As mediators we are all too familiar with the point in our negotiations where one or both parties find it impossible to make a deal because they either cannot see the weaknesses in their own case, or conversely they cannot appreciate the strengths of their opponent’s position. Trying to get them past this point is the mediator’s stock-in-trade skill, often demanding much effort and ingenuity. However, how often do we examine why our parties cannot see the totality of their situations?
Therefore yesterday I was interested to first hear writer Margaret Heffernan on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week show and then read her in the Evening Standard writing about her new book, “Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril.” This book is, to me, a fascinating examination of what we are able to ignore when it suits us – and certainly taking an entrenched position in a dispute gives one ample opportunity to develop such single-mindedness.
Margaret Heffernan (who I’m pleased to say is on friendly terms with CEDR) is an entrepreneur and chief executive, who writes on management issues and has used her ability to think originally to great effect by coming up with this topic. The book takes a tour of many theories and case studies around ‘blindness’ – starting with the Enron case, where so many people were able to look the other way as disaster loomed.
There are practical instances for clarifying and even predicting “blind” behaviour in certain situations. One such instance being, as Margaret Heffernan puts it in the Evening Standard, “we’re too busy to see everything, which is one way to explain how Microsoft failed to notice the internet and Google missed social networking.” There is also quite a bit of space in the book given to explaining how the Gulf Oil disaster came about, by looking at what BP and others were and were not able to perceive about their situation.
Mediators understand deadlock well and, with experience, become masters at unlocking the mind-sets around it. Perhaps understanding a bit more about how those minds locked-up in the first place will assist in getting deals done quicker and more efficiently in the future.