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Hope meets Matthew Barzun
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.K.

Hope meets Matthew Barzun | Kidspiration

If you were the United States’ or United Kingdom’s ambassador to another country, what do you think your job would be?

“I am the president’s personal representative in the U.K.,” said Matthew Barzun, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under President Barack Obama. An ambassador is a diplomat who works on many international issues, including treaties, trade, and technology, while representing his or her government.

During his tenure, Barzun lived in London at Winfield House with his wife and three children, and their dog, Lincoln. And while there were many official meetings, dinners, and important receptions held there, he also hosted parties where his visitors could listen to popular singers and entertainers and even wear jeans!

Mr. Barzun has been U.S. Ambassador to Sweden where he started an outreach program to meet with people in their own towns. As ambassador to the U.K., he set up the Young Leaders UK program, which connects young U.K. citizens with American officials and visitors.

Ambassador Barzun was one of the first employees of CNET Networks (now CNET), an American media website that posts information on all things tech and electronic; he’s also advised and worked for other internet companies. And he is an enthusiastic collector of vinyl records which he often plays for his Winfield House guests.

Before taking his post, Mr. Barzun asked President Barack Obama what advice he would give his ambassador. “Well, Matthew, listen …” the president said.

And listening is what the ambassador encourages all of us to do. Even if a conversation, in person or online, is awkward or angry, listening and trying to understand the other person’s argument is often the best way to a diplomatic breakthrough!

Hope interviews Matthew Barzun, former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, at Winfield House, London.



Hope:
Hi. I’m Hope, and today I’m meeting Ambassador Matthew Barzun, who is a US ambassador to the UK. I’m a Winfield House, his residence in London. And I’m hoping to learn from Ambassador Barzun how to be diplomatic. Let’s go and talk to him.

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Hope:
Hi, Ambassador Barzun. It’s really nice to meet you.

Matthew:
Very nice to meet you. You can call me Matthew.

Hope:
Okay.

Matthew:
Can I call you Hope?

Hope:
Yeah. Definitely. Can you tell me what an ambassador is?

Matthew:
In the United States system, I am the president’s personal representative here in the United Kingdom.

Hope:
And what makes a good ambassador?

Matthew:
Well, I have had the great privilege of working with some great ambassadors, and I’ve read about ones that came to this job before I had it. My favorite is a guy named Ambassador John Gil Winant. He was here in London 1941 to 1946 during a really important time – all during World War II. And he is one of my personal – I never met him, of course, ’cause he died in 1947. But he’s a real inspiration to me.

Hope:
And how do you keep conversation going in awkward situations?

Matthew:
Ooh, no one’s ever asked me that before. I think a really important thing for conversations, whether you’re a diplomat with a uppercase D or a lowercase D, is to ask a lot of questions. You’re very good at that, Hope. Ask a lot of questions. And importantly, ask questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no. And those kind of questions usually start with words like how or, “Tell me more about,” or, “Help me understand something.” And open-ended questions, which is the official, grown-up term for them, can be really helpful.

Hope:
Yeah. And you know when you have awkward conversations, do you –

Matthew:
Indeed.

Hope:
Do you just keep it going, or do you sometimes say, “It’s nice meeting you,” and walk off?

Matthew:
I kind of embrace – I think the awkwardness can be really helpful. Right? Because sometimes if things are really smooth, maybe you’re not really challenging yourself enough. And maybe you’re just kind of talking about the simple, easy stuff. So I think you can turn awkwardness into something really good.

Hope:
And how would you talk to somebody who’s argumentative?

Matthew:
Well, that happens, too, in this job. And it sounds easy, but it’s not easy. But it’s quite simple, what you have to do, which is you have to really try to understand where the other person’s coming from. And a little trick that you can try is – and we can think of something that we were arguing about. You say the other person’s argument out loud back to them. Say, “Am I hearing you right? Do you think it’s crazy that I am doing A, B, and C?”

And what you’ll notice is if you give the same words back, they really know that you’ve heard them. It doesn’t mean you agree with them, but it gets them to kind of let their guard down a little bit, open up a little bit. And then you can start to build a bridge.

Hope:
And how did you get into this job?

Matthew:
Well, I used to work – when I graduated from college, I went to work – this is early days of the World Wide Web and the Internet. And I started working for a company in San Francisco that was one of the first dot com companies. I did that for a while. And then I got involved in politics in 2004, so that’s a long time ago. And I worked for John Kerry, who’s now our Secretary of State. But he ran for president, and he didn’t win, which was very disappointing to those of us who were working for him. And then I got a call from a guy named Senator Barrack Obama.

Hope:
Wow. That must be amazing, being able to talk to the president.

Matthew:
It was lovely. At the time he was a junior senator from Chicago. And he wanted to come to my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and asked if I would help him do some things there. And I did, and we got to meet. And then I started working for him when he ran for president. And then he asked me to serve as Ambassador to Sweden. And I said yes. And then on and on, and here I am.

Hope:
And there are a lot of international problems facing kids. What ways could other kids help?

Matthew:
One issue that I know is an issue here in the United Kingdom and back home in the United States is cyber bullying. Have you heard of that?

Hope:
Yeah.

Matthew:
That’s a real thing. And I love technology. I used to work in technology, as I mentioned. So technology is such a force for good and spreading prosperity and making new connections. But it also can be used for some pretty nasty, mean things. And I think governments are trying to do their part. But really it comes down to how young people decide to treat each other and decisions they make every day, whether to say something mean, whether to say nothing at all, or whether to go stick up for someone.

And if you do that, maybe the whole school will start to change a little bit. And if you change the school, maybe the whole community will change a little bit. That’s how change happens.

Hope:
Yeah. And what has been your silliest mistake?

Matthew:
Oh, that’s easy. So when I got here, I was doing an interview with someone. It was right at the end of the interview. They had asked me about what I loved about the United Kingdom. So that was easy. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But then they said, “Now, what don’t you like about it?” Now, I was smart enough – I’m a diplomat. So I said, “I’m not answering that. Come on.” And then I was taking off my microphone, and she said, “Okay. Just one thing you would change.”

And I made a very unfortunate answer. And I criticized lamb and potatoes, which are beloved in this country, and deservedly so. But anyway, I did really say it. And so that got picked up, and I think I really hit a nerve with people. And it is now on my Wikipedia page, so I think that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Hope:
Then they’re not gonna let you –

Matthew:
So I just have to make up for that.

Hope:
They’re not gonna let you forget it any time soon I think.

Matthew:
I don’t think so.

Hope:
And what advice would you give to somebody my age?

Matthew:
I am gonna pass on to you a bit of advice I was given by President Obama. And this is I was becoming a diplomat for the first time. I was going to serve in Sweden. And I got to meet him in his office. And so let’s say he’s sitting where you are; I’m sitting here. And I only had one question for him, so I asked it. I said, “Mr. President, what advice would you have for me as a first time diplomat?”

And he sat back, and he looked up. And he said, “Well, Matthew, listen.” And you see, it took me a moment, but you got it right away, which is he wasn’t, “Listen to all my great advice.” And I was all ready to write it down. His advice was listen. Listen. And I think a lot of what young people are appropriately taught in school is how to talk and how to argue and how to debate and how to present all that stuff. Really important stuff. I don’t think enough time is spent really encouraging listening.

Hope:
It’s been lovely meeting you. Thank you so much. It’s been very nice.

Matthew:
Hope, thank you.

Hope:
Thank you.

Matthew:
I have high hopes for you.

Hope:
Thank you.

Matthew:
You’re gonna do great. I am so impressed.

Hope:
Thank you.

Matthew:
Just amazing.

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Hope:
It was really wonderful to meet Ambassador Barzun today and find out what a diplomat is. I really enjoyed looking through his record collection. See you next time. Bye.