We were saddened to learn that Roger Fisher passed away last Saturday, 25 August, in Hanover, New Hampshire. Fisher was a Harvard Law School professor; co-author of the 1981 bestseller “Getting to Yes,” a seminal book on negotiation; and founder of the Conflict Management Group (CMG), which merged with Mercy Corps in September 2004. He was 90.
Over his career, Fisher helped facilitate high-profile negotiations around the world. As his obituary in The New York Times describes, he was involved in negotiations as varied as the hostage crisis in Iran and the civil war in El Salvador. He also had a role in drafting the 1979 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.
Mercy Corps’ merger with CMG embedded Fisher’s expertise, work and philosophy in how we approach our peace-building work. Sharon Morris, TSU Director of Mercy Corps’ Youth and Conflict Management team, reflected on Fisher as inspirational and said that his work is still making an enormous difference to peace through a number of our current programs.
The most important skill of an effective negotiator, Fisher said in 2005 interview on mercycorps.org, is “listening, then understanding what the other side cares about – their interests – then demonstrating that you understand the merit they have in their position – recognizing the difference. Make sure they’ve felt heard. There’s a temptation of arguers to claim they’re right, you’re wrong. It’s important to demonstrate that you understand.”
Fisher also offered advice specifically to humanitarians. “There’s a temptation of humanitarian players to sweep ethnic and class differences under the rug. I think that we must realize and recognize the differences – the good and the bad – and avoid dealing with them confrontationally … We must not chastise local populations, but instead give them skills to be firm, friendly and respectful. There must always be more listening, more talking, more understanding with less ‘solutions.’ Peace is not a piece of paper. Leaders often want handshakes and photo opportunities, but what is critically needed is training on dealing with each other and useful discussion.”
Nelson Mandela was a great example of a leader committed to such listening and discussion, noted Fisher. Mandela “spent many of his years in prison. There he learned Afrikaans so he could deal with his ‘enemy.’ This is a great illustration of what we all need to do.”
Roger Fisher’s trademark optimism that we, as a global community, can solve some of the world’s toughest challenges – even those involving long-standing conflict – is an outlook shared by all of us at Mercy Corps. It’s what keeps us at this work every day – and it’s why we identified so deeply with Roger’s approach. We are proud to have his legacy live on through Mercy Corps’ Roger Fisher House in Cambridge and through our continued efforts at building peace around the world.
We offer our sincere condolences to Roger’s family and many colleagues. We will further remember and celebrate Roger at his memorial service in late October.