Rules of Engagement: Are We Done Talking?

john kelly

Persistence and tenacity are considered virtues and mandatory for successful diplomacy. I have heard it preached over and over, “Never give up…never stop talking.” Conflicts will never be resolved peacefully without dogged commitment to conversation and keeping doors open to dialog, even when it appears futile or when past attempts have met with outright failure. Right?

Well, I suppose so.

It’s hard to argue with the optimist who says nothing will be gained by permanently closing discussion on an issue. After all, there is truth to the old maxim, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” But there are exceptions and I think we’ve seen a lot of them lately. Is there wisdom in avoiding incessant chitchat? Is there a rational reason to step away and close deliberations for good? I think the answer, at times, is “Yes,” if not, “Hell, yeah!”

The same rules of engagement apply towards personal and public matters. To say our national discourse has been contentious and often futile is a gross understatement. Most recently, I’ve witnessed horrendous venom spewed by critics of those making the most heartfelt efforts to inject some civility and basic compassion into the political arena. It’s rare to see someone like White House Chief of Staff John Kelly lay his heart on the podium in front of media sharks and a world full of enemies—foreign and domestic. It is rarer still to see the vitriol response by his countrymen who angrily dismissed and lashed out at him…not because of what he said, but because of the man sitting in the Oval Office he currently serves. I think I’m firmly on record as not being a particular fan of Mr. Trump, but there was simply no excuse for what I heard and read in the wake of Kelly’s sincere attempt to explain the backstory of one of the most emotionally arduous tasks of a President and Commander-in-Chief.

John Kelly is a professional and voluntarily accepted a high profile position in a contentious administration. Just as soldiers know what they’re signing up for when they head into harms way, Mr. Kelly had to know what his position would entail and expect some flack. He’s going to get nitpicked by the press…that’s a given. So he better have his facts straight and comments well prepared. But the barrage of personal attacks by the public in social media and biased antagonism shown by the press to deflect attention away from what he was trying to convey was beyond the pale. It was shameful and to those who think it was justified, I simply have nothing to say. Why are people like John Kelly dissuaded from making such public efforts? Well, there you go.

“For those who understand, no explanation is needed. To those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.” (Same or similar quotes attributed to Jerry Lewis, Ziad Abdelnour, or St. Thomas Aquinas…there’s a mixed bag for you.)

I find the older I get, and the more conflicts I see erupting about me, the more I run into those circumstances not conducive to debate and basic concerns that I find non-negotiable or open to compromise.

Unfortunately, there have been times in my life when I simply had to admit that further conversation with a person was not only a waste of time, but had become counterproductive. The pain involved in the decision to walk away escalates with the seriousness of the issues and the intimacy with the individual involved. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to tell a loved one, “We’re done here.”

Walking away from a marriage, a love affair, a sibling, a parent, a confidant, a longtime friend…that’s really tough stuff. It rips away at the vital fulfillment of critical social and emotional needs. But it is necessary not only when attempts at reconciliation prove fruitless, but especially when it is evident that further negotiation will exacerbate the disagreement, inflame hostilities, and widen the conflict.

Of course, it’s particularly crucial when the parties are reaching the point of unleashing violence. Even the optimist would back away from continued efforts that dig an even deeper hole for the relationship. There has to be a willingness of both sides to resolve problems. Even perfection by one side cannot overcome difficulties if the other side is committed to intransigence. Certainly, it takes two to make it and only one to break it.

For the sake of those who extrapolate any notion to the extremes, let’s acknowledge there are those people who can’t simply back away from conflict and confrontation. The average police officer comes to mind here. Despite all that we hear about de-escalation tactics and minimizing the use of force, there are times when it is painfully obvious that no option other than “putting lead on target” will do. That’s a sad reality we need to accept or be perpetually disappointed. These are incidents at the radical end of the continuum, but can’t be ignored in a general discussion about conflict resolution. Thankfully, such critical incidents remain in the hands of those sworn to secure public safety and are well outside the personal experiences of the average citizen, no matter how opinioned they may be on the subject. For most of us, we can return to conflicts more pedestrian in variety.

Needles to say, we still find advantages to peaceful parleys. If nothing else, it saves wear and tear on fists and jawbones, as well as intimate relations and business transactions. But, if neither the carrot nor the stick seem to make an impression, sometimes it’s wiser to push back from the table, bid the other a fond adieu, and take one’s leave.

As always, I turn to Scripture when contemplating something as serious as terminating a relationship or otherwise giving up on an important issue. In doing so, I immediately find that Jesus acknowledged there would be those times when the best efforts of his disciples to offer the purist wisdom would be foolishly rejected by those he was sent to save. His instructions to his followers were sadly simple:

“Any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11).

Even Jesus knew there were times when it was prudent to say, “We’re done talking here.”

Michael Kelly
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