“Do you want me to pay you with money or with ideas?” asked Professor Roger Fisher.
“I have a baby at home and have to pay $20,000 a year in tuition fees. Please pay me in cash and I’ll pick up the ideas as I go…” I answered, having no idea that I was negotiating with the first person in the world to develop a universally applicable method of negotiation, and from whom I would be given many ideas and concepts that were of inestimable.
Roger Fisher passed away this month at the age of 90. Thousands of his students and colleagues remember his great influence on them, while at the same time appreciating what Roger Fisher gave the world to make it saner, wiser, more logical. I had the privilege of having him as a professor and mentor, and even was graced with the opportunity to work with him.
We first met in the winter of 1994, a few months after I arrived in Boston to study for my MA at Harvard. One evening, the head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, knowing that I was in desperate need of additional income, suggested that I meet with a professor on the faculty of the Harvard Law School. “His name’s Roger Fisher and he’s a famous figure in the field of negotiations. He’s looking for help with some research on the subject of the Middle East. You should meet him.”
So one rainy evening I went to Fisher’s office in Pound Hall, where he greeted me with a smile. At first I had trouble understanding his accent, as he leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head and regaled me for about 20 minutes with stories of his adventures in global conflict resolution: Peru and Ecuador, Salvador, the USSR, South Africa, and more. After this exciting start, he sat up, looked me straight in the eye and said, “The one conflict I haven’t been involved in yet is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s a challenge for me. Israel and the Palestinians are supposed to sign a permanent peace agreement in 1996 and I’d like to help them conduct fruitful negotiations. But I don’t want to come across like a know-it-all American, giving advice to the natives… Go check for me what’s going on in conflict resolution in the area…”
And that is how, as a research assistant and then as a student and disciple, my relationship with Roger Fisher began. It was also how I was introduced to the “principled negotiation”, a subject first presented to the general public some 30 years ago in his famous book Getting to Yes. Even though it was published decades ago, this volume is still a world best-seller and has been translated into 36 languages.
Roger was a great believer in using a good story to convey a message, and he would spice his university classes with stories from his full life. One day I went up to him after class and asked, “Did all your stories really happen?” The celebrated Professor just smiled and said, “These are always true stories as I tell them…”
Roger did not wait for conflict to come to him, he actively searched for them. With the help of two organizations he founded – CMG (a not-for-profit group) and CMI (a consulting firm) – he sought challenging conflicts the way a hunter stalks its prey. But the conflict that attracted him above all others was the one between us and our Palestinian neighbors. For him, it was like a missing jewel from the crown of his achievements. One day he asked me to introduce him to Professor Yair Hirschfeld, who was involved in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as one of the architects of the Oslo agreement and who had been one of my professors during my BA studies. “Please invite him to come to Boston as my guest at Harvard,” Fisher told me. I contacted Yair, who said that while he would be delighted to meet Professor Fisher, he would only be in New York and there was no way he could come to Boston at the moment. Declared Hirschfeld, “It’s not negotiable!” I gave Yair’s unequivocal answer to Roger, whose response was, “So he said, ‘It’s not negotiable’? Aha…” The esteemed professor looked like a child who had just been given a chocolate bar. “What if we tell Professor Hirschfeld that I just happen to be hosting President Clinton and his wife Hillary at Harvard, and I would be delighted if he could join us… Do you think he would still have said ‘it’s not negotiable’?”
But the most important lesson that I learned from Roger was the difference between interests and positions. A position is what one party to the negotiation declares is important to them. An interest is what is truly important and critical to them. This lesson has stayed with me everywhere I go, including in my family life. During the period that I gave seminars on the theories of negotiation that Fisher developed, I would present the following example to illustrate the difference between a position and an interest: When my oldest son was a baby, my wife and I were arguing about who should put him in the car seat. Neither of us liked to do that. Then one day I asked Betsy, “What is it you don’t like about putting Guy in the car seat?” “I hate having to deal with the buckle, it always gets stuck…” “Ah,” I said, “and the reason that I hate doing it is because when I bend to put our sweetie-pie in the car seat it hurts my back…” After that, Betsy would put Guy in the car seat and I would do up the buckle…
More than once I have found myself thinking, when faced with a complicated situation, what would Roger have said. Sometimes I would consult with him by phone. It was a privilege and a pleasure to get advice from the best. He was always an optimist. About 10 years ago I was involved in cross-border collaboration with Jordan. I sent Roger material on the programs and asked for his advice. On June 12th 2002 he sent me back a letter that ended with these words: “The current political situation is certainly difficult. The only way I am able to maintain my optimism is by reminding myself that today there is more room for improvement in Palestinian-Israeli relations than anytime I can remember.” I wonder what he would say today…
Dear Professor Fisher,
You are now ensconced in “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Perhaps it truly is a place of perfection, but I feel sure that even up above you will find conflicts to solve. But if there really are no conflicts there, please try to send a message and a few hints to help those of us down here.
Rest in peace.
Your student and admirer,
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor (4th Dan) of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His first book, “Benartzi” (“Son of My Land”), was published this year by Achiasaf Publishing. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.