As part of providing mediation services to resolve FOIA disputes, we OGIS staffers regularly have conversations that can be characterized as “difficult.” We listen to FOIA requesters who are furious about delays or denials. We also hear from agency FOIA professionals who are defensive about agency practices or frustrated by overly persistent requesters.
Thanks to our experience having difficult conversations, we’ve developed an approach to communicating with angry people. We’re happy to share it.
First, it’s important to remember that when you are trying to communicate with someone who is angry, reasoned discussion will not work. Anger activates the fight-or-flight response, a complicated reaction that involves the brain and hormones. This heightened state clouds judgment and impedes rational thought.
Let’s consider an example, taken from an actual OGIS case. A professor who writes a popular newsletter requested records but did not request a particular fee category. The FOIA processer, thinking that he was doing the requester a favor, placed him in the “media” fee category; requesters in this fee category owe no search or review fees. After learning of his fee category, the requester called the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison absolutely livid that he was not placed in the academic fee category.
When an angry person is in a dispute, he or she will present his or her position — a statement of his or her wants or demands. Positions are predetermined outcomes that typically end a conversation; for instance: “I insist that you place me in the academic fee category.” When a person presents only positions, it inevitably leads to argument and away from reasoned discussion and negotiation.
While it is impossible to negotiate positions, it is possible to productively discuss interests. Interests are the (often unmet) needs that underlie positions. Interests reveal vulnerability, so they are kept mostly hidden. For instance, the interests that underlie the position in our example might be the requester’s desire to be placed in a preferred fee category and his need for his academic and professional achievements to be acknowledged.
So in order to have a productive conversation with a difficult person, it’s crucial to move him or her away from his or her demands and toward the vulnerabilities he or she most wants to keep hidden. Sounds impossible, right? Happily, it is not. Next week we’ll talk about strategies for moving from positions to interests.