Lessons for Mediators from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”

“Lessons for Mediators from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”
Lessons for Mediators from Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"
(Printed in the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation, Inc.’s “Family Mediation Quarterly”, Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer 2005)


Can mediators learn from the best selling book “Blink”?  Is it true that good mediators just know, as we watch facial expressions and listen to what couples say?  




According to Gladwell, “Thin-slicing” refers to the “ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.”  He calls it “rapid cognition.”  Thin slicing happens instantaneously outside of our conscious awareness.  It distills years of experience into a split-second reaction that seems uncannily accurate.


As an example of thin-slicing in “Blink,” Gladwell discusses John Gottman, a psychologist from the University of Washington, who has brought in over 3,000 married couples into his “love lab” near the university to evaluate them as to whether they would still be together in 15 years.  Gottman observed a videotape of a couple for emotional responses, gave a number to twenty separate categories for emotions, such as contempt, anger, defensiveness, disgust and so on and used equations.  Gottman claimed he could analyze a couple talking for an hour and predict with 95% accuracy whether the couple will be married 15 years later and with 90% accuracy if he observed a couple for 15 minutes.  Gladwell states that Gottman looked at “Four Horseman: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt,” with contempt as the worst.  Gladwell states that “when our unconscious engages in thin-slicing, what we are doing is an automated, accelerated unconscious version of what Gottman does with his videotapes and equations.”   


Nonverbal Cues  


When we as divorce mediators fail to pay attention and observe the couple, we may miss something.  A great analogy that Gladwell uses in “Blink” is when he discusses autism.  Gladwell states:  people with autism “have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, such as gestures and facial expressions or putting themselves inside someone else’s head or drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words.  Their first impression-apparatus is fundamentally disabled, and the way that people with autism see the world gives us a very good sense of what happens when our mind-reading faculties fail.”  As mediators we have to watch the couple’s nonverbal cues as it may help us in our task in assisting them in obtaining a resolution.  


Being Careful of our Prejudices and Biases


One chapter in “Blink” focuses on “The Warren Harding Error.”  Warren Harding served t two years as a Republican President of the United States beginning in 1920.  He opined that people vote for good looking candidates.  The public voted for Harding as he looked presidential.  Gladwell described Harding as handsome, but not “a particularly intelligent man.  He liked to play poker and golf and to drink and most of all to chase women…”  He states that Harding “was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history.”


According to Gladwell, a dark side of thin slicing is if we let our prejudices and discrimination lead us astray.  He states:  “Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions-by changing the experiences that compromise those impressions.”  Gladwell suggests that we take “active steps to manage and control those impressions.”  


In the chapter on “Conclusion Listening with Your Eyes:  The Lessons of Blink”, Gladwell describes a woman professional musician, who auditioned behind a screen by playing trombone for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980.  She played extremely well.  At that time there were few women in the orchestra and none playing the trombone.  Since she was a woman, she had difficulty in getting hired with the same pay as the men due to the gender prejudices at the time. Gladwell’s second lesson in “Blink” is that we do have control of our unconscious “if we can take control of the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition.”




Gladwell does provide lessons for all of us, especially mediators.  We should be aware of our reactions due to our rapid cognition.  We should watch facial expressions of the couple that we are mediating.  Mediators should be conscious of their prejudices and not let it affect our mediation. “Blink” is a helpful book on making us aware that we should listen with our eyes and ears.


Copyright 2005 Debra L. Smith