Frank Blechman

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

Topics: facilitation, conflict intervenors, role of the mediator

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Mr. Blechman can you give me an overview of your work?

A: Since the early 1960's I've been involved in public policy and politics. Since the mid-1980's I've been involved on the edge of the conflict resolution world, largely as a conflict generator, occasionally as a process designer and system designer and facilitator. People seem to think I am a mediator but I am not a mediator. I've never mediated squat. I'm not certified as a mediator in any state, province or county of the United States or any foreign nation. I could not mediate my way out of a paperback.

Q: Really? That's interesting. You taught me how to mediate.

A: Well, you know as a college professor you can teach many things that you don't yourself do. I would put that as one of them. Certainly in this field which is so new. The techniques are so bad. We are trying to get people past the current knowledge into the realm of invention. What I think I tried to do was to say to people here's what this person says and here's what that person says but what would you do? This is really an integration of the ideas of others and your own sense of self. What I did as a professor was to try to push people past some of the existing techniques to a belief that they were entirely capable of creating new ones. That is certainly how I practice myself is to look at situations and say, "What is missing here? What is it that I could add that might change the dynamic?" Sometimes what I'm adding is a soothing quality or a third party perspective. But most of the time what I'm adding is actually a bad role model, which encourages other people in counterpoint to behave better. I would like to think that what I've done certainly as a facilitator in public processes is to amplify the good intentions of the parties.

Q: Is that generally what you see the role of a facilitator being?

A: Again, in large public processes and in small public processes it's much more the managing and orderly processes that are keeping people on time and on point. In large processes and in public policy we have a lot of people. You can't attend to them all and you certainly can't manage them. The issue is to create an environment and a framework in which they manage themselves, manage the interaction with each other and keep themselves focused toward a positive outcome.

Q: Is there a particular moment in your work as either a third party or a facilitator that you find particularly inspiring?

A: I think there are lots of moments over 40 years in which people unexpectedly and often, decide to take risks that they had early sworn they were absolutely not going to do. Of course, what sticks in the mind are the situations where people double-cross you-promise they will take risks and then don't. There are plenty of those. But there are certainly moments where people behave better than they expected. They produce results not only better than they expected but better than they imagined might be possible early on.

Q: Can you think of some?

A: I can think of dozens. Let me give you one from a case that I think you've heard me talk about before. About 6 years ago I was asked to facilitate a federal working group on the monitoring of chemical weapons stock piles. This is a group that had been meeting for about 6 months and getting absolutely nowhere. It was made up of chemical weapons experts from the stockpile depots that had been established under the chemical weapon demobilization treaty, and state and local health officials from areas around those depots. The question was how should they interact? What are the guidelines? How should the depots be monitored? What role would the state and local officials play? Particularly what role would monitoring play in case of an accidental release? There was, as you would expect, lots of hostility between the sides. There was lots of technical language thrown around. Some of which was only partially understood by some of the players.

All of the people who were participating were technically trained but they were actively hostile to any notion that they were going to do anything touchy feely because they were all technicians. At the beginning of that, I was able to get them to step back and say what are the criteria for success in this process? Is it that you win or that somebody else wins? They were able to say that they had to produce something that was technically feasible. We are all technicians, we all believe in that. But it also has to be politically feasible and financially feasible. It had to be something that made sense, so that they could explain it to the public.

So they sort of rhetorically said that but didn't have much of a sense of what it meant. As we went along, I would try each session to get somebody to be the political monitor, even though they were all technicians. The person who was monitoring was in charge of figuring out if there was something they could explain that they could explain to their grandmother. At this point the person got a hat that said, "I'm on the Granny watch." When we were in the third or forth session, the people who had these roles that were not natural for them, began to get enthusiastic about it partly in parody. They would parody a politician's response to some proposal that we made, or an accountant's response, or their own grandmother's response, which were the funniest, of course. When they were able to do that and other people were able to receive it good naturedly, it was a moment when I said I think this is going to work. They were stepping out of their pre-described roles.

A more recent piece of work involved coordination around a health policy issue at the local level here in Northern Virginia. In the beginning there was a lot of hostility to outside intervention, a lot of hostility to each other, a lot of suspicion, and a lot of fear. But there came a point in which the parties realized that by having to sit in the process and having to look at each other was more annoying than sitting in a process and actually talking about what might happen. At that moment when they said well if I have to sit here then I might as well make it worth my time, then the conversation got much more productive. So there are these moments that certainly touched and inspired me because it's something that you always hoped would happen, but until you see it happen you can never be sure.

Q: What sort of qualities do you think that someone doing this work should have?

A: Personal qualities?

Q: Yes.

A: Well obviously humility. If you think you can make things happen you are going to be in big trouble. Closely related to that is humor. If you take yourself and the whole situation too seriously or too grimly you will depress everybody. Then I think the general principles of professional life kick in. Number one would be honesty. If you lie to yourself, you will lie to others and then the whole thing goes down the tubes. Patience. If you think you can make it happen fast you're going to get yourself in trouble. Clearly the ability to count backwards is in the top 5. I don't know if it's in the top 3.

Q: What does that mean?

A: Particularly in complicated processes people who try to lay out a schedule and then when they are done with that they'll see what happens next and try to work forward. They almost always run out of resources. Whether it is their own patience or other people's patience or money or time. If you can say to folks let's do some vision driven work here. Let's figure out where we want to be and when we need to be there. Then work backwards. You can set a schedule and hold it a bit better than trying to work forwards. In the same way it is very important when you are gathering people in a public process to get them to figure out very early on who sent them. Who were you responsible to? Who do you need to give feedback to about how this is going? It's equally important to get people to do the visioning future looking piece and say who in the end needs to be supportive? Who needs to know about it? Whether they are involved now and whether they see you and whether they sent you or not? You have to build feed-forward in as much as you build feedback. That's what I mean by counting backwards.

Q: There is a fine line between qualities and techniques. That is a little bit of a technique. What sort of techniques do you find most useful when you are involved in a process?

A: For me personally?

Q: Yes. When you are intervening something.

A: The thing that makes me most successful as an intervener is lowering expectations. If people think I am a miracle worker then I can rarely live up to their expectations. If they think I am somebody who is no threat to them and who therefore has some license to ask a lot of dumb questions and if I acknowledge their belief about how messed up the situation is, and how difficult it is and how unlikely anything positive can possibly happen, then when something positive does happen it clearly wasn't my work because I am a dumb jerk. It's their work. They feel good about it. They take credit for it, they actually have some ownership of the end product, and they want to see it go forward and succeed. The combination of lowered expectations and dumb questions would seem to be my particular approach. Now other people might use expertise, but I rarely do.

Q: Okay. What are the major obstacles to your work?

A: The nature of the complex public policy area that I practice in is that by time I get involved it is pretty grid-locked and pretty messed up. People have been batting at it for a while and they have driven themselves to grid-lock and that is the point where they turn and say maybe we should get somebody who knows something about this or could help us in some way. Often they have exhausted other experts, which is why they turn to someone such as myself because they have exhausted the conventional experts. Good news is that their expectations are fairly lowered already. The bad new is they have genuinely created lots of obstacles for themselves. They have dug themselves in deeply entrenched positions. They have already spent most of the resources that they are going to need to solve the problem. The trust is pretty low. Communication is pretty poor.

They have a pretty deeply grounded belief that they know everything there is to know and what they know is bad. So the notion that somehow there is something new to learn here; that belief is pretty low. That's the biggest obstacle; is cynicism, lack of hope, lack of belief that anything is possible. At the extreme end of that are the civil war situations where people believe if I ever agree to anything I'll be murdered. That's obviously sort of an impediment to settlement. But at the public policy level within the United States it's the belief that even if something good were to be found I am not sure I can sell it to my constituents, which is sort of the civil equivalent of you'll be assassinated.

Q: Speaking of cynicism, you are a self-declared skeptic of public consensus processes.

A: I am.

Q: Why is that?

A: I guess there are two reasons. First of all having come up through the combative political process, I don't believe that it is always a bad process. I think sometimes putting ideas in competition and letting the one that draws the most public support win, is a legitimate way to resolve differences. I think there are some situations that are deeply grounded in long running disputes that don't yield to those kinds of processes. That fifty percent plus one is not enough consensus to move forward, you need more. Sixty percent, seventy percent, eighty percent, ninety percent, maybe even a hundred percent. But I think it is rare that you really need a hundred percent. My experience is that in most cases if you got fifteen groups in the room and you are trying to see how to move forward, there will be some issues that three of them can move forward on and that's fine. And there will be some that five can move forward on and that's fine. There may be one or two issues that everyone can move forward on, but if there are none that they can all move forward on, that's still fine.

So I don't think you always need consensus. I don't think searching for consensus is always an efficient use of people's time. And I think in very large processes nobody knows how to actually generate consensus and so something that is somewhere between a super majority and exhaustion is sometimes the best you can do. I think our technology is just really poor. It may be a hundred years or two hundred years when the technology of public consensus building is as refined and evolved as say the technology of negotiation, which is about two hundred and fifty years worth of literature. Maybe we'll get to the point at which we can actually say we know how to do this. Right now, we have these very fragmentary ideas and everybody tries out their own variation and some things work for one person and don't work for others and we still don't understand why. So I think our technology is too weak for us to claim very much.

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 so 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." 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 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 thought 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.

Q: Other lessons?

A: Other than humility, patience, humor, honesty and the ability to count backwards. And surprises. The other lesson beyond my own ability because I can't for-see the future and no matter how much confidence I have in the model I have built, I have to recognize I may have to change it and change it quickly. Another lessons would be that nobody else in the room can see the future either no matter what they pretend. Very early in this field somebody told me what are role as outsiders in conflicts often are that we are agents of reevaluation. For the very positive we are agents of doubt. For the very doubtful we are agents of reassurance. For the people who are not well grounded we are agents of reality. For people who are too well grounded we are agents of fantasy and possibilities. Agents of imagination.

Q: So we are the counter-balance?

A: We are the counter balance. We are always inviting people to step a little bit outside of their comfort zone. And that guess what? That makes them uncomfortable. Shouldn't be shocked about that and that the more we are able to acknowledge the discomfort we cause, we can stop being so smug about what wonderful, beneficent interveners we are. As long as we thing we are God's gift to peace making on Earth and that everybody should welcome us because we are so wonderful to come around and help them, who would want a pompous ass like that in the room. It is much more honest then for the Doctor to say I am going to do this and it is going to hurt but I can't numb you down because you need to be able to give me feedback about when and how it hurts. Not pleasant, but much more realistic then this will just pinch a little. No, it hurts like hell. It is going to hurt even when the results are good. Change hurts. I guess that is my lesson. I think that you know that I am very formed by the word benestrophe for our work.

Q: Benestrophe? What is that?

A: I think you know that catastrophe is a series of painful, traumatic and dislocating bad events. Earthquakes, tornadoes, farm droughts, plagues; those are catastrophes, they affect a lot of people. Many of the social changes that we advocate are benestrophes. They are a painful, traumatic, and dislocating series of good events. The opposite. Good weather, a farm surplus, a budget surplus, those are benestrophes. If peace were ever to break out it would be such a benestrophe, were not sure the United States can survive it, as we know it. It would be a terrible benestrophe.

Once we can acknowledge that our good work even at it's best, is going to be painful, traumatic and dislocating; we can then acknowledge that people who were cynical, suspicious and even fearful of us are not doing so out of fearful, stupid, ignorance or superstition, because they are aware and in many ways far more aware then we are of the pain, the trauma, and the dislocation that change will bring to them. And they are better grounded and again, it's one of those surprises that we ought to pay attention to because when we can acknowledge that then you can begin to say one of the problems we have to solve is how do we mitigate the pain. How do we help you get through this transition with the least amount of dislocation or with the most help to go through the transit? We don't have to pretend this will be painless; it'll only pinch a little for a minute. I think that's very important if we're going to be actual agents of change. Part of that honesty thing.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is coming into this field?

A: The first one is that there is no field to come into. If you think there is an established field you are going to be deeply disappointed. I think what you should know is that there is a little bit of jargon, a little bit hype, and a little bit of awareness that certain types of problems may be helped by somebody whose been through them before or has been trained to deal with them. There's a little bit of awareness particularly among public officials. Thirty years ago when I started working with this stuff, that wasn't the case. Today, the language of collaboration, and citizen involvement, and citizen advisory committees, are quite well understood by me in the United States and by all federal agencies and by most state and local governments as well. The trade associations in government have played a very active role in spreading those ideas. At least in the public policy realm there is some concept but it is very ill- formed.

For example, I was recently at a section meeting of the Association for Conflict Resolution called the Environment and Public Policy Section. It's called the Environment and Public Policy Section because twenty-five years ago the first public policy issues that were being engaged were environmental issues. So environment was sort of synonymous with public policy. Then when other kinds of public policy issues began to be taken up and it became the Environment slash Public Policy section of ACR. There was a discussion at that meeting that asked what we thought the boundaries of our practice was and nobody could say. Another discussion was about what we thought our ethics of our practice might be and nobody could say. Another was what we thought distinguishes us from other areas of practice and people were able to drop a few ideas. This demonstrated how completely unformed our field is.

ACR is pushing each of the sections to define themselves and to begin to discuss certification and professionalization and to draw the boundaries. To draw a set of ethics that are appropriate for their field of practice. I think it is going to be an interesting exercise, but it shows that there really isn't a field. They are a group of people that do things that they sort of think are somewhat the same who like to swap stories and who are willing to get together from time to time for their mutual entertainment. I wouldn't even say that most of those sessions are mutual education, much less field forming.

We may have a broad, vague concept but there is no discipline. If you are going to be a football player there is a discipline that says you go to the weight room for four hours a day, you eat a certain kind of diet and you practice depending on your positions, specific skills, and you do all that in a very ritualized way before you get to go out and throw the ball around and play. And there is a way to measure how good you are and are you ready to play in competition. If you want to be an agricultural botanist or a biological researcher there is a discipline. You have to spend so much time in the books and so much time in the lab and you get to put on the white coat and you get to carry things in your pockets; collection bags or jars depending on what scale you are working on. And there are techniques for managing each of those data types. We have no agreed upon methodology. We don't have the discipline. If you want to be a public policy practitioner you need do this and then you do this. You need to read this and you need to think about this. You need to practice this. You need to intern you need to do residency. And you need to build up from this size to this size. .

No! There are lots of people that take one forty-hour weekend workshop and then want to go resolve the conflict in the Middle East. They took a workshop and have come out with the idea that to solve the world's problems we just need to understand each other better. We might say that sounds a little simplistic. But we have no way of saying, "don't do that, you are going to cause more trouble then you are going to fix." We have no way to stop anybody from putting themselves forward. So I would say what you need to know is it is not a discipline, and that means if you are a charlatan, you can offer anything. If you are a person of integrity you need to be patient and honest, lower your own expectations, lower the expectations of others and work your way in, push the boundaries, always push the boundaries always go one step further then you think you can, always find out whether the technique that worked yesterday will work today, it may not. But keep in mind that you know that it worked yesterday but that you don't know if it will work today, and again, it may not. And accordingly have an alternative so if it doesn't, not only you but the people you've dragged down that path, have a next step, have another choice. I think that is one of our ethical responsibilities.

Q: Anything else that we should talk about, that people should know that you think would be useful?

A: The question that I am often asked is how should people get into this field. I think the answer to that is with their feet. There is plenty of public conflict around them everywhere. You pick up the newspaper and eighty percent of it is public conflict. What they need to do is go walk into the middle of it and say do I have anything to offer here, if they don't they should walk back out. If they can imagine something that would be helpful but don't know how to do it, then you can go ask somebody who has more experience; "Help me think through what I can do in this situation, I know what needs to be done but I don't know how to do it," or " I even know what needs to be done but I don't believe I can do it myself." So when folks say, " Oh would you let me come and follow you around and watch what you do?" I say no, I don't want to associate you, what do you add to my team? If you want to learn from me, you hire me. You go out and get yourself in the middle and when you run out and need help, you call me and I will come help you. And I think that is the way people learn when they are in charge, they are responsible, their butt's on the line, so they actually pay attention. When my butt's on the line, it's humorous.

Q: I agree.

A: There you go. That's the other piece of advice I would give.

Q: Anything else?

A: Well there was one more item on your list of questions.

Q: Was there? What did I miss?

A: You asked if there were moments when I was personally transformed and I bore that I was personally touched and inspired and I think you are just afraid to go to either of those places.

Q: I asked that right in the beginning.

A: Well, but that's not a story that changed me. That was sort of an inspirational story in which I got to say oh yes, other people change I was so pleased to see that.

Q: So this work often times is often about personal transformation. People talk about personal transformation, social transformation, and etcetera. Is there a moment when you personally were transformed and sort of turned into a believer?

A: No. Overtime we change and I don't know whether it's the experiences that change us or just the aging. Certainly the great transformative moment for me was when Jim Lowely offered me a job in this field that I had never heard of and he said I want you to come in and work with me at the Conflict Clinic in St. Louis Missouri; we do conflict resolution. I said what's that? He said, "It's okay you'll catch on later." Suddenly I was transformed from a political operative to being a conflict resolver unbeknownst to me. I think the actual change from being a political analyst to being a conflict analyst came only after many years and accepting the personal dimensions of social change that it is not all political. I mean I had always known that. I had been involved in the peace movement and I had sat in lots of debates where people would say do you think world peace is a matter of internal change in people or is it a matter of national policy or is it the world's structures. The answer is yes. I mean we need all of those. It's not one or the other; they all have to happen in parallel.

I had sort of understood that cognitive link but I have always said we all have to pick our own level where we think we work best. The level that I picked out obviously was political and I accepted that I couldn't do the politics without paying more attention to the personal. That the structural and personal were not separate. That the intra personal and interpersonal were not separate. It wasn't useful to stratify them that way and say that I only practice over here. That made a big change in the way I personally operated.