The call comes in from out of the blue. You don’t know her; it’s Jen Spaziano, and she represents the company your client is — or perhaps was — merging with. Apparently there is a problem, and she is proposing to mediate before litigation. Your fingers work the keyboard to figure out who she is while she’s still talking: Skadden. Partner. Woman. Pepperdine Law 1995, summa cum laude. Boston College undergrad. You begin to react. Do you respond any differently than if the call came from Bill Adams? Of course you do.
In negotiation no one starts with a clean slate; we file that lawsuit, we walk into that conference room, or we place that call, and our identities are immediately revealed. But this isn’t the case for every profession.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking we hear the story of Abbie Conant, a woman who auditioned to play the trombone for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980. Conant’s audition differed from most at the time because it was held behind a screen; blind auditions were required because the son of an orchestra member was also auditioning. Conant finished her audition and began to walk away in anonymity. So convincing was her performance that the orchestra’s music director cried out his decision: “That’s who we want!” Seventeen trombonists waiting to audition behind Conant went home without playing a note.
Unfortunately for Conant, trombonists can’t play in anonymity forever. Soon after her gender was revealed, Conant lost the job she had earned behind that screen. It took her eight years of tests, neutral evaluations and litigation to return to the position rightfully hers.
Contrary to what you may think, Blink isn’t really about prejudice; Blink’s website tells us:
It’s a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, “Blink” is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.
Like Gladwell, I’m not here to write about prejudice, or even how to combat it — Diane Levin, Nancy Hudgins, Vickie Pynchon, and Nina Meierding and Jan Frankel Schau all have shared their perspectives on the important topic of cultural and gender differences in negotiation. But after 288 pages of convincing in Blink, I’m here to tell you one obvious thing you can do with the fact that our minds “take about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions.”
The great thing about Abbie Conant’s case is that there is no alternative explanation to the prejudice she encountered; her pure ability generated one evaluation, yet attributes beyond her musical talents affected others’ perceptions of her subsequent performances. Conant’s experience — and the first impressions you have of everyone you encounter — highlight two things we all need to do before our next negotiation:
As a final matter, I have seen both Jen and Bill in action. No matter which one you draw as opposing counsel, you should pack a lunch. It’s going to be a long day.
From the Disputing Blog of Karl Bayer, Victoria VanBuren, and Holly Hayes. A new study published in the March edition of the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety...By Holly Hayes