in which we might not know what to say, the simple formula that can apply to all of them is this: when you don't know what to say, say so! As we just share what we are feeling in the spirit of friendship, the next step forward will invariably become clear.

We began this article by highlighting four important aspects of diplomacy, emphasizing that three are really just special applications of the first. We can summarize our key points as follows:

  1. Communicating so as to be well-received: lead with good intention (the desire to show caring and respect) and "make it okay" for the other person to feel whatever it is they feel. Ask questions that encourage clarification and expression; avoid generalizing their experience or putting anyone "on the spot"; use a gentle approach, and always pair truth with kindness.
  2. Responding as opposed to keeping silent: make a point of responding to questions and messages; put reminders in your date book as to when a follow-up would be helpful; if there is nothing to report, just reassure that the issue is being explored and hasn't been forgotten.
  3. Saying "no" in a way that preserves a positive relationship: include the four key elements: provide an explanation, offer an alternative, show support of feelings, and invite the other person's response.
  4. Knowing what to say when you don't know what to say: when you don't know what to say, say so! Share the conflict by expressing what you feel, and trust that the next step will soon become apparent.


While we can never guarantee to the wise ones how any particular sultan will respond in any given situation, perhaps we can predict what will be more or less likely to get us into trouble (or assure us some valuable rewards).

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