Saturday, June 30, 2007

CPE Interviews and the Kobayashi Maru Test

Previously, Andrew Thompson and Theresa Coleman asked that I write about my experiences in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). The hospital setting is a very confusing place for a non-medical professional, but overall, it's been a good experience.

This shall be my first post on the subject, addressing the application and interviewing process.

I interviewed with three CPE facilities for this summer, which we shall call A, B, and C. CPE interviews are different than those for application to jobs, schools, or even ministry (e.g. certification at DCOM). They are basically impromptu psychoanalysis sessions.

This took me by surprise at facility A. The interview went something like the first twenty seconds of this video:

I was quite taken aback by this interview. I had never experienced anything remotely like it in any setting. I've been through hardball interviews before. This was something far beyond hardball. Every answer that I provided to every question was not only wrong, but stupendously wrong. I could do nothing right.

I left interview A angry at the interviewer, convinced that he was just a jerk. Then it occurred to me: surely such a person could never have been ordained with that kind of personality, let alone be put in a ministry position which is wholly social. The interview was a Kobayashi Maru simulation: a no-win scenario designed to test how I deal with hopelessly losing situations. After all, in a hospital setting, I will be a caregiver to people who are in no-win scenarios themselves. It would be helpful to experience the frustration of such situations myself so that I can better help people going through them on a much larger and serious scale. When I expressed this to my DCOM chair, he confirmed that such interview techniques are normal in CPE, and related an even more appalling story from his own seminary days.

I went to facility B for an interview. It was radically different from interview A. They wanted to probe inside of my psyche and did so. The purpose of CPE interviews appears to be to get to know the student at a very intimate level. The thing is, they did this without being the slightest way abusive. In fact, the B set of interviewers got to know the inner John a whole lot more than the A interviewers, and it was because they did call me a liar, etc. It was a hard interview, but it was not a no-win scenario. There was no immediate and severe antagonism and animosity, like there was in interview A. We did a difficult role-play in which I interacted with a nurse supervisor and a suicidal patient. It was challenging, and they critiqued my mistakes but praised me for what I did well. I felt very comfortable with the B people and thought that there was so much that they could teach me about relating to people emotively.

Then I went to interview at CPE facility C. If A and B represent a scale of interviewer behavior, then C was somewhere in between A and B, but leaning strongly toward A.

I had decided that my biggest mistake in interview A was caring about the outcome of the interview. That is, I really wanted to get into CPE facility A, and the interviewers knew it, and so felt free to play mindgames with me, toying with me like a cat does a mouse. I had already been accepted into a CPE program, so I really did care about "winning" -- that is, getting into facility C as well so that I had as many options as possible (the UMC candidacy process develops a strong belt-and-suspenders mentality). And the only way to care about getting into C was not to care about getting into C. You follow?

Interviews A and C started out as basically verbatim duplicates -- and I really mean almost word for word. They read my biographical statements and noted that I had moved very frequently as a child and wanted to know how that had traumatized me. I mentioned that I was sort of rootless, having no true hometown, but saw more benefits from my mobility than disadvantages. Both sets of interviewers asked leading questions, strongly urging me to express that I was deeply emotionally scarred from moving so frequently and that my parents had been emotionally abusive. I don't have perfect parents, but neither hypothesis is really plausible. Interviewers A noticeably sagged in disappointment when this was my answer. Both questioned whether I was being honest with them.

So as I said, I had decided beforehand that if interview C starting turning out like interview A, I would respond very differently. It was turning into a Kobayashi Maru, and I had a solution to the test: I wouldn't play. You see, a no-win scenario is also a no-lose scenario; if I can't win, then I can't do anything to induce losing either.

I expressed my amusement at how interview C was progressing almost identically to interview A, and how much I really wanted to give them the childhood trauma of moving that they so deeply craved but alas, there was no trauma in that part of my life to give them. I have experienced emotional trauma, just not there. I hammed it up, bombastically imitating interviewer A's visible disappointment that I was not abused as a child. One of the interviewers covered his mouth to hide his giggling. But per my strategy, I pointed out that he was giggling and had tipped his hand.

There were a number of Kobayashi Maru elements in interview C, particularly from one man. For example, he asked questions about my inner self. When I began to answer them, he refused to allow me to answer them. Next, he berated me for not answering his questions.

My overall strategy was to directly and explicitly point out when and where they had been unfair or ridiculous -- and with full amusement, not an ounce of anger. So I explained what the Kobayashi Maru was in Star Trek, what it means proverbially, and how parts of their interview followed this pattern.

They were taken aback by my approach.

Now it is possible that I completely misread the situation and that there was no Kobayashi Maru test here, despite what my DCOM chair described as normal. But if that is true, and interviewers C considered their behavior to be normal, moral, and professional, then the last thing that I would ever want is to work under them. In this case, I completely blew interview C, and have lost nothing.

So my performance was either spectacularly good, or disastrous. Either way, I have lost nothing.

Now this Kobayashi Maru approach to CPE interviews: I can see some merit in it. But as much as one can learn something about people by how they respond to exasperating no-win scenarios, I think that interviewers B learned so much more about me because they took a completely different approach. Theirs was the superior interviewing approach, and certainly my first choice at the present.

I was actually accepted at facilities A, B, and C. I chose B, even though it is three hours away from home, because I did not wish to expose the inner John to sadists. My experiences thus far in the weekly individual and group therapy sessions have only justified my decision.


Anonymous said...


Interesting! I would have never guessed that pastors would have to endure such a process. When you referenced a Kobayashi Maru simulation; I was under the misguided belief that they were going to have you eat as many hotdogs as possible in one minute!
Good read.


The Ironic Catholic said...

Man, this is why I'm an academic. I thought about doing CPE, but never did...and probably would have bolted after the first interview...I'm glad your experience is bearing fruit so far.

Art said...

Man, I've been in some tough interviews but nothing quite like that! I like your solution... pretty clever actually. Of course, you could be making all this up due to your early childhood trauma;)

Elizabeth said...

Ah, CPE and how I don't miss it. My interview wasn't like yours, but I've heard that other folks interviewing in my program have had interviews like that. I didn't enjoy CPE - had some valuable experiences with the patients I met, and learned a lot from being with them, but hated the coursework and one-on-ones because the psychoanalytical model was so over the top I couldn't stand it.

the reverend mommy said...

Sounds like A and C were "old school" and B is the emerging CPE paradigm. Just guessing, of course.

I would have run away (imagine Monty Python -- "RUN AWAY" "Wot? It's a rabbit!) as fast as possible from A and C.

Door B was a good choice.

CPE has been the most valuable thing I've ever done in this process. Bar none.

John said...

Beth wrote:

I didn't enjoy CPE - had some valuable experiences with the patients I met, and learned a lot from being with them, but hated the coursework and one-on-ones because the psychoanalytical model was so over the top I couldn't stand it.

Yes, my supervisor is fond of playing amateur psychologist, too. But we have fun with it in my group. The response to every statement (e.g. "My shoelace broke") is "And how does that make you feel?"

RERC said...

This is why I hated psychology by the time I got a B.A. in it. I switched to communication for my M.A., then after more 20 years got my seminary degree and was ordained outside the UMC system. I never would have been able to put up with these antics given my background and my age. I just don't have the time to waste playing games.