If you follow Canadian politics, you’ll know that there was a cabinet shuffle on Monday. You may have also followed some of the post-shuffle kerfuffle. There has been particular consternation over reports that government staff-members were asked to prepare lists of “enemy stakeholders” as part of the briefing binders for new Ministers. The list of enemies could apparently include politicians, journalists, bureaucrats and many more.
Where did this language about enemies come from? What would make someone qualify as an enemy of a Ministry? Respectful disagreement about how a country or a department is led should be understood as democracy – not war.
War metaphors are everywhere. Thus it doesn’t shock me to hear about requests for political leaders to be compiling “enemy” lists. Nonetheless it disturbs me. The use of the term “enemy” in this context is highly unprofessional. It is not appropriate for this term to be used to refer to peers or colleagues who simply have a different perspective.
Many people have disagreed with me over the years. I have never considered them enemies. In fact, I have learned to be grateful for critique. I’d like to offer a few lessons I’ve learned about dealing with disagreement.
- Learn from those who disagree with you. When someone criticizes any part of an organization I’m involved with, I find it’s a good idea to listen well. They often have some good points and the organization benefits from responding to critique.
- Care for those who disagree with you. Abraham Lincoln asked: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Similarly Jesus is reported to have said: “Love your enemies – and do good to those who persecute you.” This can be highly challenging but it can also be fun to dream up something nice you can do for a person who might least expect it.
- Engage with the people who offer an alternate perspective. In order to make progress and build peace, there will always be a need to work with people who disagree with us. If someone criticizes one of my projects, I often respond by inviting them to be part of the team.
- Forgive and forget. Oscar Wilde reportedly gave this advice: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” I used to let criticism fester. But I’m learning to put it behind me. No-one benefits by obsessing about our disagreements after they have been addressed.
- Agree to disagree. Consensus is not always possible. But I am fully convinced that we can find ways to work respectfully alongside people with very different points of view.
The fact that politicians have been encouraged to view some stakeholders as enemies says a lot about how greatly we need democratic reform. I want elected representatives to engage respectfully with all stakeholders. We will build this great country by listening to one another and considering diverse perspectives on every issue that affects our nation. The new cabinet members would do well to re-label those “enemy” lists they have received. Perhaps one of the lists could be called: “People that might teach me something”.