After the hour-long session with N, we met to “debrief” what we had just experienced with each other and the teaching team. This type of Q&A with a special guest, followed by a debrief session (after the guest leaves) where we fume over the As to our Qs, has been a common occurrence throughout this course.
Ms. N and our class certainly came into the discussion with different expectations. She was generously taking about an hour out of her demanding schedule to speak with a group of students, and it seemed that she expected (or at least hoped) we would be satisfied, and even happy, with a mere reiteration of the US’s already-publicly-stated positions and supposed ambition. Similarly, my fellow students were looking forward to an opportunity to challenge our special guest on some pressing shortcomings of the US’s plan. Questions were asked about a variety of significant climate issues, including the 1.5°C vs. 2°C debate, the weight of indigenous voices, the concern about risks to low-island states, etc.
Unfortunately, the two different approaches did not make for a very pleasant Q&A.
At the debrief, students expressed frustration about Ms. N’s attitude toward us and her/his lack of a desire to engage in meaningful dialogue. Personally, I was frustrated, too. Like my classmates, I was disappointed that we were not getting much of any value from her/him, but I was also disappointed that my classmates did not change their line of questioning once it was obvious that she would not be willing to venture out of her comfort zone. That has been a disappointment I have been grappling with over the course of this class whenever we have been presented with a guest speaker who does not give the answers we seem to want to the questions we continue to ask.
I have a personal theory that every person for every situation has a figurative box encompassing everything about which they are comfortable speaking in that situation. For people in the world of politics, this box is often at the border of what has been determined to be open to the press/the public and what has been determined to be classified or confidential. Sometimes people are good at conveying that they don’t have a box. We like to think of those people as candid and authentic. Other times people are blatantly obvious when withholding things from their audience. There is an entire field of people (those who work in communications and press offices) who are particularly adept at staying within the box no matter what they are asked (usually by journalists).
When trying to get information from Ms. N, it was obvious at an early point in the Q&A session that we were asking her/him questions that were way beyond the constraints of her box. It was also becoming apparent that s/he had been working within the confines of her box for so long that she may actually have forgotten that there is room beyond the box. S/he seemed genuine when s/he responded to a question from one of my classmates that s/he had no problem separating her personal desires regarding climate action from the desires of the Obama administration because s/he happened to agree with 100% of where the Obama administration stands on climate issues.
At this point, I was hoping my fellow classmates and I would take our disappointment, put it aside, and try to get as much value from our remaining time with N. We would still be disappointed, but we could have framed further questions more accommodatingly to N's perspective so that we might ease her/him incrementally out of her box. We could have also asked her questions that she would likely have no problem answering within her box that would still inform us about other aspects of the COP process, like what it’s like to be a negotiator. But we continued to ask questions that were so far out of her box that it really wasn’t unreasonable for her to be flustered. Some in the class thought her demeanor was tactical—that she might have purposefully appeared agitated and confused so we might back down. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I believe she was genuinely flustered because she is not a PR person for the State Department; she is a negotiator, and she doesn’t need to remain composed when people ask her questions she doesn’t want to answer.
As for solutions, I certainly don’t advocate pitching softball questions to guest speakers. I think we ought to try to get the most out of these types of opportunities, but to do so, we need to be strategic. Ask the tough questions initially, but if you can identify a box that the person is operating within, don’t expect to get answers to more and more questions that are really far from that box. Yesterday it was clear early on what we were going to get from N, and yet we didn’t adapt our approach.
I asked a question at the end about the US’s push for a ratcheting-mechanism despite our country’s inability to ensure that, with a Republican president, we would be able to push beyond the current mitigation commitments (essentially we would balk on finance, loss and damages, and any further emissions reductions). The question was not a softball, but I tried to frame it in a way that might give her the feeling that it was not too far from her box. Before asking the question, I applauded the current ambition of the United States with respect to current domestic constraints—a Republican Congress—something s/he was desperately trying to convey since the beginning of the discussion. However, by the time I got to ask the final student question of the hour, s/he had completely shut down.
In our debrief we discussed the potential value of the challenging questions having possibly changed N’s perspective about young people in America. S/he was surprised at the issues we brought up, and even if we didn’t get the answers we wanted, we may have at least put those issues on her/his radar. Hopefully that is true, and there is certainly merit to asking far-from-the-box questions as a form of advocacy, but I am afraid that long before the discussion concluded, and N left the Green Zone to return to the Blue Zone, s/he had completely stopped thinking about our questions. None of the questions were hostile or inappropriate, but they had made her/him uncomfortable to the point that s/he eventually shut down, and what was a unique opportunity became mostly unproductive. At least we certainly may have learned a lot about communication strategies.
studying Political Science and Communication
Second update: On December 10, this blog post was edited to further anonymize the identity of the negotiator by obscuring his/her gender