Thanks to Professor “Getting to Yes”

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I can’t think of another person who has taught me as much about dealing with other people as Harvard law professor Roger Fisher.

Roger died the other day at the age of 90. He was one of these people who always died before everybody else is ready for them go. Gandhi, King and Roger Fisher. He contributed so much to making the world a better, safer and more peaceful place during his more than four decades at Harvard teaching us how to negotiate and how to resolve conflict.

“Getting to Yes” is the most accessible book and practical embodiment of Roger’s ideas, chock full of strategies and dos and don’ts in dealing with conflict.

No, I didn’t know Roger. Although I attended a few conferences at Harvard, I never even met him. But from my first reading of his popular book,”Getting to Yes,” written with a former student William Ury, I quickly understood that you’re asking for trouble when you try to negotiate from a fixed position.

Roger’s idea: Negotiate your interest. So rather than telling the car salesman that you’re only willing to pay $20,000 for the silver four-door on the lot, tell her that you want a reliable car with an affordable monthly payment.

Or, your husband and kids insist on going out for dinner at MacDonald’s. That’s not for you. You state your main interest – a dinner that everybody knows would be healthy.

Or, if your company said that with profits down, it would have to cut your hours thereby reducing your salary. That’s negotiating the company’s position. Not really negotiating. Instead, you state your interest, which is to meet your household and living expenses. This allows the employer to search for an alternative to a salary cut, perhaps offering to reduce vacation hours or the company’s contribution to health insurance.

Roger would point out that you shouldn’t be willing to accept an outcome in negotiations that you feel unacceptable. That’s why, he advised that when you enter into talks that you have in mind a “BATNA” – your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Sometimes, you might walk away from the table. Sometimes, you just quit your job. Or go on strike.

You don’t make personal attacks. To the contrary, you do what you can to maintain a respectful, working relationship with the other side.

In the 1970s, Fisher was a key consultant in the Camp David negotiations under President Carter. Those negotiations led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the first and only such agreement between Israel and an Arab country.

I discovered that Roger’s ideas made a big difference for me. When I was trying to persuade state leaders to house serious juvenile offenders in treatment centers rather than prison, they agreed. They didn’t complain about an Indiana state appeals court ruling that sent one such offender to a juvenile center in Fort Wayne. They didn’t file a bill to overturn the decision.

I invoked Roger’s strategy when I was writing editorials calling for a ban on smoking in local restaurants. With that strategy, I won supporters for new services that addressed the needs of the mentally ill. And when I remembered to use it, which takes some practice, it was a strategy that got our editorial board through some often personal disputes.

Beyond the strategy stands a wise philosophy of human relations. It’s a philosophy that doesn’t regard the person on the other side as the enemy. It’s a philosophy that doesn’t feel it’s always right or its solution to the dispute is the only just one. It’s a philosophy that believes that people in a disagreement often can find common ground if they’re only willing to see the other guy’s point of view and be patient.

I can only guess how many people’s lives Roger Fisher changed for the better with his teaching about negotiations and conflict resolution. The numbers must run into the thousands, from contract agreements between management and labor and marriages of his former students saved.

One way or another, a whole lot of us are in his debt.

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