Thick skins are overrated. Being able to be moved, even saddened, by other people’s experiences, is a great asset in a policy-maker. It will help you to make more realistic, more human decisions.
You don’t need to be stony-hearted or thick-skinned. But you do need to be able to cope. So it helps to have some tactics to keep yourself from being crushed by the seriousness of some of the decisions you’ll have to make, or from being needlessly hurt by some of the hate that’s out there.
This kind of difficult decision-making has played out at top speed during the pandemic – we’ve had to impose major limits on Islanders’ freedom, in order to keep everyone as safe and well as possible.
In normal times, government decision-making isn’t so dramatic or fast-paced, but it still deals with matters of life and death, with questions of whose freedom should be restricted and why, and with issues of poverty, inequality and deprivation. When you are involved in making these decisions, you’ll see that there is often no single good decision. Almost every decision has trade-offs, and you are trying to navigate towards the best possible outcome at the least painful cost.
It helps to talk about it. At least on a Committee, or in the States, you know you are not the only person grappling with the ethics of a problem. All your colleagues are in the same boat. That doesn’t make it easy, but it can make it more bearable.
But the other big challenge that comes with politics can be harder, and more lonely.
It’s this: Some people hate you now!
People you’ve never met, people who don’t know you at all, are all too willing to think the worst of you. They’ll post rubbish about you on social media. They’ll question your motives and your integrity. Once you are a public figure, people have a free hand to criticise and insult you, and many will do so, generally in pretty reductive and ignorant ways.
It took me a while to realise this, but – you simply don’t have to listen to it.
It is important to communicate with constituents, but you can communicate in ways that are constructive, for you and for them. People go on social media forums, or the comment pages of the local media, to vent and let off steam. Those are generally not places where you are going to be able to change anyone’s mind.
But if you prioritise one-to-one communication – whether that’s emails, phonecalls, or face-to-face – you can usually have much more productive and mutually respectful conversations. Sometimes even with the same people who are slagging you off in public online!
If someone has taken the time to call or email you, it’s a good sign (not a perfect one, but there never is) that they want to have a dialogue with you; that they’re not just playing “devil’s advocate” online for the sake of it. It is helpful to hear and speak with people who disagree with you, but you can choose to seek out the productive disagreements and avoid the places where people simply want to vent.