Harvard's Roger Fisher Has a Good Word for Those Who Just Won't Take 'no' for An Answer
In this age of specialization Fisher, 60, is at heart a geopolitical generalist. He is best known for cajoling Egypt's late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 into agreeing on American TV to negotiate a cease-fire with Israel. The TV show itself was also a Fisher brainchild: the Peabody Award-winning PBS series The Advocates. Less public was his intercession during the last hours of the Iranian hostage talks in 1981, when he helped break a deadlock between Washington and the central bank of Iran. Last fall he advised members of the U.S. team at the arms control talks in Geneva.
Fisher has distilled his strife-solving strategies into a best-seller, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin, $4.95). The book, which is also being published in 10 other countries, was written with William Ury, a Harvard colleague. "Negotiation," Fisher says, "is not a simple question of a successful outcome. That's like asking who's winning a marriage. If you're not careful, both sides can lose." His policy is to look behind stated positions for underlying common interests. "Consider two kids fighting over an orange," he says. "They finally agree to cut it in half. One eats the fruit and throws away the peel; the other uses the peel to bake a cake and throws out the fruit. A better agreement could have been reached."
Fisher preaches changing the bargaining game. By separating the people from the problem, he counsels, it's easier to be tough on the latter and soft on the former. "It's usually unwise to make threats," he says. "Anger and resentment can result, and the bitter feelings generated may last a long time." Yet Fisher argues against giving in to ingratiate yourself with an adversary. "Trying to win goodwill by making concessions is a mistake," he says, "because you become vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game of bargaining. If a person is nasty, being generous won't help. Rewarding bad behavior encourages more of it."
In spreading the word and in pursuit of problems to solve, Fisher logs at least 30 trips a year. In October he was in New York and Washington tackling the National Football League strike. Next he flew to Tokyo for a conference on how to improve negotiations between developed and developing countries. Then it was on to Moscow to huddle with Soviet negotiating experts on ways to improve future talks between the two superpowers. The professor manages it all with cerebral efficiency. "Some people think I am too rational," Fisher observes. "I say, 'No matter how crazy the patients, we don't want deranged doctors.' "
The most outlandish test of his skills came in 1967, when he jetted off to the Caribbean island of Anguilla to help it secede from the newly formed Associated State of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, a member of the British Commonwealth. Despite its secession, Anguilla wanted somehow to negotiate a direct relationship with Britain. "It was a real mouse-that-roared story," recalls Fisher, who drafted Anguilla's 11-point constitution while sitting on one of its park benches. At the time the island's population totaled 6,000 people and 5,000 goats. For a flat $100 plus expenses, Fisher negotiated a yearlong agreement with the British and argued Anguilla's case before a United Nations committee. In 1969, however, 300 British paratroopers invaded and toppled Anguilla's makeshift government. Says Fisher philosophically: "The Anguillans finally got the direct tie with England they wanted."
Fisher's roots may account for some of his political skills. His grandfather, Walter L. Fisher, was Secretary of the Interior under President Taft. Roger, the son of an Illinois lawyer, learned his early bargaining lessons trying to get along with his four brothers and one sister. "As a kid," he recalls, "battling things out seemed absurd. I was never a pugilist." After getting his bachelor's and law degrees at Harvard, Fisher took a job with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling, where he worked on disputes between Iran and Afghanistan and between Pakistan and India. In 1958 Fisher returned to Harvard Law School to teach international law. Not surprisingly, he has become something of a celebrity on the Cambridge dinner party circuit. "He's on the tip of everyone's tongue," says a Harvard faculty wife. "There was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Ken Galbraith. Now it's Roger Fisher."
Fisher's sanctuaries are a three-story clapboard house in Cambridge, where he lives with his wife of 34 years, Carrie, and a glass-and-shingle summer place on Martha's Vineyard. The couple have two sons, Elliot, 30, a medical resident in Seattle, and Peter, 26, a first-year student at Harvard Law who has followed in his father's footsteps despite some earlier misgivings. "I used to complain to my friends that my father was too damn reasonable," confesses Peter. "He lets you think things through and gets you to agree with him. I wanted to be coerced."
In ministering to his own needs, Fisher favors down-to-earth therapy—repairing the plumbing. "When you deal in international relations all the time," he explains, "you need to have little things you can fix fast."