Not Listening: Why “Talking Points” may be undermining the fight against ISIL

Obama listening“Karzai is on board,” a senior U.S. official assured us.  He had just finished meeting with the former Afghan President on what had been a contentious issue. “We can move forward.” His assistants nodded happily in agreement.

It was a near-miraculous outcome.  Karzai had been vocal in his opposition for months.  The senior official had just arrived in Kabul that morning to deliver the U.S. message on the issue.  In an hour, he had achieved the impossible.

Talking points delivered, Karzai’s support gained, he streaked back to D.C. A job well done.

Except it wasn’t.  Karzai blew up over the issue two weeks later.

U.S. officials dismissed the episode as yet another example of Karzai’s erratic behavior.  I am not so sure.

History, it seems may be repeating itself with the so-called 60-country coalition against ISIL.

Foreign Policy’s Gopal Ratnam and John Hudson outline the latest aw-shuckses with Turkey and others, “Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.”

As the Karzai episode above suggests, misreading our partners is not confined to the anti-ISIL coalition.  Sadly, there have been numerous times in which the confident after-the-fact descriptions by U.S. officials made me question if I had been in the same meeting.

We have a problem listening.

I do not know if this affliction is unique to the current administration or a recurring problem in the U.S.-Way-of-Diplomacy.  I do know that it needs to be fixed.

Leaving aside the broader psychological, historical, and political science issues, I will focus on the practice of Talking Points.

U.S. officials spend hours churning Talking Points in advance of meetings.  The goal is to package a set of useful sentences or themes for the senior official to deliver during the meeting in question.  Background information on the various issues are painstakingly captured.  The stakes are high — the senior official has one shot to deliver the points during the brief visit to the country.

But Talking Points miss the point.  We should be focused on communicating — which also means listening and observing and building relationships –rather than just talking.

Too often, we assume that our Talking Points are accepted if they are not rejected during the meeting.  This is dangerous.

Most foreign officials, on the other hand, seem focused on listening.  They ask questions to gauge the boundaries of our policies.  Some spin conspiracy theories in efforts to assess our reactions to their various fears and interests.

All the while they are employing social intelligence — reading body language, tone of voice, and other cues — to understand our aims and intentions, our sincerity, and the extent of our commitment.

That the U.S. tends not to be badly misread by others (Saddam Hussein excepted) may have more to do with their skills than ours.

Here are three ways to begin addressing this problem:

First, develop a set of listening and learning points for each meeting. Seek to understand the aims and intentions and concerns of your partners rather than just talk at them.

Second, ensure your assistants in the room can read body language and other verbal and non-verbal cues.  Joe Navarro’s book What Every BODY is Saying is a pretty good start.  Huddle afterwards to discuss the full range of what was communicated by all parties.

Third, build relationships and exercise patience.  We want to get down to business right away and have it all wrapped up in an hour. For many U.S. officials, trust is established in the follow-through.

More often than not, your counterparts base trust on relationships.  They will probably not take difficult steps before that is established.  Instead of having a single meeting and running off to the next country, consider multiple meetings with key officials.   Invest some time in personal and professional relationships.

Sometimes you have to work slowly to achieve results more quickly.

These steps are not going to fix the serious disconnects in the strategy against ISIL.   A focus on Listening and Learning rather than Talking may help the U.S. to avoid making some current problems worse.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC ( which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones.  A highly decorated former commander of Paratroopers  and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders.

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC