Negotiator Attributes

Joshua Weiss

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

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

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.