An Interview with Professor Roger Fisher

United States, March 30, 2005

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As you walk into Professor Roger Fisher's office at Harvard Law School, you immediately get a glimpse of his life and work. Books - including many he's written - are shelved from floor to ceiling, piles of work in progress are stacked on his desk, and many pictures of statesmen, politicians and other dignitaries hang on the walls. A white board illustrates the progress of Professor Fisher's latest book, which will delve into the role of emotions in the negotiation process.

However, you won't gain a real sense of the man until you sit down and talk with him - and listen.

Listening and understanding are two of the critical components for negotiation, according to Fisher. He should know. A renowned expert on the subject and co-author of the widely-acclaimed book Getting to Yes, Fisher is a veteran of dozens of high-level negotiations.

As the founder of Conflict Management Group (CMG), Fisher's experiences, continuing work and philosophy in action will help guide how Mercy Corps approaches its humanitarian work. Mercy Corps' merger with CMG brought a wealth of information, energy and creative thinking into the organization.

Professor Fisher recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his experience, work and vision.

How did you become interested in conflict resolution/conflict management?

I came back from three years in the Army Air Corps in World War Two to find that my room-mate and another of my best friends had been killed in that war. It was then I really started thinking "why didn't we work something out - how could we have had less loss of life?".

Early in my career, I was a lawyer in Washington, DC at a firm where (former U.S. Secretary of State) Dean Acheson was a partner. I worked on negotiations between countries, including disputes between India and Pakistan, and also Iran and Afghanistan.

During my time in Washington, I spent a couple of years arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court for the Justice Department. Many times, I came to the realization that many of those cases should have been settled outside the courtroom. I know of one case that had been litigated for years before lawyers finally presented their arguments to the Supreme Court. After argument, the opposing lawyers ate together in the Court’s lunchroom and talked side-by-side for the first time. They agreed on a settlement, it was accepted by their client, and the case was over.

We lawyers need to be reminded that negotiation is not a sign of weakness but of confidence. And it can be both effective and quick.

What do you think is the single most important skill of an effective negotiator?

First 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.

In my work, I frequently draft a statement to consider what the other side thinks and what they could say to their constituents if they settled.

What was the spark that led you to co-write Getting to Yes?

Every book on negotiation at that time was one-sided advice to adversaries on how to get more, and how to threaten or walk away stubbornly. I wanted to write a book that offered the best advice - the same advice - to both sides. Getting to Yes had no formal rules – just the best advice for both.

How do you think conflict resolution/conflict management can improve and evolve humanitarian aid and assistance?

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. Never limit yourself to “choosing sides.”

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.

Peace is not easy – it’s not a one-shot solution – it’s dealing endlessly with differences. Instead of picking up a gun, I want them to learn to pick up the telephone.

One great example is (South Africa's) Nelson Mandela. He 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.

What are some of your future goals and challenges?

I always want to keep improving my vision and skills - and spread these skills around the world. I would like Mercy Corps to help in this vital work.

I want to train Mercy Corps people, and then have Mercy Corps people training the world.

And, always, right or wrong, I want to learn something that I didn’t know before.