It is said that life is one long negotiation, and Roger Fisher could not agree more. The Harvard Law School professor argues that whether it’s settling a diplomatic crisis or working out the details of a multi-billion-dollar merger, the mechanics of all negotiations are essentially the same. And with US Secretary of State Colin Powell now looking to pull together an international coalition to fight global terrorism, Fisher’s set of negotiating principles seem more timely than ever.
Those principles were laid out in his groundbreaking 1981 handbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin), written with William Ury. (The second edition was written with Bruce Patton.) The book proffered the then-revolutionary notion that a drive for mutual satisfaction should lie behind negotiation strategies. In the 20 years since its publication, Getting to Yes has been translated into more than 20 languages, and Fisher has since co-authored six more books on negotiation.
His basic framework for negotiating is a series of seven relationship-building, option-creating, and communication-enhancing steps between the parties. But Fisher is no mere theorist: He has helped make international political history for more than 50 years. As a renowned international-conflict negotiator, he has advised American leaders in situations ranging from the implementation of the postWorld War II Marshall Plan to the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. He helped design the negotiation process used during the successful Camp David negotiations between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1979; helped facilitate South African reconciliation discussions in 1991; and helped resolve a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador in 1995. He has also been active in negotiations on behalf of numerous companies, although that work is far less celebrated — in part because he declines to reveal the names of specific corporate clients.
The personal trauma of losing friends in World War II sparked Fisher’s interest in alternatives to violence. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, he worked on war reparations in Europe with W. Averell Harriman in Paris, then joined a Washington law firm, where he advised clients on international legal questions. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1958, was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1965, and became the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard, a chair he still holds, in 1976.
In 1980, he co-founded the Harvard Negotiation Project, which offers executive-level courses on negotiation and facilitates negotiation workshops for both business and political organizations. And in 1984, he founded Conflict Management Group Inc., a negotiation consulting firm.
CFO staff writer Kris Frieswick interviewed Fisher, 79, at his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The discussion took place before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
What’s the most important ingredient of a successful negotiation?
Both sides have to be able to explain the outcome to their constituents, to be able to say, “We had good reasons for doing it.” So, to persuade somebody, you should first understand their interests — well enough, in fact, to be able to write down what they can say in the settlement’s defense. In the case of the negotiations during the Iran hostage crisis, my colleagues and I drafted the kind of statement that President Carter would be able to make, and the kind of statement that the other side could make. Those two statements went to the Algerian foreign minister, who mediated. All the basic, substantive points were in the terms: recognition of the new Iranian government; the end of U.S. sanctions; closure of the U.S. embassy until the United States was invited to come back; and settlement of financial claims at The Hague, and not in New York courts. The deal that was [eventually] negotiated essentially contained the statements that we had written.