Find Mediators Near You:

Blink: Why No One Starts with a Clean Slate

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.

Blink:  One Professional Starts with a Clean Slate

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.

Blink:  Is It About Prejudice?

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.”

Blink:  Why You Need to Care

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:

  1. Be aware of how others perceive you.  People react to who they think you are, so know what that is.  I’m not here to tell you how to change global stereotypes, how to dress, how to talk, or how people should react to your name when they hear it for the first time.  But I will point out the obvious that no one wants to admit — people react to you, in part, based on whatever they know about you.  Whether you are a black man from Atlanta who went to Duke or a white woman in Salt Lake from Brigham Young, your background will impact how people perceive what you say and what you do.  You can play into these impressions or contradict them as you wish — just don’t ignore them.
  2. Be aware of how you perceive others.  Like Conant’s music director, your profession requires you to make fast decisions.  Be careful how you make them.

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.


John DeGroote

John serves as a mediator and arbitrator in complex business, technology, and intellectual property matters involving parties and interests around the country and beyond — often before litigation is filed. Prior to his service as a mediator and arbitrator, John served as the lead settlement negotiator in hundreds of cases,… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Maintaining ADR Integrity

Just up at SSRN last Thursday - Maintaining ADR Integrity - by Carrie Menkel-Meadow of Georgetown University Law Center and self professed "member of the ADR founding generation". Modern ADR...

By Geoff Sharp

ACR Announces 2012 Awards

The Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) recently honored Judge Robert Bell, Michael Lang, Tammy Lenski, Frank Dukes, Duane Heffelbower, Leymah Gbowee and Kathy Bickmore with awards at the 2012 ACR...


Online Mediation: Its Uses And Limitations

This article was first published by the Missouri Lawyers Weekly (November, 2000) A cartoon appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal commenting on the cancelled eBay sale of an abstract painting attributed...

By Paula Young