Obituary: Professor Roger Fisher, ‘Father of new approaches to diplomacy, to influence and to understanding’

The death on 25 August of Professor Roger Fisher of Harvard University, founder of the internationally renowned Harvard Negotiation Project, has passed relatively unnoticed in this country.

The death on 25 August of Professor Roger Fisher of Harvard University, founder of the internationally renowned Harvard Negotiation Project, has passed relatively unnoticed in this country.

As co-author of Getting to Yes (with William Ury) he influenced millions in business, the law and government with this seminal book that has been translated into 36 languages.

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It was a revelation to realise that there was a different way to resolve the trickiest of problems than simply adopting an adversarial or “positional bargaining” strategy. Negotiation and alternative methods of dispute resolution were scarcely taught before Getting to Yes was published but it heralded a transformation in law schools and business courses, a transformation which perhaps has still fully to be realised here in Scotland. Fisher’s subsequent books built on that foundation.

Fisher was no mere academic however. He is credited with significant roles in the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, in the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel (proposing to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance the “single text” negotiating technique used by President Carter), in the ending of the Iran hostage crisis, in the resolution of the El Salvador civil war, and in the thawing between the US and the Soviet Union during the Reagan era, when he urged the president to meet Mikhail Gorbachev to brainstorm and build better relations, rather than setting a specific agenda.

Fisher argued that effective communication and good working relationships are the key to successful negotiation and resolution of disputes. He believed it is necessary to get under the surface and to ask: what is really going on? What are the protagonists’ true interests? How can common objectives be identified and multiple options generated (or the pie expanded) to meet these? He urged cooperation rather than confrontation.

Nelson Mandela understood this in his observation that, for negotiations to be effective, one must work with one’s “enemy” and the “enemy” has to become one’s partner. To maximise your own gains, you need to help the other side to gain. Fisher also identified the importance of emotion. There is little point in reacting angrily and antagonising an opponent if the result is to spark a similar response and a downward spiral into the familiar win/lose, “zero-sum” game.

Professor Robert Bordone, now head of the Harvard Negotiation Project, said: “Roger was a master at perspective-taking, of understanding how deep human needs – to be heard, valued, respected, autonomous, and safe – when unmet or trampled upon become seeds of evil and violence, seeds that can cause us to vilify one another, and that motivate us to see the world in stark black-and-white terms. For Roger, perspective-taking was never to excuse or justify evil. It was a way to discover new approaches to diplomacy, to influence and to understanding.”

l John Sturrock QC is a mediator and chief executive 
of Core Solutions Group