Technical Negotiating

Frank Blechman

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

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

About six 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.

Even though all of the people who were participating were technically trained 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 makes 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, even though they were all technicians, 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.