Wanted: Lessons in Strategic Thinking

I worked for a weekly arts and entertainment magazine in Arizona some years back. We’d have these periodic brainstorming sessions to figure out what the cover story would be in each upcoming issue. Anytime an urgent current event came up, we might pop that on the cover, but usually we could plan things out for weeks or months. The advertising sales staff needed to know so they could target particular advertisers for ad buys.

So: One week, the local train museum. The following week, local musicians. The week after that, Navajo artists, or people who take their dogs to work, or … could be anything arts- or entertainment-related.

One of the bright ideas – I think it may have been mine, actually – was a story on bouncers in the local bars. The editorial staff got immediately excited. “We could call it Taking Out the Trash!” The art department was even more enthusiastic. “Yeah! We could have a cartoon of this big hulking bruiser at the door flipping a couple of guys into a dumpster!”

The one thing we didn’t count on was this: When I approached a couple of local bars for interviews, none of them wanted to be a part of the article. They wouldn’t even tell us why.

We figured it out pretty fast. What business wants to advertise that they have guys at the door who are willing and able, possibly even happy, to throw you out on your ass?

We got turned down by six or seven bars in a row, and were feeling pretty glum about the article, thinking about killing it and going on to some other idea, when I tried one last bar.

The owner there was enthusiastic. “Oh, yeah, I’ll be glad to work with you on that!” Yes! High fives all around at the office.

I went over in a day or so to do the interview. The owner sat down with me and did something that, to this day, I’ve rarely seen done better. He gently guided me away from my story idea – that bouncers are hulking brutes who delight in throwing you out on your ass – and onto this much better story idea, that these people, thought to be brutes, are instead friendly, suit-and-bowtie clad professionals there to maintain an atmosphere of fun and, only in the most extreme circumstances, provide guests with protection against unpleasant situations.  Which, as I learned, is almost never necessary. They weren’t even called bouncers, they were “guest services associates” or some such.

We did the cover story, and it was pretty well received, an eye-opener for all those who saw bouncers as threatening brutes.

The cool upshot of the whole episode was this little lesson for me that every bar owner we approached instantly saw only the negative possibility of bad publicity, but this one guy instantly saw the positive possibility. He said yes immediately, not even bothering to quiz me suspiciously on the focus on the article, as several of the others had. And then he guided me, informed me, taught me about the subject. He did it in a way that got me on his team.

He also garnered positive publicity for his bar. We did a cover story about his friendly, professional guest services associates, a story that featured these smiling, welcoming guys standing next to his entrance sign, a story in which none of the other bars were even mentioned.

If they gave black belts in public relations judo, this guy would have one. He was a strategic thinker, naturally and instantly seeing a way to benefit from a dicey situation. He also had one of the most successful bars in town, and I have to assume this mental agility and strategic thinking was part of what made him successful.

I’ve had successes and failures in using the technique in similar situations in my own life. Some of those times, it’s been ME who’s lost his temper and reacted badly. But the times that I’ve actually used it, and it’s worked, oh man, has that felt good. Even when I’ve failed, if I gave it an honest try, I’ve walked away feeling optimistic. If nothing else, I’d kept to my own values, but there was also that chance I’d planted a seed that might grow into something good later.

I bring this up to shine a bit of light on some of the recent unpleasant heat in the atheist community.

I’m not talking about atheist spats with Pat Robertson, or atheist reactions to malignant fools like Fred Phelps (Westboro “God Hates Gays” Baptist Church). I’m talking about literally-divisive spitting matches within our own community.

As we aim at these larger goals – the active social justice focus of Atheism-Plus, and some of the things I envision for the broader social space of Beta Culture – I see a need for a wider array of problem-handling techniques. Strategically speaking, I believe we need a bigger toolbox.

If someone is bound to pick a fight with you, if they keep hitting and hitting and hitting, the possible responses are certainly limited.

But if it’s US picking the fight, hitting and hitting and hitting, that’s a failure on our part.

Fellow atheists, humanists and Betas, there are other tools at hand. We do seriously need to practice using them.

I’d like to suggest to the various upcoming atheist events, at the same time we’re talking about this fascinating new development of Atheism-Plus (and all the stuff already scheduled, of course), consider enlisting expert speakers in negotiation, in conflict resolution, in broad-based strategic thinking, so we can learn and benefit from a cooler, more goal-oriented atmosphere within our community.

We have MUCH more dangerous enemies than each other. They’re sitting in the driver’s seat while the world around us lurches toward a cliff. With those people, the only compromise is that we cease to exist.

But with each other, there’s room. There’s need.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    Great post. A lot of the key is letting people define their own views and selves, then disputing what they say if necessary instead of trying to step in and define them in a way contrary to how they see themselves, which leads to a fight that doesn’t go anywhere because we think they are trying to weasel out of everything and they think we aren’t addressing any views they actually hold.

  • Jacques Cuze

    What is Beta culture?

    (also, your magazine story could turn into a wonderful, maybe slightly cheesy movie….)

  • douglaslm

    Telling someone how stupid their ideas are at the beginning of the conversation is rarely a successful communication strategy.

    • Hank Fox

      ?

      • douglaslm

        My apologies copied and pasted the wrong thing. That was a comment in a different conversation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.matzke nicholasmatzke

    This is a great post, but to have any kind of success with this, at least in the atheist blogosphere, people would have to abandon the use of the kneejerk “tone troll” response anytime someone complains about gratuitous abuse/incivility/insulting. No tone trolls = nasty, abusive atheist blogosphere.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

      Who gets to decide what level of “civility” is appropriate? What is gratuitous to you may be fine for me. Too often the tone trolls are merely clueless interlopers with thin skins.

  • MG Myers

    Hank-

    Thanks for your very thought-provoking posts! You have so many wonderful stories to illustrate your points.

    When you mentioned enlisting expert speakers in broad-based strategic thinking, I immediately thought of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy and Policy. Sean regularly attends atheist and skeptic events to share a vision and strategic plan for a secular America. Sean can be found on video here.

    • Hank Fox

      MGM:

      Thank you! I will definitely watch the video and look Sean up.

      I’m always flattered to think of people like you reading my stuff.


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