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Composure Under Fire

Foreign Service officers are diplomats, and as representatives of the United States government, we will be expected to defend the policies of our government. This can happen in official contacts such as at meetings or press conferences, or in informal contexts such as cocktail parties or even while out shopping.

Forget for a moment the fact that we will have to defend policies that we may not necessarily agree with. That’s a whole other conversation. We have to remember that the job we signed up for is to represent the government. There is a channel for us to advocate for changes to government policy, but in public, our job is to represent the official policy of the United States government.

Sometimes, people in foreign countries take the opportunity to interact with a U.S. official to complain about our government’s policies. As you can imagine, often these questions carry behind them a great deal of emotion, often anger. One of the skills that a Foreign Service officer must have is the ability to respond to these angry questions diplomatically and accurately.

This is as hard as it seems. When someone asks you to your face: “why is America at war with Islam?” it’s hard not to give an emotional answer.

This is why we have training called “composure under fire.” One person is in the hot seat, playing the part of a Foreign Service officer, and the rest of us played the part of hostile foreign nationals. We got to ask a lot of tough questions, trying to get a rise out of the foreign service officer. The Foreign Service officer, of course, tried to respond to the questions call me, and to guide the conversation in a positive direction.

At any time in our working life, we have to expect that our words are being recorded, and in the age of social media and the 24 hour news cycle, we have to expect that any poor choice of words or emotional outburst will wind up on the news before we have the chance to return to the embassy. Recent news reports illustrate this fact.

Today we had round two of composure under fire. We had a different coach this time, and he was tougher than the first coach. It was not enjoyable, but it was very useful. We got feedback on the content of our responses, as well as body language, word choice, eye contact, and general demeanor.

I can’t say that I feel prepared to face a room full of hostile reporters, but I feel a little more prepared to respond to the tough questions. I guess this is something that only comes with a lot of practice.

I now have a lot more respect for people like press secretaries and corporate spokespeople, who have to face this kind of tough questioning all the time.

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