Sunday, September 30, 2018

Retired U.S. ambassador shares diplomacy, communication advice at SU

Harriet Elam-Thomas, a former U.S. ambassador, spoke at SU on Wednesday.
Corey Henry | Staff Photographer
Harriet Elam-Thomas, a former U.S. ambassador, spoke at SU on Wednesday.

Before Harriet Elam-Thomas [JB - see] began speaking at Syracuse University on Wednesday, she shook hands with people in attendance.
“Happy to meet you,” the retired U.S. ambassador told attendees while asking about the origins of their names as she learned them.
One of the essential tools that Elam-Thomas said she learned during her more than 30-year career with the country’s foreign service: creating relationships with people that are based on civility, respect and sincerity. She discussed effective communication skills with an audience of about 30 people at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications’ I3 Center.
The event, co-sponsored by Newhouse and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, was part of Elam-Thomas’ conversation series called “Civility Strategies: Healing Approaches That Unite People and Strengthen Democracy.” The lectures are meant to focus on uniting across lines of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and political affiliation, according to an SU News release.
Elam-Thomas, who is now the director of the diplomacy program at the University of Central Florida, has worked in Senegal, Belgium, Greece and Turkey. Elam-Thomas said she has had to navigate many customs that weren’t characteristic to Western civilization while working around the world.
She told the audience she learned two languages — Greek and Turkish — in her 40s. Speaking someone’s native language with them in another country makes a huge difference when interacting with others, she said. It’s a way to give honor to someone’s culture and history, she added. It also enables a speaker to communicate in a way that feels more familiar and less threatening to a subject, she said.
Public diplomacy [JB emphasis] officers have a harder job today than they did when she first entered the foreign service in 1963, she said. With a 24-hour news cycle that can be known to cause “information overload,” she said, people already think they know what’s going on both in the U.S. and around the world.
Communicating through social media is only as effective as the people using it, she said, and that involves being extremely sensitive about the way a message is being delivered and how it will be received culturally by its intended audience.
“You have to get in the heads of your audience,” she said.
Elam-Thomas said some kinds of unconscious phrases can be  “put-downs,” such as an American saying British people drive on the “wrong” side of the road or that Arabic is “written backwards.”
Most effective dialogue, she added, requires careful listening. She encourages her students to listen more and speak less.
“It costs very little to understand people and treat them as individuals,” she said. “However, it takes time, patience and sensitivity to listen.”

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