[WebDebate #6 summary] Key skills for the next generation of diplomats


Mina Mudrić

Our October WebDebate focused on the key skills that the next generation of diplomats needs in order to succeed in a changing world. While there seems to be a core and timeless skill-set for diplomats, an increasingly connected world places new demands on the diplomatic profession.

Some trends should be welcomed as useful innovations and a meaningful addition to the diplomatic skill-set, while others might be a distraction from core functions. Prof. Paul Sharp, Professor and Head of Political Science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and Mr Shaun Riordan, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, had a critical look at some recent trends and highlighted the key skills for the next generation of diplomats.


Traditional vs modern skills

The debate began with a poll for participants. We asked: If you have limited time for training young diplomats what would you focus on? The majority of the participants opted for traditional skills (negotiations, protocol, law), while fewer chose new skills (use of social media, data mining, online representation). Mr Riordan suggested that networking should be added to the set of traditional skills. This skill also extends to the modern age, only that networking becomes easier with changes in technology. Diplomats will have to increasingly deal with the non-state actors to take the global issues agenda forward. This kind of diplomacy requires very different skills in terms of personal interrelationships. The networking speaks to the essence of diplomacy as intermediation. The question is how, and this is where the new media are crucial tools. However, they do not replace traditional one-on-one communication; they just create more options.

Prof. Sharp pointed out a few distinctions. The first is between the generic skills associated with working in large organisations and the skills that are particular to diplomacy. The second distinction is between the impact of wider accessibility of information on diplomatic practice, and how this is changing our attitude about privacy and discretion. The final distinction is between what is good for political leaders, administrators and managers on the one hand, and what is good for diplomacy and diplomats on the other hand, which are not always the same.


The role of discretion in contemporary diplomacy

The participants engaged in the lively discussion, and many interesting questions were raised. One of the questions asked: how do we distinguish between diplomacy influenced by the social media, and the ‘high-level’ diplomacy which still requires some level of discretion?

Mr Riordan pointed out that the certain confidential issues will remain, but not to same extent. With time, confidentiality will decrease.  In geo-political negotiations between government representatives, confidentiality will remain important. In complex, multi-level negotiations involving many actors, confidentiality is generally much less relevant. Prof Sharp said that the question of confidentiality is evolving; we need to adjust to the fact that we hear each other’s thoughts more.

The participants noted that academies are turning more towards the traditional curriculum. Mr Riordan said that the new approaches to diplomacy may be focusing more on social media while neglecting other innovative aspects, such as crowdsourced analysis, data mining, and online platforms that can be used for scenario-building simulation exercises.

Participating in the WebDebate, Dr Yolanda Spies argued that training needs to change, and include skills such as etiquette and protocol, as the circle of recruited diplomats is widening in socio-economic terms. Prof. Alan Henrikson commented on the distinction between ‘content’ and ‘skills’, saying that new agenda issues are very technical, and the relevant knowledge does not come ‘natively’. Therefore, specialised education as well as training is needed for today’s diplomats.


The art of diplomatic reporting

Was diplomatic reporting changing? Mr Riordan said that the 24/7 news coverage changed diplomatic reporting significantly 30 years ago. Good diplomatic reporting should try to get under the skin of an issue, giving the officials the depth of understanding. Its advantage over journalistic reporting is that it does not need to be driven by the headlines. Reports can provide timely, thoughtful, and analytical reporting. Prof. Sharp suggested that we might be moving back towards the more politically-focused reporting, which is based on certainty and how it can be managed by diplomats, rather than on problem-solving. Diplomats need ‘slow reactions’ to the fast changing world. They have to step back to see the bigger picture, put information in context, and provide sound advice on what is happening.

Dr Spies argued that diplomatic reporting is changing due to self-censorship of diplomats, as they know there is generally no guarantee of secrecy, even if the report is classified.

Amb. Stefano Baldi said that diplomatic reporting should be analytical, but at the same time, concise. Amb. Kishan Rana added that diplomatic reporting has not changed as much as some believe. Speaking truth to power, that is, to authorities back home, remains as vital – and at times risky – as ever. Mr Riordan shared his experience of writing reports for former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – they needed to be very short and concise, and at the same time very analytical. The issue of speaking truth to power is not so much the question of training, but structured diplomatic services and culture within diplomatic service. According to Prof. Sharp, speaking truth to power has become more difficult, and we are much more constrained by structural objectives, goals that are becoming the basic reference points. Also, he said that in diplomatic reporting it is important to keep up with the cycle of information and the way the events unfold. Therefore, there is a real skill in being able to speak briefly and analytically.

The question of whether there was need for emotional intelligence and empathy training in diplomatic institutions was posed to the panelists. Profs Sharp said that the focus is shifting from issues and problems to places and people – a shift that is long overdue. Both Prof. Sharp and Mr Riordan agreed with Prof. Henrikson that people from other backgrounds could also benefit from diplomatic training. This included NGOs, companies, and corporations which are involved in modern diplomacy. Mr Riordan said that empathy is essential to the diplomat’s work. One cannot have good policy analysis without empathy. It is necessary to be able to see the situation from the eyes of others.

The WebDebate provided a good overview of the new diplomatic skills that diplomats, from traditional skills (empathy) to new skills, related mainly to technology. The importance of data mining and other tools in digital diplomacy were also mentioned. Interesting remarks were made on the topic of diplomatic reporting, which should be fast, concise, and analytical. As the modern era continues to shape diplomatic practice, we can expect more discussions on the skills required by the next generation of diplomats.


The WebDebates on the future of diplomacy are organised by DiploFoundation within the framework of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT), which gathers close to 100 diplomatic training institutions worldwide. Join us every first Tuesday of the month.



[WebDebate #5 summary] The art and science of negotiation training


Mina Mudrić

Can negotiation skills be taught? Some argue that they cannot; they are only acquired through practice. But while it is true that any skill is honed through deliberative practice, Prof. Raymond Saner, teacher of international and multi-stakeholder negotiations at the University of Basel, and Prof. Paul Meerts, visiting professor in international negotiation analysis at the College of Europe in Bruges, believe that teaching negotiation is not only possible but absolutely crucial.

Prof. Saner and Prof. Meerts were the special guests of our September WebDebate, moderated by Diplo director Dr Jovan Kurbalija, which focused on why and how to teach negotiation. We asked, why is training in diplomatic negotiation needed? Prof. Meerts said that even though there are different kinds of negotiation cultures, such as the market negotiation culture – where people are used to negotiating on a daily basis – and the diplomatic negotiation culture in northern European countries, it is necessary to train in negotiation because negotiation is a good alternative to warfare.

According to Prof. Saner, the need for negotiation is part of the condition humaine. Wherever people live, conflicts are inevitable. They can be solved constructively, but sometimes people cannot find common ground and try to resolve conflicts through armed conflict. At times it is difficult to convince the parties involved to consider alternatives to war, they may not see the value in resolving conflict through peaceful means. It is part of human anthropology to engage with others, to develop empathy and to create social dynamics. Negotiation is probably one of the first skills that we learn as children. 

The online audience was engaged in a lively discussion where some of the participants argued that negotiation cannot be taught, but that successful negotiations also depended on cultural backgrounds, instinct and social skills.

Negotiations: the difference between teaching and training

Prof. Saner explained the difference between teaching and training negotiation. Teaching negotiation focuses on the theoretical, conceptual and research parts. Many schools of thought have contributed to our understanding of what negotiation is all about (cognitive differences, communication, bounded rationality, those that look at the topic from the behavioural or cultural perspectives, game theory, process theory). Training has a personal learning component. The audience is specific, we begin with generic concepts and then address particular needs. During a short period of training, a person learns how to apply this knowledge to their personal repertoire of skills.

Some of the online participants argued that the ability to negotiate may be strengthened or weakened by the social system, and offered a metaphor – how teaching or training should help individuals use their negotiation muscle’. Prof. Meerts suggested that children are the most effective negotiators as they use their parents’ love as the resource of power – they borrow power from the more powerful. One of the problems in teaching negotiation is dealing with emotions, especially in political negotiations. If we see negotiation as a tool for training people within a political context, problems may occur when dealing with the egos of politicians – egotiation, when their ego is more important than the interest of their country.

Dr Kurbalija asked if a specific approach is needed for training and teaching different communities in negotiation: business, diplomatic, and NGOs. Prof. Saner said that where possible, a special program should be designed for each specific type of training seminar, whether it is bilateral, trilateral or multilateral, multi-institutional, state to state, or state to non-state actors negotiation. It is good to have homogeneous groups and to know their background, allowing teachers to prepare to address the specifics in advance.

Striking the right balance

An interesting question was posed: How to find a balance between the exciting part – which is negotiation training, and the less exciting part – the procedural aspects. In Prof Meerts’ opinion, procedures tend to suffocate the negotiation process, as it is easy to learn the procedure, but not the process itself. It is therefore best to emerge people into the process and allow them to get to the heart of negotiating and reaching a compromise, and then to add procedure where it is needed.

Prof. Saner mentioned that the most challenging part of negotiation is reaching a common ground. The more successful negotiators have the ability to identify the potential common ground. The common ground is the so called ‘we’, which includes combining the interests of the other party with our own, while opposing interests are ‘I’ against ‘them’. The more successful negotiators know ahead of time that the agreement will be based on the shared common ground. That shared common ground has to be good enough for both sides, explored and developed, which can be quite a challenge.

Prof. Meerts explained the differences and commonalities in training for different organisations, such as NATO, the ASEAN and the UN. He mentioned that even though each organisation has its own context, 90% of training is in the negotiation process, and the rest is tailored to the particular context of the organisation. He also pointed out that reaching common ground is important, and that it can only be achieved if there is a convergence of interests for both parties. A good negotiator is capable of creating a common ground. It is not all about compromise, the common ground can also be created by trade-offs. One of the most difficult things in negotiation is recognising when a situation calls for negotiation, and the negotiation has achieved the best possible results.

Reaching a common ground

How can negotiators be trained to reach a common ground? Prof. Saner paraphrased Sun Tzu: ‘in order to succeed one should know oneself, and one should know the other party. If one does not know either of the two, there is no hope of succeeding in the negotiation’. There is an established field of knowledge based on research that should be the basic minimum one should apply before going to negotiations.

Participants made a quick reflection on the importance of wording and how rich social dynamics converge to a page of text – they stressed the importance of language and the linguistic part of the process. Constructive ambiguity is the ability to construct a text in such a way that everybody will agree to it, but perhaps it will not go beyond that. Wording can also be used to avoid certain agreements.

At the end of the debate, Dr Kurbalija said that the key dilemma is how to identify when it is alright to react by intuition, and when to use rational insights. Prof. Saner said that in negotiation it is particularly important to listen to what the other party has not said, to try and reveal the hidden part of the iceberg.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Meerts said that negotiation is art and science at the same time. Some people are better at negotiation than others, but one can still accomplish a lot with training. Prof Saner said that procedure in negotiation is the bread and butter as it structures the process, but we have to go beyond that, as procedure alone does not guarantee a successful negotiation.

References to authors and works mentioned during the discussion

During the presentation, panelists made a lot of references to books related to the field of negotiation. Prof. Meerts offered two resources on negotiation (free download):

Prof. Saner prepared a list of literature and resources on negotiations.

Dr Kurbalija mentioned the following book during the debate:

  •  Kahnemann, D, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

Join us again next month!

Watch the recording of the September WebDebate. The next WebDebate will be held on Tuesday, 4th October. Registrations are now open.

[WebDebate #4 summary] Can diplomacy be learned on-the-job only?


Mina Mudrić

Our July WebDebate focused on the question whether diplomacy could be learned through on the job training alone, and the dynamics between traditional training for diplomats and workplace learning. Our speakers, Dr Cecilia Mornata, from the University of Geneva, and Mr Dejan Dincic, DiploFoundation’s former technical director, explored possibilities and best practices in on-the-job training and highlighted the best avenues for preparing diplomats for the globalised, connected, and accelerated world they are facing.

Dr Mornata started the discussion by explaining the benefits of learning in the workplace, highlighting that it is not sufficient. Workplaces are not always organised to improve learning, and it doesn’t always fulfill the essential condition to learning – being free to be wrong. Therefore, the workplace and formal training should be complementary when learning a profession. The key question is how to optimise work environments to make them safe, effective, and efficient learning environments, and how to combine those environments with more formal training.


[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_QuLS-wwI8[/embedyt]

The issue of workplace learning for diplomacy is how to train people in three different stages of their career: initially, when they enter the diplomatic profession, then to improve the capacity of those who are already in service; and finally, to train experienced diplomats to become trainers and teachers. According to Dr. Mornata, learning is a construction of a new procedural and declarative knowledge, and a routinisation and repetition of such knowledge. When we think of training of diplomacy on-the-job, we have to think about how to facilitate and support the construction of the routinisation of newly acquired knowledge. There are several major learning modalities in the workplace: imitation, observation, experience, verbal transmission, and reflective thinking, and we should support and facilitate these kinds of modalities.

There are three basic ingredients to workplace learning: affordances (all the resources that the workplace can offer to a person – environment, work activities, guidance), individual engagement, and access to learning resources. We should ask to what extent the learner’s work environment provides learning opportunities (affordances); to what extent the learner is engaged in training in the workplace; and to what extent the learner has access to learning opportunities. Dr. Mornata highlighted one more important condition – psychological safety. Errors, failures, questions and doubts can be a major source of learning in the workplace, only if we can speak about them, share and reflect about them, and this is quite problematic in the workplace because there are real costs of errors and consequences. This psychological safety to learn is difficult to ensure in the workplace.

Mr Dincic started by mentioning that over the time, the learning ‘fashion’ has changed several times, from connected learning, to network learning and flexible learning, etc. The driving forces behind these changes in education were often military and political. Many forms of training that we use today have been inherited from the industrial age, although the circumstances have now changed. Therefore, every change in the dominant learning approach suggests there is a background to this need for change. According the Mr. Dincic, the starting point in exploring any particular approach to learning, would be to look at the learning objectives, audience, broader context, learning materials, and to analyse them before making a decision which approach to take. There are many tools that can help in doing this analysis (Bloom’s taxonomy of learning). There are different types of knowledge, and for each type of knowledge that we aim to acquire there will be different activities and different pedagogies applied.

According to his experience in managing training programmes for diplomats for DiploFoundation, the most frequently used format for working adults is blended learning (combination of face-to-face and online learning). The type of training that Diplo provides is collaborative – people study in groups of 12-25 people in an online classroom – the courses are facilitated (tutor, lecturer), and they are highly interactive, as they require real participation and engagement. Most of the participants are already working diplomats. According to his experience, the blend of face-to face and online learning works well, because online courses last longer, and they can be conducted while working, as you are at your desk, dealing with everyday problems, and you can bring these problems to the classroom, discuss them with your peers and lecturers, and contextualise them. The effect of having a long engagement compared to a short-term face-to-face workshop on site gives a significant difference. He also mentioned the concept of situated, socially constructed learning [1]. This approach moved from purely theoretical training to learning from social context.

During the debate, the audience posed many questions, and some of the reflections were sent beforehand. Amb. Kishan S. Rana brought up a few aspects on on-the-job learning in the diplomatic context. According to him, the on-job experience is not enough by way of diplomatic education, which now shifts to workplace learning in an increasing number of countries, curtailing the length of formal entry training. He also mentioned that the UK’s Diplomatic Academy works on the distance method, but with a twist. Officials are required to run their own training cycle, at a pace they prefer, while working fairly autonomously for group work. Its courses are divided into ‘foundation, practitioner and expert’. Amb. Christopher Lamb pointed out that there is one important distinction to be drawn between those who are recruited young, and those recruited mid-career in the relevance and effectiveness of the training format.

One of the questions posed was whether the recruitment of diplomatic candidates could be influenced by the kind of the training they would receive, and Dr. Mornata explained that there shouldn’t be just one solution for different kind of experienced people. One cannot propose the same training to very experienced people, and to those that are less experienced or do not have the same degree.

The audience engaged in the lively discussion and a lot of interesting questions were raised – whether participants should be rewarded (in terms of career) in order to promote individual engagement, the question of the continuous education on-the-job, for the more experienced diplomats, and how could we can systematise learning on-the-job . The answers were provided also by some of the experienced people in the audience.

Dr Mornata and Mr Dincic continued to discuss the benefits and challenges of using experienced diplomats in training junior diplomats. Senior diplomats could be trained to become mentors and trainers, although Dr Mornata noted that experience does not necessarily lead to good teaching skills.

Mr Dincic also answered the question whether new technologies could simulate the workplace environment and generate on-the-job experience. He explained that in the modern world, lots of organisations and diplomatic services are distributed abroad, and the communication with the ‘base’ is through the electronic means. So if you organise training that is situated in the working practice, but mediated by learning – then it’s not a simulation, it’s a real thing.

The resonating message of this debate was that on-the-job training is important, but it needs to be combined with other types of learning formats, in a matter that takes into account the context of the job and the participants. In a case-by-case way, we need to pick a mix of different formats that could form the perfect formula for learning, depending on the different needs of the participant and the professional environment.

[1] During his presentation Mr Dincic made a reference to a book: Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives), by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Cambridge University Press 1991

[WebDebate #2 summary] Diplomatic training: combining tradition and innovation


Mina Mudrić

Diplomatic training has been transformed by technology: diplomats now have access to vast amounts of information and resources, and diplomatic training can be conducted online. Other aspects, such as new approaches in knowledge management and the range of new skills diplomats need to learn, have also changed how diplomatic training is conducted.

These were the issues discussed during the second WebDebate, held on 3 May, by two practicing diplomats with rich experience in diplomatic training: Mr Stefano Baldi, Minister Plenipotentiary and Training Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy, and Ambassador Milan Jazbec, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia.

Throughout the WebDebate (watch the recording), the online audience interacted with the speakers through many comments and questions. The lively discussion and interaction was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne from DiploFoundation. 

Mr Baldi initiated discussion around two type of skill-sets that diplomats need: hard skills (political, legal, economic knowledge), provided by the universities, and soft skills (leadership, time management, negotiating, organising ideas, communication, and problem solving). He pointed out that universities should do more in improving soft skills of young diplomats, as it would be useful if they already possess such skills when they come to the job. The main challenge for many universities is to complement their core function of imparting substantive knowledge with teaching soft skills.

Amb. Jazbec stressed the interplay between tradition and evolution in diplomacy. Diplomacy could be understood as a dynamic social process that depends primarily on historical and social contexts. When it comes to resources for learning diplomacy, Amb. Jazbec categorised books on diplomacy as:

  • handbooks, manuals, instructions (a must)
  • diplomatic theory books
  • diplomatic memoirs (which provide a variety of contexts in which diplomacy often materialises)
  • diplomatic anecdotes (which provide plenty of information in a short and concise form)
  • novels on diplomacy

Amb Jazbec stressed that it was important for diplomats to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. He also explained that while there is a variety of handbooks that theorise on diplomacy, it is important to put diplomacy in a broader social and historical context. In addition to their day-to-day work, diplomats are also interact and engage with the international community.

Mr Baldi added that today, we do not learn only from books; rather, the learning process combines tradition and innovation, which are also the two elements that are inherent in the diplomat’s work. Books can be seen as the traditional way of acquiring knowledge. Memoirs are a good example of sharing traditions and experiences with younger diplomats, as sharing is as important as studying. As for the innovation, technology has made an impact on the learning process. In addition to books, the younger generation uses visual tools for learning (such as TedX, documentaries, radio programmes, and tutorials). These tools should not replace books; rather, these can be seen as additional resources and tools that can help us learn.

Ambassador Kishan S. Rana joined the discussion to bring up few aspects. He stressed the importance of distance learning, as a particularly effective method for the profession whose members are typically distributed abroad. Since it is costly to bring people to the home country for face-to-face training, distance learning has a special role. He also pointed out the new approach in learning that diplomatic academies are pioneering, which relies on diplomats managing their own learning process. In such a process, they need to engage in a group and in the exchange of personal experiences.

Amb. Jazbec noted that while reading is important, it was also useful to discuss, simulate, and implement the knowledge gained. Diplomats need to have a cutting edge. They need to advance and progress, which needs to be firmly rooted in tradition. They also need innovation to help them adapt to current situations. This can be view as a synergy between innovation and tradition.

Mr Baldi concluded that one cannot learn diplomacy from books; diplomats require experience. In the long run, experience is as important as knowledge itself. Amb. Jazbec expressed his preference for sticking to tradition, but being open to innovation.

Registrations for the next WebDebate are now open. Join us on 7 June, at 11 UTC; if you form part of a dynamic circle of diplomacy practitioners in your community, we encourage you to establish a diplomatic hub to follow the WebDebates and to facilitate discussions.

The WebDebates on the future of diplomacy are livestreamed on the first Tuesday of every month. They are organised by DiploFoundation within the framework of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT). Learn more about our series of WebDebates.