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With All Due Respect – The Ampersand November 2021

November 1, 2021

Dear Friends & Colleagues,

 

I was recently approached by two different and completely unrelated organizations about assisting them with a presentation on having Hard Conversations. The first, a virtual talk to a large group of business students and, the second, as part of the development of a web-based training module for lawyers who aspire to be articling Principals. In both cases I was sought out for being a “subject matter expert on dealing with difficult conversations.”  I must just have that face.

 

Truth is, we have difficult conversations all the time around here. Mostly, advising clients and candidates of things they may not wish to hear, but need to hear to achieve their desired outcomes. No, you can’t get this search done in two weeks. Yes, there actually were candidates the client liked more than you.

 

And so, on September 28th I presented to the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and on November 10th I will be recording my Zoom webinar-on-demand module for the Legal Education Society of Alberta.

 

You want the answers? Be direct, be specific, prepare for the conversation, watch your language, offer a solution, manage your emotions, be empathetic, and allow the other person to ask questions. It’s not that hard.

 

Here’s the rub: hard conversations are easier taught than had. I should know. I spent the better part of October having them.

 

Have you ever noticed how often you start a difficult conversation with the phrase, “With all due respect”? The words are typically interpreted as a polite disarming formula preceding, and intended to mitigate the effect of, a forthcoming expression of disagreement or criticism. To soften the blow. I’m no etymologist but if you break it down, what we’re really saying is ‘I’m about to say something to you in a way that gives you the respect you are owed.’  Which could be a lot. Or a little.

 

In that spirit, with all due respect, getting involved and putting yourself out there – can be grossly over-rated. Out there in your community, out there in civic life, out there on social media. Character limits, character flaws, short attention spans and long-hardened views don’t leave a lot of room for nuance. Nor, with all due respect, respect.

 

As Jen Gerson – an Alberta writer I aspire to be half as good as – wrote in her brilliant piece, The Post-Pandemic Mental-Health Crisis Is Here. It’s Not What We Thought.: “When you gain a public profile, you cease to be perceived as human, and instead become an avatar of an ideology or social pathology — in short, a scapegoat for all that is going right or wrong, and therefore an easy target for individuals who are struggling.” 

 

You don’t say?

 

I’m currently in year eight of a seven-year term on the Board of the YMCA. Not sure how that happened.  The Y, correctly, not to mention mandatorily, implemented the government’s proof of vaccination requirement for entry to any of its facilities. Technically, you didn’t even need to have been vaccinated, a recent negative test result would have sufficed.

 

Soon after implementing the policy at the Y, one of the members refused to produce either document and declared, instead, that she was denied entry by “guards”. Soon after that I started getting harassed and eventually threatened by this member. Ah, the joys of being a volunteer Board member and one whose name starts with ‘A’ (damn you, Zain Velji, our incoming Board Chair).

 

At first, I ignored the multiple phone calls and e-mails. Ignore, however, is not one of the hallmarks of having Hard Conversations. Eventually I felt compelled to respond. Particularly after receiving this missive:


I want an apology from you and those two YMCA employees appointed as guards. There is no place for your fascist policies in Canadian Society. You are discriminating against half of the population because they do not want to be injected with an experimental drug which has not be tested properly. A vaccine takes 10 to 12 years to be developed.  No intelligent person can possibly accept that this “vaccine” is safe for the population.  Your hysteria that only vaccinated members can use your facility is an agenda to control society through the use of fear, propaganda and segregation programs. This is called fascism.

 

The response she was actually due? “Ya, you’re onto us. Busted!” In fact, my response was vastly more respectful and empathetic than she deserved but remember, I’m the Hard Conversations guy and, as such, chose to err on the side of overly due respect rather than underly so.

 

Which brings us back to Jen Gerson’s piece:

 

“How did we go from banging pots for health-care workers to blocking the exits at hospitals over the course of 18 months? I don’t think it’s a leap to note that there is a rise in reactionary politics that is being fed by a parallel informational universe that equates pandemic measures to imminent totalitarianism; one that thinks the virus is fake, and the vaccine is a delivery vehicle for nanochips that will sterilize and magnetize the population. Five years ago, if someone you loved told you that they were off to blockade a hospital to stave off imminent civil war because this life-saving vaccine was going to make spoons stick to their arms, we’d know what to call that. It’s a paranoid delusion.” 

 

In a similar vein, for I am a glutton for punishment, I volunteer on my 14-year old’s ski racing team as a member of the club’s COVID Committee. Our recent announcement of mandatory vaccinations for those who wish to participate in our club raised the ire of a vocal few. In many – though not all – instances, the pleas for exemptions from our policy were peppered with strange assertions fuelled by self-directed research and coupled with accusations and threats (COVID has not only produced a wave of new medical experts doing their own research, but an equal number of constitutional scholars versed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). I’ll spare you the details and offer this simple observation: the Committee was far more receptive to approaches rooted in respect and thoughtfulness than anger and indictments. Although a positive tone alone was hardly enough to counter flawed logic, it kept the temperature down and the respect due-y.

 

Turns out I volunteer to write this, too. And while I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I write – what would be the fun of that? – I do hope for a basic level of due respect. Last month’s post, A Texas Scramble, was almost universally loved by those who chose to reach out.

 

Almost.

 

One response:

 

Never send me an email again.

 

Another, slightly more mature:

 

Thanks for the unsolicited, hindsight is 20/20, political rant. Unsubscribe me please – I thought this was a professional news release about workplace human resources.

 

At least he said please.

 

The take-away from these volunteer experiences related to COVID is this: Those who disagree with the prevailing policies or wisdom of the day almost always do so rudely. And that really isn’t helpful. These are hard conversations and hard conversations are hard. A reasoned and rational request should receive a reasoned and rational response. A punch to the nose? Not so much.

 

Which leads us to the most recent, and final, example of my Difficult October: The civic election in Calgary.

 

I donated time and treasure to the campaign of Jyoti Gondek, who ultimately prevailed as mayor. My reasons for supporting her weren’t rooted solely in policy but more simply because I’ve worked with her, I like her, I think it’s time for the City’s first female mayor and, as a guy who is actually paid to assess and measure senior talent, I found her credentials to be, hands down, the most fitting for the role. And not just in relative terms when compared to the other candidates but in absolute terms. If this background isn’t worthy of the mayor’s chair, I’m not sure whose is.

 

Before she was even sworn in, Mayor-elect Gondek had the audacity to declare we are in a climate crisis and we need, as a city, to move past oil and gas. Okay, she didn’t exactly say that, and as Kevin Krausert in this op-ed to The Globe and Mail correctly noted, she was misquoted, but let’s not let a good headline get in the way of the facts.

 

So swiftly did my inbox fill up with, er, concerned notes from friends and strangers alike that I was eventually reduced to a templated copy/paste auto-response. But not before really trying to be duly respectful in responding to each and every helpful observation. It was as though my single vote in support of a candidate was now being called out and called upon to defend the very existence and veracity of climate change.

 

A few actual excerpts:

 

Wow ….Climate Priority …Emergency!!!

 

Adam, your friend needs a bit of a reality check!!!

 

I am just so happy that we are going to declare a climate emergency for Calgary and that we have to “just get past this oil and gas industry.” Give me f*%@ing strength!!

 

I’m pretty sure the Mayor of Halifax never said, “We’ve got to get this city past lobster”.  

 

Have you spoken to the new Mayor about her First Priority being “climate change and getting our city past oil and gas”?!!

 

No, no I haven’t. Though I’m pretty sure lobsters aren’t warming the planet.

 

And on it went. Email after email, text after tweet. Two, sometimes even three exclamation points to really drive the point home. It’s like being a Flames season ticket holder and having people email you after every loss to vent their frustration. Have you spoken to the ownership group about Sean Monahan’s +/- rating?!!!

 

And that doesn’t even begin to capture the considered and thoughtful wisdom expressed on social media. Like this insightful commentary from a former executive in town who, ironically, helped author a major Calgary-based company’s move to Denver, (which is super helpful to our local downtown office situation):

 

 

Back to Gerson:

 

“Have you not noticed that some of the most brilliant people, after spending months devoid of much human contact, are now acting like raving loons on outlets like Twitter? Increased dependency on a gamified and polarizing social media for socialization during periods of extended isolation seems to have broken the ability to think clearly or behave civilly.”

 

There is no more difficult conversation than that which an entire city is having with itself about an existential shift away from the very thing that has benefited so many for so long toward something that will benefit many more for much longer. These are difficult and nuanced conversations not built for social media where opinions are lobbed out there like a virtual Molotov cocktail. As Mr. Krausert op-ed eloquently pointed out:

 

“Despite the cheers and jeers from the side stage, Canada’s audience is far more sophisticated. It knows that solutions to complex problems cannot be found in soundbites or headlines – but only with real action and real investment. It’s far past time Canada – and Calgary – “move past” the petty politics of energy extremes and work together to solve the most urgent issue of our generation: providing abundant, economic and zero-emissions energy to the world.”

 

And so I soldiered on. Trying to explain and reason and engage in a thoughtful and respectful manner. You know, with all due respect. Cheap shots don’t warrant a thoughtful reply. But I do have respect for those who get involved and come at the issues from a place of constructive honesty and I will always reciprocate in kind. Like, for example, a form letter I received from a well-known city builder and philanthropist on the eve of the civic election in support of eventual runner up, Jeromy Farkas.

 

I duly respectfully took issue with some of the inferences directed at Ms. Gondek in the letter, which no doubt enjoyed wide distribution (after all, even I made the list). When I signed off with, “Calgary is changing and we need to change with it” I was greeted with a 1,562-word response from another co-signatory former oil and gas executive, copying many more and blind-copying lord only knows how many others, accusing me of, among other transgressions, Ageism.

 

Though the specific the accusation was odd, it was a thoughtful and thorough response sent by a thoughtful man for whom I have a high regard. And so, respectfully, I tried to reason:

 

On the matter of my “Calgary is changing” comment, in no way was that meant to be “ageist”. As you correctly noted, I regard [the letter’s author] [and others], as civic legends whose legacy as true city builders is not in dispute. Mine was not a shot at old white guys…I very much hope to be one myself someday.  

 

Calgary is changing simply means the demographics are changing and much goes on in our city that most first world inner city folk like you and I don’t see. There seems to be among a certain constituency a feeling of disenfranchisement, of losing ‘access’…if I had a nickel for every nostalgic Ralph or Bronco story I’ve heard since getting involved on this campaign.

 

My sense is people like Mr. Farkas for the reasons you note and for what they perceive to be a return to the days of ‘access’ where certain people could go for a beer with the mayor and get their matter heard.  Respectfully, I’m not sure that’s the best governance structure, either.

 

To that, I never received a response. Respectful or otherwise.

 

But the onslaught continued unabated on multiple fronts. Thing is, I have a day job. So, as the assault persisted my responses (and patience) grew shorter, reflecting the respect they were due.

 

Thanks. I’ll be sure to forward along. Not sure I can solve climate change but am aware that there are many people — even in Calgary — who are quite concerned about it. I dare say if you ask your kids or grand-kids they’d admit as much.  That said, not sure I would have made it my Day 1 Priority if I were mayor but I ain’t mayor. Just a hard-working taxpayer running a small business who had the audacity to get involved and is trying to make Calgary better every single day. Respectfully…

 

And so, eventually, fatigued and annoyed, I developed my templated copy/paste response:

 

I helped Jyoti with her campaign because I felt, and feel, she’s the most qualified for the job. I can’t be held to account for, or defend, her every policy decision. I’m truly flattered by the number of people who think I can. Respectfully…

 

Bruised, I still believe mine to be a more constructive approach than sitting at your keyboard lobbing inflammatory and ill-informed missives onto social media or by channelling your anger through your engaged, community-minded citizens like so many pincushions of your discontent. I can only assume that friends and supporters of E&Y Calgary’s ESG Markets Leader received similar notes of dismay.

 

And that the group, Oil Sands Pathways — featuring Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd. and MEG Energy Corp. — which laid out oilsands emissions reduction targets last week which would amount to 97 per cent of the sector’s total emissions in 2020, are receiving similar helpful tips and suggestions from neighbours and Twitter pundits.

 

 

Or could it be that there is something else at play here? That certain members of the aggrieved are more upset by the messenger than the message? I’ll leave that for another day as I simply don’t have time to add race relations and gender inequality to the list of issues I’m being called upon to explain and defend.

 

I, for one, am a big fan of the messenger and for those who truly and duly respectfully want to understand why she’s declaring a climate emergency, I encourage you to read and watch this and this. If you’d prefer not to let the facts get in the way of a good headline, here’s your headline: It’s good for the planet and good for business.

 

And there you have it. You must be direct, be specific, prepare for the conversation, watch your language, offer a solution, manage your emotions, be empathetic, and allow the other person to ask questions. But I’ve learned there’s more to it. It’s as much about substance as it is form. It’s in the approach. A thoughtful, respectful communique to fellow members of your community who are volunteering their time and expertise should be reciprocated in kind. A reasoned and rational request should receive a reasoned and rational response.

 

And this is true whether trying to access a Y, race on a ski team or exercise your right to vote.

 

With All Due Respect,

Adam