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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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This ran as my column in T.I. #83, Summer ’87. However, it was written as an article, and shouldn’t count as a Steward’s column—as I recall, it was Lucky’s idea to begin with, and it still includes more of his contributions than mine. The published version omitted the last paragraph, and I’m glad to have a chance to restore it here. (The column written for this issue got lost in the mail, and the Editor didn’t notice as she thought she HAD it. I haven’t been able to find a copy, either, but it wasn’t memorable—it just offered a few phone tips and other bits of info designed to maintain a Stewardly presence without taking up too much space in the magazine.)

(Or even the anti-politician....)
— with Sir William the Lucky

In the attempt to avoid anything that smacks of “politics,” people in the SCA often become blunt to the point of rudeness and insensitive to one another’s needs. Though the word evokes images of wheeling and dealing and sneaky tricks, an adept politician has no need for unsavory tactics. You can avoid backbiting and favoritism and the other obnoxious behaviors often lumped in with politics under their own names, and still use true politics as a benign and constructive force.
     This article presents a political toolbox—a set of techniques that will allow you to work with the people around you without creating unnecessary obstacles for your ideas. Our assumption throughout is that the goals you picture as you imagine applying our techniques really do serve the common good as well as your own welfare. If you’re out for material or emotional profit at the expense of others around you, you’ll need to look elsewhere for instruction—because this stuff just won’t work. (If you try it with a hidden agenda, people will notice the difference!)

Listen Constructively. The first and most basic part of getting someone to listen to your ideas and arguments is to listen to his. Really listen to what he is saying—and to what he is trying to get across, even if he is not managing to express it very well. If you just keep quiet until he finishes, then launch into your own prepared speech, it does not count as listening.
     Pay attention to what he says (you may, after all, find that you already agree), and start your reply by summariz­ing what you heard. Rephrase his statement right back at him: “Let me be sure I understand. The way you see it... Right?” Before you present your side, give him a chance to correct your interpretation. Then begin with the areas where you’re closest together, and point out the details that also let him get what he wants. In the long run, you’ll get much more of what you want if you arrange things so your erstwhile opponent is also satisfied with the results.
     The process of restatement, outlining areas of agree­ment, and advancing new possibilities works best in small stages. You may be certain that you’ve analyzed and solved a problem, but it’s still unwise to open a discussion by taking the first ten minutes to tell your potential convert everything you’ve concluded. Toss the subject matter into the conversation in a fairly neutral fashion, and invite comments on it. By the same token, if someone offers you a controversial topic, respond with a brief summary of your opinion. It’s hard to work constructively if either party holds the floor for more than a minute or so at a time—the listener’s attention wanders, and points made at the beginning get lost. Take it slowly, and you’ll go further.

Know When to Stop. No matter how many wonderful arguments you’ve worked up, you only need the ones that gain agreement. Once someone’s with you, stop urging the point—let him sell it back to you if he still wants to talk about it, or change the subject if he wants a rest. It’s entirely possible to lose someone by harping on an argument until he’s sick of it.

Help People Think Well of Themselves. Everyone is the hero of his own autobiography. (This is a good thing. People live by their own views of themselves, and someone who was sure he was a villain would seek out greater villainy.) When you’re dealing with the social interactions we call “politics,” remember that every description of a controversy or series of events is colored by someone’s heroic self-image, and that two first-person accounts can be diametrically opposed without any conscious alteration of the truth by either narrator. It is always best to read or listen with a grain of salt, and to form conclusions based on as many separate accounts as possible.
     If someone’s position seems untenable to you, try to work around it, rather than attacking it directly in a way that forces him to defend it. On one hand, discussion of different aspects of the case may bring out points that you missed, and on the other, it will be easier to work together if you haven’t forced your opponent into a position where he looks foolish. As a general rule, it’s always best to find solutions where all participants look good, both to them­selves and to others. Making someone “lose face” over an issue only earns you an enemy who will seek to interfere with your plans regardless of their intrinsic worth, for the simple satisfaction of making you lose face in return.

Use Reason—Don’t Abuse It. An appeal to reason may be either the most or the least useful approach in any discussion. If you are trying to get your ideas adopted on their merits, you should appeal to reason and logic. On the other hand, if the opposition to your wonderful idea has an emotional basis, you’re unlikely to overcome it with pure reason addressed to the objective facts of the situa­tion. Indeed, someone with an emotional objection will only get more emotional when faced with a determinedly logical and reasonable argument. As a rule of thumb, you should have a reasoned argument ready, but do not insist on using it to the exclusion of the emotional concerns of those who do not immediately embrace it.
     All substantial disagreements have both logical and emotional components, even those presented as purely logical. It is tempting to follow the logic in some­one’s exposition, and to assume that pointing out the flaws in the logical chain will surely make him see that he is in error. Wrongo! A purely intellectual attack is likely to make a person retreat to a position based on two points: He likes his way anyway, and he doesn’t like you because he thinks you think he’s a dummy. From your point of view, this is not desirable. Better to restate his posi­tion—where have we heard that before?—and let him correct the flaws in your restatement (and never point out that they were in his position to begin with). If he accepts your version of his version, simply go on as though you thought it made sense, and move toward the results you want. You don’t need to prove his logic wrong in order to bring out different and sounder logic, or to provide new infor­mation that supports the course of action you recom­mend.

Turn Away Wrath. If you grew up in a subculture where yelling and loud arguments are a normal part of life, even among friends, you may find yourself surprised and hurt when those around you mistake your invitations to cheery verbal scuffles for blood insults. By the same token, if you come from a background where people try to at least look calm under all circumstances, you may find some of your associates reacting as though they think you simply don’t have any feelings.
     While everyone needs to be aware of the cultural component in the behavior of others, prudence dictates that you speak as gently and calmly as you can. Even those from obstreperous cultures are rarely disturbed by quiet discussion, and most people do expect courte­ous restraint. A slanging match may turn those who overhear it against you and your position even if both you and the person you were arguing with were enjoying yourselves immensely. (If you are from one of the ‘noisier’ cultural backgrounds, and you find that the person you’re talking to is looking inordinately upset, stop and ask “Have I been shouting again?” It’s a hard pattern to break and an easy one to slip back into, even with the best of intentions.)
     Of course, on a highly emotional issue, you may well say something less than perfectly restrained. Outbursts do happen, and they don’t necessarily harm your case. They can help to clear the air, and allow you to find a real solution to the problem at hand—if you rapidly and visibly haul yourself back under control, and return to rational discussion. On the other hand, despite the benefits that can flow from a real outburst, faking one will not help you gain your point. A contrived outburst can do damage—especially if people guess what you’re up to.
     In writing, even more than in speech, it is important to put your ideas and arguments calmly and clearly. People may forgive an emotional outburst in a discussion, but not in a letter. Words on paper are cold, because you’ve had time to think them through. If you write something hurtful, your reader will assume you meant to hurt him, and react accordingly. Take the time to review and revise after the heat of the moment has passed. Before you seal any letter written in anger, wait at least a day and read it over. And if you find yourself getting worked up again when you read it, find someone who is less involved in the dispute to help you tone it down.
     Remember—it’s results that count. Be very clear on what you want to happen as a result of your letter. If you want someone to do something that will please you, do not settle for the lesser pleasure of making that person feel awful. No matter how satisfying at the moment, a nasty letter will only make things worse in the long run.

Be Patient. Do not assume that any of these suggestions constitute a magic wand that will always and instantly get you your way. It takes work. It takes, also, a certain amount of willingness to reevaluate “your way” as you go along—the position you start from may well not be the best one for all of the people who will have to live with the results, and our premise here is that you are trying to accomplish something that will be generally useful, not simply out to get something for nothing. It often takes several rounds of discussion to come up with an approach that all parties are happy with—or even willing to toler­ate—and what these techniques do is make it possible to keep talking until you manage to reach a workable solution.

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