Joshua Weiss

Associate Director, Global Negotiations Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Topics: sequencing strategies and tactics, negotiation, mediation

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?

A: Sure. I'm the associate director of the Global Negotiation Project, which is a project within the Program on Negotiation (PON). I sort of divide what I've done into the sort of practice component and then theory research. From the practice component I've had some fairly broad experiences doing negotiations as a representative of different organizations, doing mediation in small claims court and other kinds of situations. Also engaging in problem-solving workshops, a few different ones particularly with Israelis and Palestinians, and having the opportunity to actually be a participant, which was a very unique and useful experience, especially trying to think about how to be a third party in those situations.

I am also in victim/offender reconciliation programs. I did that for a few years, and that was a different kind of twist, but it helped me to see the whole, the larger process of conflict and particularly what we often talk about as a post-conflict kind of process with a reconciliation peace. So that's practice, and there've been a lot of varied, different examples. I also was the chairman of the board of my mother's family's company, and that took a lot of negotiation and other kinds of mediation work, particularly because it was with uncles and other people who continue to see you as a junior individual in the structure of the hierarchy.

In terms the theory of practice, I've done a lot on negotiation and mediation in general, but I would say that the realm that I've spent the most time thinking about is international negotiations and peace processes. And that's actually what my dissertation was focused on, it was on how mediators sequence issues in these large intractable conflicts. So I've been doing a lot on that and what the different strategies are and how they're employed, etc. But I've also focused on guarantors, the idea of guarantors in peace processes. I'm actually shifting now, I'm beginning some work on humanitarian negotiations for workers in humanitarian crises. I've been working with a few colleagues who are experts on humanitarian issues, and I'm bringing the negotiation piece. So we're collaborating in an online class, a distance learning class for humanitarian workers.

Q: Is that a PON project?

A: It is through the Global Negotiations Project, yeah. I'm also working with a colleague to do a survey of humanitarian negotiators and why they may be struggling. For instance, what are the characteristics of humanitarian negotiations, specifically? Why aren't they as effective as they could be, and how might they be improved? So we're planning on doing that project with a place called the Center for Humanitarian Development in Geneva. Then the last piece of my early work was on the prevention of destructive conflict at the international level, and the tension between preventive diplomacy, in essence, and sovereignty. That's sort of a broad overview. Part of my philosophy has been to follow some of the things that have popped up in my life and not be constrained by a very narrowly defined idea of what I'm interested in. I can mention a little bit more about that later.

Q: Yeah, that's actually a lot of different elements. It's funny because most of the people I've talked to have been more narrowly focused than that. It's interesting.

A: Yeah, and in some respects it's kind of been a conscious choice. I feel like this field is big enough and broad enough that there should be specialists and there should be generalists. I do see a lot of what I do as being a generalist.

For example, my focus on peace processes is about as close to a specialization as I have, particularly the negotiation-mediation piece of the peace process. From my perspective, I think there's a lot of value in both approaches. The problem is that in life, every time I tell somebody what I do, they always say, oh boy, I could have used you last week, something like that. And so I also think it's important to be able to translate for people, and it sort of got me thinking about how this field fits in lots of different contexts.

The field itself is a multi-disciplinary one, and so you delve into areas that you never thought you were going to be doing. You know, while ??? and I were researching for the book on the Third Tide???, I was learning about primates, and I was learning about archaeology and anthropology. My background really is in international relations. If you're open to it, the field is a kind of a grandiose continuation of a liberal arts education, if you're willing to look at it that way. And I like that. I've always liked the fact that this field bridges disciplines, and I've always seen that as a positive, although some people see it as a negative. But to me, anything that forces you to see the world in a different way is productive, even for people who think they're already open-minded and very liberal in the way they do things.

I just find it to be really engaging that a primatologist or a biologist can look at a situation completely differently than I would have ever thought to look at it. I mean, I've even had an interest in dolphin behavior and how dolphins handle conflict, and what can we learn from that kind of thing. So that may sound like a wild idea, and it is a wild idea, but if you don't probe into those places where people don't look, you're not going to find things that might actually help you in these situations where we're stuck. There are a lot of places where we're very good at what we do, and there are others where we're not and we need to improve, and I think the only way you improve is by challenging conventional wisdom.

Q: Yeah, seeking out sort of a broader input. In you experience, and this can be practice or in your research, has there been something that has particularly inspired you?

A: You know, I can't point to one specific incident that transformed the way I saw things, but it's interesting that when you work with people, they're very rigid when they start, and they know the answer to the problem. They see the problem in one dogmatic way and that's the way it has to be. Then, when you're able to help them move from that, that's something that you can't really explain what it's like. And so I think that the experience of seeing people change when they said that they would never change or when they argued to you that there was no reason to change or no need to change, is a pretty powerful one.

A lot of the agreements that I've helped people reach were not ones that they ever conceived of before the process started, and I think that's part of the interest and the allure of all this, is that just talking is not the solution, but when you get people into a room they can go far beyond where they ever thought that they might get to. And I think getting them to talk is a piece of the puzzle. There's a lot more to it, but those changing attitudes and beliefs, it's really amazing to see that happen, particularly when people come in such a rigid way. You know people always say, well, those people are too old to change. Maybe I'm na ve about this, but I don't really believe that. I mean, I've seen people who were in the military who are now in this field who really see that things are different, and they're 60 or 70 years old. They've obviously seen it differently. I think it gets harder to change because of habituation and other kinds of things, but you have to be an optimist to be in this field, or at least that's my perspective on it.

Q: Are there any particular experiences of your work that have been very rewarding?

A: Yeah, I think it's always rewarding when people thank you for your help. I've had situations, particularly mediating, where people have been working on a problem or not really working well on a problem for six months and in an afternoon or a day or two you're able to actually help them get to a solution. I think we all know how debilitating conflict can be, and so helping people get there is our role. You know, ultimately these are their problems, and I do sort of stick to that underlying principle, that these are their problems and I'm there just to see if I can't make it a little bit easier for them to get there. But they're that much more appreciative if you can help them. I got into this because I enjoy working with people and helping people, and so every time you do that it's very gratifying. And I tell you, particularly in my teaching experience, when people come up to you and say I wish I had taken this course twenty years ago because it would have changed my life, you get a pretty good sense that you're doing something right.

I don't take that to mean, wow, you're something special. I take it to mean that the skills associated with this field are very valuable to people, and in fact I think that's why the field has taken off the way it has, because people see value in it. And it's rewarding to me in the sense that I feel like people are validating the field and the worthiness of the field. I believe in it, so I don't really need people to tell me that they really think it's helpful, but I'm impressed at the wide array of people who get involved in all this, and who see the value in it. And I think that holds a lot of optimism for the future about where all of this can go. Because if you think about a wave, I see this field as not even halfway on the way up to the crest. I think there is a lot further to go in terms of being at a pinnacle somewhere. So I have a lot of optimism for it. There is a tremendous amount of work to do, all you have to do is look around.

Q: You mentioned that you had done work on the sequencing of international agreements. How does sequencing affect the course of the negotiation?

A: Well, I should probably just explain what I mean by sequencing, because there are a few different conceptions out there. I mean, the reason I actually chose to study this topic for my dissertation was because I felt like it was a very understudied, almost assumed kind of idea, particularly in that larger intractable conflict realm. And what I mean by sequencing is that mediators tend to have a plan in their head about how to go about ordering the issues involved, and about when to deal with the issues in the process that are considered by the parties to be the most contentious. In other words, the traditional method in intractable conflicts is what I call a gradualism approach, an incremental, step by step kind of thing. I think the Oslo process between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a very good example of that.

Q: Which means you start small, you agree on process, you agree on

A: You start with the easier issues and you work your way up to the harder ones eventually. I mean that's the theory behind it all, and it makes sense, because there's not trust between the parties. In the literature I kept seeing that this was the way you would do it, and I never really saw a deep analysis of what we mean by sequencing and of whether we are sure that that's the only way to do this. I guess if there's anything that I would say characterized some of my work, it's to look at the fundamental assumptions that we make about different processes and to ask if those are accurate or not. With regard to sequencing, I just wasn't convinced that it was. {C}

That doesn't mean that I don't think a gradual process can't work. I think for most people in this field, if they work on divorce mediations or more interpersonal kind of things, a gradual approach may very well be the best.

I think part of the decision about how to sequence issues is dependent on the context of the conflict. It's dependent on the relationship between parties. There are a lot of variables, and so what I set out to do was to ask, is this actually the only way to try to make peace in these situations? And what I ended up finding was that there are actually three main models on how to do this., There were a few more peripheral ones that need some more research, and there could quite possibly be other models as well. I think there is an "A" way to sequence negotiations. I think that's point number one. And I think a lot of the ways in which people try to sequence these issues depends on their experience in the past, or habituation. I mean, if they've used something in the past and it's succeeded, if it's tended to work, that becomes our general approach until it disproves itself.

Q: Isn't that fairly limiting?

A: There are some conflicts that different processes have been tried and the level of frustration is high. Let me just use Oslo for an example because the core of the conflict, the final status issues were left essentially to be dealt with at a later date. And there was an attempt to get there but the reality was that they never really got to the final status issues, and by the time that they were making the attempt there was a lot of frustration on the ground, because they've been fighting for decades and the core of what they're fighting about hasn't really been addressed. One of the premises of the gradual approach is that you build trust along the way. The problem is that there are a lot of spoilers and other people who don't want the process to succeed. On one level, I felt like the gradual approach doesn't really take that into consideration, or if it does it minimizes the importance of that. You know, one thing that I believe in is that there is a natural momentum once you sign a peace agreement.

I think one of the conclusions, or a tentative conclusion, that I came away from my dissertation with was that you don't have to resolve the core issues of the conflict right away. I think what you have to do is you have to start working on them and show the people on the ground, who ultimately make this thing work or not, that progress is being made on those issues. Otherwise, their ability to support the process or their desire to support the process is going to wane quickly. You also have to make certain that some changes are happening on the ground so people can see that their lives are improving from peace processes. Gradual approaches don't often tend to do a lot of that. I'll go back to Oslo for a minute. One of the premises was this sort of "Oslo spirit" that was developed in the negotiation process, and that's fine between the parties involved, but very little was done to bring the societies along in the same way.

Q: The grassroots, the sort of lower levels?

A: Yeah, because they're the bridges that are going to make this thing stick when problems exist. In fact I heard similar complaints about the process in Northern Ireland, that there really seems to be a gap between the people at the top who negotiate the agreement and the people at the bottom who need to support it and maintain it and sustain it over time. One of the other strategies, and I borrowed the term from McCormick???, who was talking about it in a public policy context, is sort of a "boulder in the road" approach, where one of the major issues is at the beginning. It's a boulder that has to be moved before anything else can really happen, and you can't work your way up to it. A good example of that was apartheid in South Africa. It was fairly hard to not do away with apartheid before you would deal with everything else.

To be fair, they reverted to more of a boulder in the road process after they had tried gradual approaches that didn't really seem to get them there. So there is almost a sequence of sequencing strategies, or there can be. Then in Northern Ireland and in other places there was sort of a committee approach, where instead of trying to deal with easy to hard or hard to easy issues, they determined what the core issues were in the conflict. They sort of divided the teams to deal with them simultaneously and move forward with the agreement that there was no agreement until everything was agreed to, basically. And there are a few other approaches, but those were the three dominant ones that emerged. And part of the reason why I think it's helpful to have that is because now the mediator can look at a situation and say, okay, I know in the past I've used a gradual approach, but let me gage the level of frustration here. How many issues are involved in this problem? Maybe one of these other strategies is worth trying. Still, the gradual approach is one that is safer, and it is also one that the more dominant party tends to want to use because they can control it more easily.

Q: Because they don't have to make big concessions on the real issues?

A: Right, exactly, whereas the boulder in the road approach is sort of high risk, high gain. If the process collapses, it's going to be hard to start a new one, and it may in fact even lead to renewed fighting. It's hard to know. So there are different challenges with each one, but I think my dissertation was in some ways, at least in my mind, a way of laying a foundation to really study this topic, because people had mentioned it but there wasn't really a deep assessment of it all. And there is a lot more. I mean, the value at the end of the day is to be able to say which sequencing strategy is most appropriate in which conflict. Well, if I could do that I probably wouldn't be sitting here, I'd be advising some people. And the problem is that there are naturally so many variables involved in peace processes, and sequencing is just one. It doesn't determine success, but I will tell you for sure that if you don't get the sequencing right, it's certainly going to lead to failure.

Q: If you get it right

A: If you get it right, nobody notices. If you don't get it right it can collapse the process.

Q: And how do you know you had it right if it didn't work anyway?

A: Potentially, it may not have been the cause of the failure, but it could be. You know, the best analogy I could give, if I was explaining this to the layperson, is to say look, when you get up in the morning you don't put your shoes on first, because then you can't get your pants on. If you realize that, you put your pants on first and then you put your shoes on, and after a while it becomes second nature and it becomes something that you do and you don't think about it. That's sort of what sequencing is about, that it's a hidden kind of issue, and until it doesn't work, you don't notice it. So I think that was part of my purpose, was to draw attention to the fact that that's how we see sequencing as well.

Q: You mentioned three major sequencing approaches, but you've yet to really talk about the one in which you take the big issue and start working on it earlier along with the graduated other stuff, so instead of waiting for the lump at the end, you sort of start chopping away at it from the beginning.

A: Well, the three models are the gradual, incremental one, step by step to the larger; then the boulder in the road approach, where you deal with the hardest issue and try to get that out of the way, and then you go easier; and the third is the committee one. I'm not even saying change the gradual process. What I'm saying is change the way that you think about the core issues, and that it might still be a good thing to have some confidence building measures and issues, as in a gradual process, but don't leave the final status issues for much later. Make them part of the gradual process. Maybe when you're looking at some of the core issues in the conflict, see which ones could be broken down further, fractionated, and then have people start working on elements of those.

Again, if you want to go back to the issue of Jerusalem, there are a number of facets in the issue of Jerusalem that when you're talking about sovereignty or civil authority, how the city itself is going to function, etc., that people could have been making progress on and thinking through. Then maybe down the road when people started talking about Jerusalem, it wouldn't be such a taboo, because issues are essentially held sacred, and the longer you avoid talking about them, the more weight they take on and the more mysterious they remain. When you start to break them down and you start to think about them and you start to operationalize the different pieces of them, they're not so daunting.

Q: There's more familiarity, there's less fear of actually speaking the word, or using the name of whatever the hard topic is.

A: Right, and then there are actually other approaches that are designed in essence to almost avoid the question of sequencing. I interviewed President Carter as part of my dissertation, and he said that he used a single negotiating text approach to actually avoid sequencing, that he'd much rather do it in one large text. He said that sequencing became irrelevant for the parties because they saw that their issue was involved. Now, in this approach, how it all fits into the implementation is a bit different than your plan for the actual negotiation process, but that's another way in which somebody tried to handle the sequencing question differently. Most people don't think about the single negotiating text approach as a way of dealing with sequencing. Part of what I'm trying to get at is that sequencing is kind of like the elephant in the room. I just want to sort of shine a light on it, and say we need to think about this in a different way, and give mediators, give parties, give whomever else, choices, instead of just thinking there's one way to do it. Because as we've seen in general in conflict, that's very debilitating, and it doesn't often get us where we want to be.

Q: Have you been able to advocate the sort of alternative graduated approach and seen it in use at all? Have you done any research about that?

A: You know, it's interesting, because I would definitely want to be careful about saying that one approach is better than another or whatever it might be. In Mozambique, for example, the gradual approach worked fairly well, actually. So I would start with that premise that just because it didn't work in one place doesn't mean it can't work somewhere else. In Burundi, Mandella used what I would term a boulder in the road approach. And that was after a lot of gradual approaches had been tried. One of the nice things about the boulder in the road approach is it kind of says to the parties in the process, we're going to be able to determine whether the other party is serious or not very quickly. Because if they're not willing to agree to this large issue, or at least to engage in talking about it, then you know they're not serious about this process.

One of the problems with peace processes is that people use them as tools for manipulation. That's one of the bigger problems about gradualism, is that more powerful parties can use the peace process to manipulate the weaker party. And the boulder in the road approach, or other approaches that really try to bind people with commitments, like Schelling??? talked about a long time ago, get you to another level. These approaches allow the parties to say, "I knew they were not serious about it," or "Wow, I'm surprised that they would make that commitment, and show their seriousness." So there is also that element of it that's important.

Q: It sounds like you're beginning to line up a schema of when certain approaches might be more useful. In other words, if there's a large asymmetry in the power between the parties negotiating, you might say probably the graduated approach has large potential for abuse in this case.

A: Yeah, and in fact I actually made a distinction in my dissertation between the concepts of a palliative and creative gradual approaches. A lot of these ideas came from economic change and also political science about how leaders should govern. And in fact Henry Kissenger, who is the sort of poster child for the gradual approach, if I can put it that way, he very clearly said that gradual processes were preferable because they could be managed much more easily and statesmen don't have to make the kind of commitments that statesmen don't like to make, the big ones.

They want to go from four years to four years or whatever the election cycle is, and so it's much easier to manipulate. One offshoot that I am going to explore is how you can tell when a creative gradual approach is happening. Creative means that people genuinely want to be in it, as opposed to palliative, which is a false process.

Q: Sort of good faith versus

A: Yeah, what might be some benchmarks or indicators that people could look for? I do think that is a dynamic of why parties agree to engage in a peace process, with regard to power, and why they want to use a gradual approach. You know, sometimes it's hard because the approach, the process, usually needs to mirror at least some of the dimensions and dynamics on the ground, or a more powerful party isn't going to do it. And so the challenge is to keep the more powerful party engaged and not have the less powerful party feeling like they're getting just steamrolled into everything. Power is clearly a dynamic at play here, and I think that's an area for more research.

Q: A work in progress.

A: Yeah, absolutely.

Q: Let's talk about obstacles. Is that something that makes sense to talk about?

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: So in terms of international peace agreements, what are some of the most common obstacles?

A: Well, I think in most negotiation processes in general, rigidity is probably one of the biggest obstacles. I think we're not hardwired for this, but we've learned it. I think most people who don't think deeply about negotiation processes come in with one way and one idea of how to resolve the problem, and it's their way. So a significant challenge is to show people that there are multiple routes to getting where you want to be, and to pry them away from the sort of my way or the highway approach. That's one obstacle. I think the managing of emotions is another that makes its way into most negotiation processes.

In fact, there was a long period where people said don't have your emotions In fact, that's obviously not what makes a process go. It's having your emotions constructively, and most people don't have the skills or knowledge to do that, and I think that obstacle sort of leaks into the next one, which is communication skills. This field continues to grow because the reality is that people don't have those skills and they don't really know how to do this stuff. Another obstacle is the conferring of legitimacy on these groups to be part of a process. I mean, once you start a peace process, you've conferred a certain amount of legitimacy on them, and so a lot of people will make the case that the hardest part of all of this is to get the parties to the table, because you're breaking down barriers. With the Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis could not talk to the PLO. It was illegal, it was forbidden by Israeli law. That's a fairly large challenge. I mean, Israelis cannot engage in a peace process, officially. That's why Oslo evolved the way Oslo did, because officially the Israelis couldn't do it.

We talked about power and peoples' perception of power. Usually perception of power is greater than the reality, and a lot of times the perception is, particularly in intrastate conflicts, that the more powerful party has got all the choices and the less powerful party has no choices.

That's not true, because if there was no choice for the lesser party then why are they at the table? There's a reason that they're there, and the weaker party needs to understand that. It needs to think about different ways of influencing the other party. Part of it, again, is how they see the situation, how they see their plate. If I'm a Palestinian living in Gaza or West Bank on tiny swaths of land, I don't see a whole lot of hope. But there are different ways of doing things, and obviously the recognition of the state of Israel and etc. were things that the Israelis valued that the Palestinians could give them. So I think the perception of power is clearly a block that needs to be overcome by the people. Also, I would say that people tend to see value narrowly in most negotiations, and arguably in peace processes as well. We define value in monetary terms, when there are lots of different ways of seeing value, and that's where a lot of creative ideas and solutions come forward.

Q: Is that sort of expanding the pie?

A: Yeah, it is. I can relate it to a story that I was just reading in the paper a couple weeks ago about an old woman who lived in Vermont, who was selling her home. She ended up having an offer from a couple who offered her a substantial amount, and she also got an offer from a single individual, a single guy, who offered a lot less. She decided to sell the house to the single guy. Somehow this reporter got a hold of the story and said to her, why would you do that? And the older woman said because I really got a sense that he would take care of my house the way I would have.

Now, you know, most people would say okay, lady, you should have taken more money. But money is not the only way that people see value. There's sentimentality, there's symbolism, there are all kinds of things that play into why peace processes and negotiations in general happen and how they can evolve and more forward. I think value narrowly is the obstacle. Helping people see value in a much broader capacity is clearly a way of moving a process forward. I think the last obstacle is that most people don't take the time to prepare, and this goes for any negotiation in general. Mediators might prepare, but parties in peace process don't take the time because they're not sure how to prepare. I'm the kind of person that thinks that 80-90 percent of what happens in a negotiation is a direct result of how you've prepared for that negotiation.

Q: What sort of preparations are you talking about?

A: Well, I mean I think you have to make a concrete effort to understand your interests very clearly, what it is that you have to get out of this, and what you are willing to sacrifice. You don't make peace or you don't reach agreement with people unless there are things that you're willing to give up. And the reality is that some people value certain things higher than others, so the first thing is being very clear about what it is that you want, because a lot of people aren't clear about what they want to get out of a process.

Also, it's important to think clearly about what keeps people at the table most often, what their alternatives are to the process. Obviously we know, particularly with regard to peace processes, that they've either reached a mutually hurting stalemate or a mutually enticing opportunity or whatever other concept you want to throw out there. So, alternatives are absolutely essential, I don't care what negotiation you're doing or what process you're involved in, if you don't know what's waiting for you when you walk out the door, then you don't have any way of gauging whether you ought to accept what's happening. I mean BATNA is the basic concept here. It's probably one of the more valuable things that people have taken away from the field, and it's really critical to know what that is.

Q: When you say people need to know their interests, that sort of assumes that they know the difference between what they want and what their interest is, right? That's sort of like Getting to Yes talk in that sense, right?

A: It is

Q: If I say I want X, and that's what I'm going in with, you're going to tell me, well, why do you want X?

And that's really what you want, is the why do you want X, not the X itself.

A: I think it's both. I think you want it and there's also a reason why you want it. I think it's important that you understand both. I mean, actually, more concretely, a lot of times people go into a process and they're when somebody says what is it that you really want from this process, they're not 100 percent sure they can answer that accurately. You actually have to give time to thinking about what is it that I really actually want to get out of this. I know it sounds strange, but it's true. That applies at every level. But then you also have to think about the context of the negotiation, what's the atmosphere like, and the history between the people, if we're talking about peace agreements. Then power, obviously, how that impacts the situation. What kind of power do you have? Do you have any allies? Do you have coalitions? Are there ways in which you can try to deal with the power imbalance a little bit?

One of the biggest sticking points in peace process negotiations is disarmament and reintegration of soldiers. That is an incredibly difficult task, and one that people are continuing to have a hard time trying to figure out how to do it. In terms of preparation, that might require you to do a lot of studying of a lot of research. You may need to go into depth, and do interviews with soldiers and say, "How can we reintegrate you?" And find out the best ways to get you back into society so that you don't feel the need to pick up the gun, etc.

That's another piece of the preparation, and then also different things like considering race and gender and what all those dynamics have to play, and culture. Have people's cultures been trounced on in the process? Have historical sites been destroyed without knowledge of why they were important? These are the elements that people really need to think about before they get in the room. Once you've done all that about yourself and the dynamics, then you need to start thinking about the other party and how you're going to satisfy the other. Now, that is partly a guessing game, but when we go into processes we have educated guesses about how people will do things, and if you don't have educated guesses, then you're never going to be able to anticipate what's going to happen and ways in which you might respond. I mean, the goal is to try to figure out how you might deal with something that will come up. Sometimes we do this to the point of obsession in fact, to a debilitating point where we don't raise conflicts or issues in conflict because we're so concerned about what the other might say or how they might say it, or what the conflict, you know

Q: Keeping the relationship steady.

A: Yeah, and that absolutely happens too. It's a useful process as long as you channel it in a way that's productive instead of destructive. Most people are afraid to raise it so they don't bring up anything. What I advocate and what I try to counsel people to do is make those fears into a productive kind of thing where you're trying to anticipate what the other wants and needs to get out of this process and how you can help them do that. Instead of one way to do that, if you could think of what the other person's interests are and you know what their BATNA is, and there are five routes that you can come up with in order to help them achieve that, chances are one of those is going to be acceptable to them.

Q: You, the negotiator? Or you, party A talking to party B?

A: Yeah. It's incumbent on you to think about negotiation. It's a fundamental tenet of our field that you can't achieve what you want without the others' help in some way, shape, or form. You have to spend as much time thinking about what the other wants, needs, what their situation is, as you do yours.

Q: You mentioned a bunch of obstacles. Maybe you could talk about circumstances that you have either been involved in or discovered in your research where those obstacles have been overcome. I mean from personal experience or from various peace agreements that you've done research on.

A: I think the best example, with regard to power and with regard to engaging in the process, is the PLO.

My understanding is that the PLO didn't see much reason or value to get involved in the peace process because they just didn't feel like they had any way of influencing the situation. When they began to realize that they had this ability to recognize Israel, as well as other places of value, that kind of changed the dynamic for them and they saw it as something that was worth doing. I think that's probably one of the better examples of how they overcame power. I think one of the jobs of the mediator in these particular kinds of contexts is to help the parties go through this process of understanding what they want specifically.

The first step in any mediation process, really, is to sharpen the conflict. It's to really figure out exactly where the parties conflict, and that essentially exists at every level, because people most often come and they see a conflict quite differently. So you have to get out exactly how the parties see it and then whittle down from there. And so, in that sense, the job of the mediator is to help them through the process, because most of the time people don't know about a lot of these skills. I mean, some do, and some are very savvy. But it's a problem in a lot of these processes, particularly with regard to insurgents and other groups, freedom fighters, whatever you want to call them. They've spent the last decade fighting and not thinking about how to make peace, and there's a real transition as well.

The ANC really struggled with that in South Africa, about moving from a protest or a ??? organization to a political party. There's this transition about how they do that, and how do they continue to negotiate change from there. In Mozambique, the community of ??? the parties who helped to mediate that conflict were very good at helping the parties to think through those different processes. In a place like Mozambique they had some factors that were helping push them to the table. They had a famine. That was tragic, and drew, really almost drove the parties together in a way that might not have happened. In some ways you have to seize on those kinds of things that make the process, and can help transform a society so that more violence and more chaos don't continue.

Q: So I guess in this instance it would be a narrow understanding of what ripeness is, right? You see a certain moment and you can jump on it, in a sense.

A: Yeah, I mean, ripeness is a funny concept. It's funny in the sense that many people see value in it and its usefulness, but I think the concept of opportunities might be not more accurate, exactly, but it doesn't carry the same kind of connotation. I think that there are fairly clear indicators about when situations change that might make things a little bit easier or better for a process to engage.

Q: To extend the olive branch?

A: Yeah, and actually Jeff Rubin??? talked about how you help ripen a conflict. One of my concerns with ripeness is that we just kind of sit around and wait, and don't try to make the process better or help get the parties to the point where they actually want to be part of a negotiation process. We just sit back and we might let them fight it out because we keep saying it's not ripe, it's not ripe. I like the idea of thinking about how to ripen like fruit, put it in the sun. Well, that's the kind of thinking that I think is instructive, that says, so, can we help create conditions that make it more ripe for the parties? To me that's a lot more constructive than just saying, well let's get it when it's ripe, because you don't know until after the fact whether it's been ripe or not. Then if it doesn't work, you could say it wasn't ripe. So we know it's a tautological problem, but still, I wouldn't in any way discount it out of hand, because I do think it's an important idea, a useful concept for us to think about. Maybe the better way of thinking about it is if that in fact is true, then how do we help to enhance a conflict and make it so that the parties want to engage in a process?

Q: Easy questions, right?

A: Yes, very easy.

Q: Let's see here this is such large, high level stuff that we're talking about. But what sort of characteristics do you think that negotiators or some sort of third party, be it the UN or a private group of academics like ??? or something like that, what sort of qualities do you think that they should have in order to be engaged in a process like this?

A: Certainly they have to be persistent. There are a lot of places during the process where you think it's over, where it's frustrating, where the parties seem so entrenched, and you just don't know what to do. I think people who seem to succeed at this, they trust the process, they trust what they're doing, and they're incredibly persistent. They're creative. This gets into some general advice for a lot of people in the field itself. But they also exhibit by their own behavior what they want the parties to do. They know when not to say things. I think that's kind of a big one. A lot of times when people mediate I think they feel they have to have all the answers for the parties, and they don't. You have to be able to ask the questions, appropriate questions, and you have to know when to stay out of it and let the parties work their way through a problem.

I think those different characteristics generally are what make people who mediate these intractable conflicts successful. I think you really have to believe in what you're doing, and I think also people who tend to realize that if at the end of the day they fail, the consequences are so severe that that becomes a personal motivation, a drive within them to make sure that that doesn't happen. These processes are grueling. They're often processes that take many months if not years to really nail down everything, and when you've got people really acting in petty, frustrating ways, it's very easy to just throw your hands up and say, ugh, these people just don't want to do this. And the ones that are able to mediate successfully are people who somehow find ways of channeling that frustration and not taking it back out on the parties themselves.

I think it's appropriate at times to turn the mirror on them, and say look at how this is going, look at how you're acting. This is not going to get you where you want to be. I think that's easier to do when you have status, and it's a risky thing to do, but sometimes when parties are behaving in a manner that's really frustrating, they might need something to jar them out of that behavior, because that's what they've been doing up to this point. And part of it is to let them go and then say, you know, we outlined some goals, clear goals and guidelines about where we wanted to go and how we wanted to get there. This isn't going to get us there. We can keep going this way if that's your preference, but it's not going to get us there. I think in general those are the different characteristics that successful people have. It obviously varies from context to context, but those characteristics are important in general.

Q: We're talking about transformation and changing people's positions and rigidity and things like that, and at some point you bought into all this, and I wonder when that was and what experience made you believe in it. You mentioned teaching earlier

A: Well I would say there are two reasons. The first was my grandmother. She left Poland when she was thirteen and her whole family died in the Holocaust, and so of course that was something that I didn't understand and tried to understand My undergraduate degree sort of focused on the Holocaust and Vietnam, actually, those two eras, to try to understand them. So I think there was a familial thing that was planted in me that I wasn't fully aware of. After I graduated from college, a friend of mine said hey, I'm buying an around the world ticket and I'm going to travel for a year. Do you want to come? I thought, gee, that'd be great, you know, I'm not sure I'll ever get a chance to do that again, and so I sold everything I owned and did it. I found myself in lots of places with lots of destructive conflict all around me. The disparity between peoples and places was more than I ever imagined, particularly in Asia. I mean, I spent two weeks in Calcutta, a couple blocks from Mother Theresa's mission, and that few weeks kind of just altered the way I saw everything. I found myself on a train in the former Yugoslavia when the war was just getting started, and seeing young guys gone off to fight and wondering One could characterize them as na ve thoughts, but if you really break them down, they're actually the core of all the things that we do. The na ve questions are still questions I don't have answers to.

Q: Like what?

A: Why would people engage in warfare when it so destroys everything that they've built, thought, wanted for themselves and their family? I remember being in Sarajevo, I was an election monitor a few times, and I was in Sarajevo once. I remember standing there in '97, I had just started at ICAR, and going around and looking at all the buildings and looking at all the different places that had been utterly destroyed and thinking what that city must have looked like before that. Again, this is a na ve, fundamental question but why it is that people feel like they have to resort to this kind of abstract destruction in order to achieve their goals? There are a tremendous amount of reasons why not to. There are still some reasons why to, that I can understand, and I don't accept the idea of human nature as being the reason. To me human nature is something that everybody does, every human being has the capacity to do. I've met a lot of people who don't have the capacity to engage in warfare or kill. We throw around the idea of human nature like we all know what it is, and I don't have the foggiest idea what human nature is. I wish I did, but it's these large, grandiose question that I can't answer, that I still can't answer, and I'm sure I'll never be able to answer, but that continue to get me thinking about why these things happen.

In any event, I think those two things had the biggest impact on me, and then I went to American and did my masters there and just fell in love with the idea of conflict resolution. It sort of felt like it was something I was doing my whole life anyway. I really just got into it very much from there, and so that's kind of a long answer, but that was what did it. You can quickly move into believing in this stuff, especially when you see it work. I mean, once you've seen it work one or two times, then there's no way not to really kind of realize that it's possible. It's not going to work in every instance. There are some destructive conflicts that are going to make their way out there and we're not going to be able to do anything about it, which is unfortunate, but true. I still think that there are a lot of conflicts that we can deal with, and whether we like it or not, others that we'll never be able to work.

In terms of advice, again, I would say that in order to succeed in this field, and I'll let whomever is listening to this decide what success is, you have to be persistent. My dad was a doctor, and it was very clear that you went to medical school and you did your residency and etc. The path was laid out for you. It doesn't work that way in this field, and so you need to understand that and you need to be persistent about it. You need to be creative. You need to not be afraid to suggest why you could do something and how you could do it and how you might make a difference doing it. And so when people tell you things at face value, that's fine and you should accept them, but you should also think about creativity and how you could creatively kind of make yourself available and make yourself into a position. I mean, some of the jobs that I've had were jobs that I essentially kind of created and suggested to people and they said okay. Some of the current work that I'm doing with Bill is about how to say no in a negotiation and still kind of get there, because most people are very afraid of saying no. It's funny, the guy over here, Bob Bourdon???, has a quote on his door that says, if you ask and somebody says no, you feel stupid for five minutes. If you don't ask, you feel stupid for your whole life.

I think one piece of advice is ask. The worst thing that somebody can say is no, and they will say no, and another piece of advice is that you need have sort of tough skin in this field, that you're going to get rejected, like every other field. And it's not that this field is tougher than others, but it is a field where there aren't as many jobs as there are people who would like them. Definitely walking the talk is important. Or at least try to walk the talk. I'm not even saying that you're going to succeed every time. I mean I obviously don't, but I do try. It's very hard to actually be in this field, to teach people principles and other things when you're not doing them yourself. They can see that very quickly, and so any credibility that you might have is gone.

In addition to that, I would say don't sacrifice your principles. If your principles tell you that X, Y, and Z is important for example, for me, when I got my PhD, there was more opportunity to go into the business world and make a lot more money, and you know, that's attractive. I have a wife and a daughter and I've got another child on the way, and there are days I think, gee, maybe a six figure income would be nice. That's not what I want for my life. The last piece of advice is to kind of go with the flow of opportunity. I think we all have ideas of the different parts of the field that we want to work in, and I know for example, that different projects took me in different ways that I never really thought I would go in. I found a lot of value in that. I mean, there's a core of what I'm interested in, and what I like, and that doesn't change, but I'm not afraid to delve into realms that I don't know a lot about. Lastly, it's important not to be afraid to learn from people of other disciplines, because people see conflict in other disciplines in a very different way, and generally people are afraid of that. That's my advice.

As for the last thing, some important lessons, I don't think it's enough to do good. I think people get into this field saying they want to do good, and that's great, but you really have to be prepared. You have to do your homework, it's like anything else. It's certainly noble to want to do good and to help the world in some way, shape or form, or help people. You're actually going to do more harm if you're not prepared. So that's one. And I think related to that is to know when you're not the right person for the job, to know when to say when in some ways, that there are other people that would be better-suited for that. I think, because people are trying to make a name for themselves, they sometimes may take on things that aren't appropriate, and that they may not have the expertise for.

I think that's more relevant when you may be impacting other people. If it's a learning process, though, if it's a knowledge-based kind of thing, then I think it's great to explore, not to be afraid of delving into other realms. Trying to live the things in your own life is obviously a lesson.

Q: Live things in your own life?

A: Well, live the principles that you're talking about that are associated with conflict resolution. I think when you really feel like you understand conflict, you're in trouble. What's so unique about it and why I like this field so much is because conflicts follow patterns, yes, but rarely are ever exactly the same. There's a humility that we have to give to the process of conflict. We can't ever have the hubris enough to say that we understand conflict fully. At least that's my opinion, because then it keeps you humble, and you respect the power of what conflict is and what it's about. The last lesson is to think of the skills associated with this field broadly. These are really life skills. I know that since being in this field my life has gotten easier. I think about life in general as you're on a ship and you're weaving in and out of the course of life, and the skills involved in this help you do that, help you make the right tacks, and help you make the right come abouts, and all the other kinds of boating terms that you might use. I really have noticed a difference in my ability to deal with familial problems and professional problems, and it's just something where you have a repertoire of skills that you're not afraid to go into situations with.

When I teach classes on negotiation or train people in negotiation, I say, you know, I'd really like you to think broadly about negotiation. Most people think about sitting down across a table, when in fact you're negotiating with people every day, all the time. And so if you think about the skills that are related to that and associated with that, then it very much makes sense that once you learn these things they will lead to something that makes your life a little bit easier. I think that's why it's caught on.

Q: Yeah, I like that last concept of thinking about negotiation more broadly. I bet that strikes people when you say that.

A: Yeah, because the reality is that they deal with their husband or wife, their children, their friends, and anytime they disagree, I mean, you've essentially engaged in a negotiation process. People talk about the term homo sapiens, and in The Third Tide, Bill talks about it as homo negotiators, which I think is right. I think that our entire existence has been about trying to figure out how the heck we live with each other, and it's become clich and we talk about Rodney King and can't we all get along. But really, I mean when you call someone on the phone it takes some form of cooperation for you to get what you need, because you can't do it without them. And so if you think about all the things in the course of your daily life that require some cooperation, and some persuasion as to why what you're asking makes sense, then you're negotiating.

Q: Alright, anything else you want to add to our conversation?

A: I don't think so. I think that's about it. I think I've talked you out.

Q: Thank you for taking the time.