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  Gokce standing in front of her office at UNEP’s New York Headquarters.

Seven Communication Lessons From the Diplomats of the United Nations

3 August, 2017

Guest blogger: Gokce Sencan (MESM 2018)

As an intern at the United Nations Environment Programme’s New York Office, one of my main tasks is to follow intergovernmental negotiations and prepare policy briefs for the senior staff in the New York and Nairobi offices. This requires me to observe delegates very carefully and try to capture subtle meanings and clues in their statements that give away their countries’ real intentions.

The delegates are the primary messengers between their governments, the other countries and the United Nations. And because of that, they are at the heart of the most heated debates, negotiations and other activities. They are well aware that the stakes are high and goals are ambitious here, and perfect communication is an indispensable asset. So, to achieve their countries’ goals, they impressively use a myriad of strategic communication skills to keep up with and influence fast-paced negotiations. In this article, I attempted to break their code.

1. Despite what some think, there is still no room for alternative facts in sophisticated debates. Countries always highlight whatever statistical data they have especially in heated debates and never hesitate to cite reliable sources like United Nations reports and publications to stress their argument and maintain their credibility.

2. Everyone has frenemies—and countries are no exception. When it comes to children welfare, you can see the United States and Russia supporting each other’s policies. Syrian Civil War? Not so much, as the two countries have completely contrasting stances and agendas. Likewise, two close military allies such as the US and the European Union may have opposing views on climate change and actively work against each other’s interest. So, the key to successful negotiation is to build the common ground first and work on reconciliation later.

3. Speaking of reconciliation, it is important to find the balance between what you want and what you can get. Whether you are a country with vast reserves of gas or a clean energy campaigner in a local NGO, it is critical to assess your position and set your goals and constraints carefully to get the most out of a negotiation. Maybe it is your industrial infrastructure or your grassroots support, but what matters most is to exploit your strengths and find creative ways to turn your weaknesses into leverage. After carefully crafting your strategy, you will have the power to be insistent on and progress your demands.

4. Befriend the other delegates. The delegates are so successful at separating work and private life, it comes natural to them to be friends with the other delegates. As soon as the session ends, it is not surprising to see the German delegate approaching the Egyptian delegate and begin a lively chat.

5. Use your personal communication skills to your advantage. Sometimes a small joke can help with breaking the ice and getting your message across, especially if your country does not have many allies in the room. I also saw some delegates using sarcasm, especially towards the end of all-day-long negotiations. But hey! All is fair in diplomacy, as long as you attain your goals.

6. Wording, wording, wording. The delegates know a bad word choice can blow the whole negotiation, even if their country is a superpower. And sometimes, a word can give a message that would otherwise take multiple paragraphs to iterate. Therefore, it is critical to be constantly aware of such nuances and retain a diplomatic tone. Here are just a couple of examples:
What they say: “We would like to recommend a tiny tweak to the paragraph.” What they mean: “This is substantial but I do not want to get any backlash.”
What they say: “We really like this draft, but also believe some sentences can be strengthened.” What they mean: “We don’t like this at all.”

7. As a delegate, you are a messenger for your government, not an advocate for your personal beliefs. The more you can separate your pragmatic, goal-oriented delegate-self from your real-self, a more credible delegate you become. The most striking example was when I watched a delegate from a Western country speaking against climate change, yet reflecting his discontent and humiliation very clearly on his non-verbal actions. I think this is why it matters so much to find a workplace whose values and stances align with yours.

  Gokce advocating for one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, climate action

Most of us, thankfully, do not need to negotiate on topics as critical and urgent as humanitarian crises. Yet, the significant influence of the UN delegates on the decision-making process in a myriad of fields such as human rights, environment, peace, proves the effectiveness and universality of these communication strategies. And hopefully, these valuable lessons from the delegates can contribute to enhancing my communication and persuasion skills as a future environmental policy maker and advocate.

Gokce Sencan is a second-year MESM student, specializing in Economics and Politics of the Environment, with a focus in Strategic Environmental Communication and Media. She is currently completing her summer internship at UN Environment (UNEP) New York Office as an Intergovernmental Policy Intern. Gokce is particularly passionate about climate security, economics and resilience. As her career aspiration, she aims to create policies that will promote environmentally viable and sustainable solutions to humanitarian challenges caused by climate change. You can read about more about Gokce’s experience and thoughts at her website.