Surprises

 

Frank Blechman

Private Consultant, Formerly at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What lessons have you learned over the years doing this work?

A: I said at the beginning that I think one of the key personal characteristics is a certain level of humility. Related to that and it's very clear to me that I have no gift of prophecy. So one of the lessons I've learned is I can't predict what is going to happen next. I can occasionally in a sort of gambler's way, sort of estimate the probability of certain things happening. But I am often not very right about that. It is almost always the surprises that prove most beneficial. When things happen that are unexpected, I can respond to that as a threat to my expectations or I can recognize that what's happened is something that I didn't expect to happen and that means that my whole understanding of what was going on wasn't very complete and that this is an opportunity for me to learn more, to understand more, to get a more accurate model rather than to try to stuff the situation back into my expectation. I do view surprises as gifts. Now sometimes they are certainly bewildering and threatening, but if we can keep the perspective that there just might be something useful under that pile, then almost always there is.

Q: Can you think of an example of where you were surprised and it changed your understanding of the situation?

A: I was involved in a board dispute within a health maintenance organization. It was a not for profit health maintenance organization. The paid management wanted to change that into a for profit corporation and people who had been involved in this for a long time really were feeling betrayed and very hostile. I interviewed everyone and interpreted this in a very intellectual way as a dispute about economical models. Maybe some issue of social values and social models. I didn't realize how deeply personalized it was. We scheduled a weekend retreat to look at some of these issues. Friday night went very well and I was feeling quite confident. Saturday morning went really well and just before we broke for lunch one member of the board turned to a number of the members of the board and then turned to me and said, "Do you mind if I just say something that has been on my mind?" I thought it was going to be one of these positive breakthroughs. Instead what the person said was, "This has been a very nice conversation, but I don't believe you. I don't believe a word you've said. I don't trust you." Then went on with about a five-minute tirade about what a lying skunk this other person was.

Obviously this did not make me happy. This really made me feel like oh, this whole thing was going down the tubes." Instead of which, after I picked my teeth up off the floor, what it made me realize was that there was a whole series of personal issues that go way back into history that involve past fights that I don't understand and some of which don't even involve these people. The person in that case, the older member of the board who was spitting at one of the newer members of the board really was using the new member as a surrogate for a past fight that I didn't even know about, but it didn't matter. We had to stop the policy discussion and dig out some of the personal stuff and acknowledge it before we were ever going to move on. I should have known. If I had probably interviewed better I might have know.

Eventually we got through that, but if I had tried to say that's inappropriate, that's out of order, we are here to talk about policy and everybody agreed to ground rules and now were not going to talk to each other that way. If I had done that, I think I could have blown up the whole event and I almost did. Fortunately, there was a break for lunch and it gave me a chance to recollect my wits and talk to people over lunch and to get other folks to tell me what they thought was going on. And they helped me realize what was going on was not entirely what I imagined was going on and it could be dealt with. It was just one of those nasty surprises. I had nightmares about that for years afterwards, but I've gotten over that now. I am feeling much better.