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MODERATING A KENNEDY SCHOOL panel discussion two years ago on the role of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Mid-East peace talks. Roger D. Fisher '43 ran into a little trouble. The Williston Professor of Law and selfstyled guru of negotiation strategy is the man most frequently called upon to moderate campus debates, thanks to a reputation for cool-headedness. But this time, even Fisher couldn't restrain Palestinian and Israeli panelists from loudly interrupting and insulting one another. Nor could his repeated calls for order stop audience members from interrupting speakers at will. Towards the debate's end, one of Fisher's Law School colleagues rose from his back-row seat and denounced a Palestinian panelist as "a metaphysical cheerleader." It was a night the usually unflappable Fisher would probably prefer to forget.
Roger Fisher prides himself on being an astute problem-solver and diplomat. Ask him to comment upon breaking news events abroad and he's likely to tell you he's too busy trying to bring peace to the world. Sometimes his initiatives have worked. Other times--like when he and an aide journeyed to Paris and Bonn in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis and quietly tried to secure the release of the 52 captive Americans--his admirable efforts have fallen short. But at least he has tried--and often--to escape the academic ivory tower to apply his theories to the real world. That's something that can be said of all too few professors.
But with Getting to YES, Fisher has gone too far. The jacket of his book, co-authored with William Ury, offers readers "a practical method of handling with confidence any difference--with spouses, children, neighbors, bosses, employees, landlords, tenants, with customers or corporations, dogcatchers or diplomats." Getting to YES, it promises, "uncovers the source of negotiating power." Sad to say, it doesn't come close.
Broadly speaking, there is nothing wrong with the four negotiating principles Fisher recommends in Getting to YES. They are, after all, the same techniques he lionizes every other year in his popular Gen Ed course, Social Sciences 174, "Coping with International Conflict."
Negotiators, Fisher tells us, should stick to issues, and disregard personality conflicts. They should focus on each side's real interests, not traditional positions. They should devise new options for mutual benefit. And they should rely on "objective criteria" in reaching compromises. Diplomats--of the household and international variety--who stick to these four rules can present "yesable propositions" to their adversaries, Fisher promises. But Getting to YES does little more than cite endless hypothetical examples showing the merits of those four principles. Obviously, diplomats at all levels should consider their adversaries' interests too; equally obviously, imaginative compromises are the best way to resolve disputes. But calling for innovation and hammering out a foresighted agreement are two vastly different things. Nothing shows better the hopeless idealistic and simplistic nature of Fisher's four solutions to conflict than the questionable examples he peppers the book with:
Consider the story of two men quarreling in a library. One wants the window open and the other wants it closed. They bicker back and forth about how much to leave it open: a crack, halfway, three quarters of the way. No solution satisfies them both.
Enter the librarian. She asks one why he wants the window open: "To get some fresh air." She asks the other why he wants it closed: "To avoid the draft." After thinking a minute, she opens wide a window in the next room, bringing in fresh air without a draft.
Just try applying that policy in Lamont Library, where the one openable window is on the sixth floor. Persuasive as Fisher's negotiation principles sound, applying them to the real world is difficult. Imaginative compromises do exist--witness the Camp David agreement--and reminding policymakers to keep open minds is a nice suggestion. But it won't slow down the arms race, make labor and management more amicable, or settle Muffy's allowance dispute.
ON A MORE FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL, Fisher's coolout, look-at-the-other-guy's-interests approach ignores negotiators' occasional need to get tough. Fisher devotes three chapters of Getting to YES to trying to show that negotiators who pay attention to the interests of their adversaries need not give in. But his justifications, and his ever-present imaginary scenarios, do not persuade. One wonders what "yesable proposition" Chamberlain should have made to Hitler at Munich--or whether, in fact, he did. By avoiding tough cases, Getting to YES begs the question of just when negotiators should refuse to budge. And it ignores scenarios in which trying to satisfy another's "interests"--like Hitler's at Munich--can undermine larger concerns that don't just affect the two negotiating parties--like survival.
Getting to YES abounds with tips for budding negotiators, but they are insights that will bolster the bargaining skill of only the least animate members of the human race. Fisher, for example urges bargainers to "develop your BATNA" ("best alternative to a negotiated agreement")--to determine what action to take should talks collapse. Other sections instruct diplomats that "being nice is no answer" and urge negotiators to "listen actively and acknowledge what is being said" and to "make the most of your assets." That's sort of like reminding a baseball batter to remember to bring his bat to the plate, and to keep his eye on the ball: You can't dispute the ideas, but they won't put a strike-out king on base.
Fisher is fond of composing balance sheets for decision-makers. A cost-benefit analysis of the merits of reading his new tract tilts heavily towards "no way." Follow these four simple steps that Getting to YES suggests, and your problems will disappear. That is, at best, an untenable proposition.
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