Out of the Classroom and Into the Fire

Negotiator Roger D. Fisher '43

His adversary was General Abdul Gamal Nasser, the president of Egypt, but Roger D. Fisher '43 was determined to get what he wanted.

It was 1969, and Egypt was in the midst of a tense conflict with Israel. Fisher went to Cairo to interview the Egyptian president for American television.

Before the cameras were set to roll, Nasser wanted to know what questions Fisher would be asking. The Law School professor started to comply, supplying the president with the relatively easy first question.

"Then he put his hand on my knee and said, 'okay, what's the second question,'" Fisher recalls. "I said, 'I won't tell you.'" The outcome: Nasser caved in and consented to have the two-hour candid interview that Fisher came for.

Playing hardball with a world leader is a move from which even the most confident academics would shy away. But Fisher, now Williston professor of law and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, was merely practicing one of the skills he has taught to world leaders to prepare them for crisis situations.

Judging from his best-selling work, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Fisher can express himself well on paper. In fact, relaxing in his Pound Hall office, Fisher's eyes glow when he opens a text that includes one of his essays as an example of clear prose.

Nonetheless, Fisher is equally enthusiastic about seeing his theories transformed from two dimensions to three, and he has travelled extensively to share his wisdom.

Fisher's personal photograph collection is a testimony to his extensive work in Central America. One six-by-eight color photo displays Fisher in the company of Oscar Arias, the Nobel laureate and president of Costa Rica, and the flip side shows nearly a mirror image, only this time Fisher is with the president of Guatemala. Turn to a nearby print, and you'll see Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is fixing you a stare.

But a few pictures in Fisher's office can't begin to tell the entire story. For example, you wouldn't immediately know that Fisher has had a long-term involvement with Black labor negotiators in South Africa, or that he's trained countless Soviet diplomats how to sit at the arms table.

And you'd have to go far away from Fisher's Law School abode to find the copy of Getting to Yes he inscribed for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Around the world, people have read Fisher's works, which encourage politicians and diplomats to consider the rationality of their opponents' positions and to work towards compromises that adhere to accepted standards.

"I think Roger is as successful as he is in that sort of endeavor because of how rigorously he thinks of how to get ideas across to people," says Wayne Davis, the associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Travelling the Globe

Perhaps demonstrating the savviness that characterizes his negotiation practices, Fisher will not say which countries he has especially enjoyed working with. "I deal with so many, it would be impolitic to say," he says. "It's obviously fun to talk to important people who have a lot to say."

Whether or not it is his favorite area, however, Fisher has spent more time in the Middle East than anywhere else, and in a less-guarded moment he admits that his interview with Nasser--the last one granted to a Westerner before the president's death--was a "high point."