The recent death of Professor Roger Fisher of Harvard University, founder of the internationally-renowned Harvard Negotiation Project, has passed relatively unnoticed in this country. But for many of us who work in the field of conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation, Fisher stands out as the father-figure in our discipline. As co-author of Getting to Yes (with William Ury, whose visit to Scotland in 2009 at Core’s invitation made such an impression), he reached and influenced millions of readers in business, the law and government with this seminal book that has been translated into 36 languages.
Attending one of his courses at Harvard was a privilege and an eye-opener. I was there in 1996 and it certainly changed my view of the world and my whole approach to dealing with conflict. It was a revelation to realise that there was a different way to resolve the trickiest of problems than simply adopting an adversarial or "positional bargaining" strategy. Negotiation and alternative methods of dispute resolution were scarcely taught before Getting to Yes was published but the book heralded a transformation in law schools and business courses around the world, a transformation which perhaps has still fully to be realised here in Scotland. Fisher’s subsequent books built on that foundation.
Fisher was no mere academic however. He is credited with playing significant roles in the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, in the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt (proposing to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance the single text negotiating technique used by President Carter), in the ending of the Iran hostage crisis, in the resolution of the El Salvador civil war, and in the thawing of relations between the US and the Soviet Union during the Reagan era, when he urged the President simply to meet Mikael Gorbachev to brainstorm and build better relations, rather than setting a specific agenda.
Fisher argued that effective communication and good working relationships were the key to successful negotiation and resolution of disputes. He believed that it was necessary to get under the surface and to ask: what is really going on? What are the protagonists’ true interests? How can common objectives be identified and multiple options generated (or the pie expanded) to meet these? He urged cooperation rather than confrontation.
Nelson Mandela understood this in his observation that, for negotiations to be effective, one must work with one’s enemy and the enemy has to become one’s partner. Paradoxically, to maximise your own gains, you need to help the other side to gain also. Fisher also identified the importance of emotion in any dispute. There is little point in reacting angrily and antagonising an opponent if the result is to spark a similar response and a downward spiral into the familiar win/lose, zero-sum game.
Thus, said Fisher, we need to separate people from the problem and focus on the real, underlying issues. Such is the mark of mature negotiating. Many of us still struggle with these ideas. Open the newspaper any day and it often appears that the approach taken reflects Gore Vidal’s caustic remark: It’s not enough for me to succeed. My enemies must fail." Sadly, that approach often leads to disappointment all round, acrimony, cost and lost opportunities.
Professor Robert Bordone, who now heads up the Harvard Negotiation Project, summed up Fisher’s philosophy and contribution: "Roger was a master at the art of perspective-taking, of understanding how deep human needs to be heard, valued, respected, autonomous, and safe, when unmet or trampled upon, become seeds of evil and violence, seeds that can cause us to vilify each other, and that motivate us to see the world in stark black-and-white terms." For Roger, the purpose of perspective-taking was never to excuse or justify evil. Rather, it was a way to discover new approaches to diplomacy, to influence and to understanding.
Or, as another influential writer, Robert Axelrod, put it in The Evolution of Cooperation, "We are used to thinking about competitions in which there is only one winner….But the world is rarely like that…The key to doing well lies not in overcoming others, but in eliciting their co-operation."
We see that in The Gain Game in our mediation and conflict management courses – as many of you have discovered and experienced! In that way, and in many others, Professor Fisher’s teaching will live on….