Diplomacy of the Wastes

Diplomacy skills are among the most important to develop for a judge of any level. That’s why I’m excited to introduce our first guest columnist, fellow Ft. Wayne judge Marcos Sanchez. Marcos’ “real-world” background in sales gives him insights into the art of diplomacy every day, and I’m as excited as all of you to read what he has to say on the subject. Take it away, Marcos!

When judges think about how they can improve, diplomacy is one of the last things that comes to mind. There are rules to learn, policy to review, and new cards to learn. However I feel that diplomacy is an extremely vital aspect to your success in the program. The longer you judge, the more likely you are to encounter that one disastrous situation, that one heated argument, that one group of players who are escalating to the point of you losing control of the situation. Understanding diplomacy and how to handle difficult situations will give you the tools to be able to handle just about anything that can be thrown at you. Except maybe if it’s a table. Always avoid those flying tables…

The overall intent of diplomacy as a whole boils down to one thing: finding a way to speak to and interact with everyone involved in a sensitive or delicate situation or discussion in a way that makes them listen, with the intent of reaching a mutually agreeable end. Many times, when these kinds of sensitive situations arise, they tend to emotionally hijack you in a way that leads to behavior which is uncontrolled, never well thought out, and seldom productive.

Diplomacy comes down to simply that. When emotions run hot, and people feel frightened, confused, and afraid, their sensitivity to the smallest perceived infraction can set them off to a point they would never normally go. This could cause a rash reaction in a player who is being disqualified for taking an extra card from a draft, who offered to roll a die in the final round of an FNM because their mother just showed up to take them home, or someone who is being given a game loss for not de-sideboarding after their last match.

So let’s use these examples to break things down in a way that should feel familiar to all of us. The process begins by evaluating situations you’re approaching or involved in, and thinking of what the answers are to the following 3 questions. WHEN do I say something? WHAT do I say? And HOW do I say what I want to say?

WHEN to speak comes down to simply assessing when you have something that’s worth saying. Particularly, something that will matter and contribute to a discussion. Hastily speaking out before you should usually will only lead to hyperbolic and divisive statements, usually made without the full story or awareness of all of the facts. When you take a call on the floor of a Prerelease or a Grand Prix, do you listen to one statement from a player, and before they can say anything else, immediately make a ruling based solely on a single sentence? I’d sincerely hope not. In the same way, you should feel very hesitant to speak unless you are confident you know what the full extent of the situation is, what the facts are, and what the real issue at hand is.

Ultimately, you have to think about both sides of a scenario. Many tense situations likely come to be by there being two parties, both of whom believe their point of view is correct. They are either unable or unwilling to objectively look at the other’s point of view to try to understand where they come from, and why they are at odds. Because of this, it’s incredibly important for anyone attempting to be diplomatic to either or both of these parties to always take the time to be objective and understanding to the facts and beliefs of each party involved. Only then can either of the parties involved really consider listening to what you have to say – once you’ve demonstrated that you have listened to what they have to say.

Once you have decided when you should say something, then comes the question of WHAT to say. There are a large number of things to consider here, such as whether what you have to say will help clarify any misunderstandings, whether what you have to say is based in fact or simply based on emotional reactions, and most importantly, whether your words have purpose. Ask yourself questions like “Will this help further an intelligent discussion?” or “Will saying this improve or clarify the situation?” as well as “Does this help move us towards a resolution of whatever the issue is at hand?” These kinds of questions can help you understand what needs to be said, along with why.

An important aspect of determining what needs to be said is taking into account the subjective viewpoints of everyone involved. Remember, in high stress situations people typically don’t listen to anything someone else says until they feel that they have been heard. So demonstrate that you have, in fact, listened. Let’s take an extreme example: Nicodemus punches Adam in the face for making derogatory remarks about Nicodemus’ mother. Nicodemus is still furious, as is Adam, and you have separated them. When you talk to Nicodemus, you can absolutely sympathize that yes, you do in fact understand why he punched Adam. The truth of the matter is irrelevant – you can sympathize and understand his perspective without agreeing with his decision to punch him, and without condoning his actions. However, approaching the situation from a point of understanding allows Nicodemus to see that you are speaking his language, and puts you in a non-adversarial position while talking to him.

Then, once you know what you want to say, comes the most difficult aspect of diplomacy: HOW to say what you want to say. Most people’s initial reactions to stressful, anxious and sensitive situations are extremely reactive. Make sure to understand that reactive should never be the approach when trying to get a productive message across. Just like, back to that judge call you’re taking, you would attempt to diffuse two hostile players who are arguing about what happened, and pull back the emotion to strictly the matters of fact, how you say what you feel needs to be said is very important. Stick to the facts, and while you may be feeling extremely volatile emotions, don’t allow those emotions to hijack what should be an intelligent and meaningful conversation. Those who excel in diplomacy have this ability to keep their emotions in check, and focus strictly on what the issue at hand is, and what is the best way to resolve it.

I cannot overstate how important the exact delivery of what you decide to say is. The specific words and phrasing you choose will make the difference between easing tensions and escalating an already tense situation. Not only do the exact words matter, but the tone in which you say them can make a huge difference as well. For example, think about that kid in your FNM who you have to disqualify for offering to roll a die because their mother just arrived to take them home. There’s an extremely difficult thing to tell them, but note the difference between the following phrases:

“I’m sorry, I’m going to have to remove you from this event, as offering to determine the results of a match by any means other than playing Magic is not something that we can allow.”

“Hey! You can’t offer to roll a die to determine the outcome of the match, that’s a serious offense. You’re disqualified!!”

Technically, the content of both of those sentences is exactly the same. The player is being told they’re being disqualified and what the reason is. However the words are coming from two completely different places, and while the content is the same, the delivery and impact on the person hearing it is completely different.

As a final point, just like you consider how you speak to a player when you’re issuing them a game loss, match loss, or disqualification, I’d really like it if everyone in a tough situation took a minute to think about how you say that which needs to be said. Not thinking this through just adds to the noise of the conversation, and doesn’t do anything productive. Most importantly, it doesn’t make anyone involved want to LISTEN to me. Like in a cartoon, reactive noise just adds to the general “rabble rabble rabble” in the background. The only voices that cut through the dither are those of clarity, those whom have something worth being heard that will help move the conversation along productively.

Diplomacy isn’t easy. Different situations will make people react in very different ways. However, when tensions rise and emotions flare, know that you have a choice. You can either respond reactively, without thought, and without all the information you’d need, or you can take a moment to collect yourself, and try to get all the information you can about what’s happening. Then ask yourself when, if at all, you should say something, what to say, and how to say it. This will not only make you a better judge, but will help you in just about any situation that can arise where you need to take a diplomatic approach.

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