William Ury

“Getting along is not the absence of conflict, but the strenuous processing of conflicting needs and interests.”

Steps to win-win solutions have become a centerpiece in my own workshops to train peace activists. Ury and Roger Fisher’s 1981 book, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, put this process together in such a clear way that I’ve been able to teach it to my children. I remember overhearing my daughter Janelle use a rough form of it as she mediated between two elementary-age playmates. In various corners of the world, I’ve taught insurgents negotiating with governments how to work toward win-win solutions—and afterward I’ve heard Ury’s terminology in press statements. Sometimes transformation comes when simple ideas are set down in plain language.

william-ury“Win-Win” is common parlance in almost any discussion of conflict from politics to labor-management issues. This is the gift of William Ury and Roger Fisher, who wrote Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. First published in 1981, the book is already a classic in the field of conflict study and the practice of conflict resolution. Translated into more than 30 languages, their ideas have been the subject of doctoral dissertations and grassroots training in conflict zones.

Fisher and Ury challenge readers to move away from negotiating over positions, which inevitably is adversarial and becomes a conflict in which one party wins and the other loses, or perhaps both lose. Instead, they focus on the needs and interests of the parties, separating the people from the problem. “A basic fact about negotiation, easy to forget in corporate and international transactions, is that you are dealing not with abstract representatives of the ‘other side,’ but with human beings.” They urge, “Be hard on the problem, soft on the people.” Their approach challenges people to begin by focusing on collective needs and interests, which usually moves people past initial defensiveness and fear. Soon, participants are collaborating as they brainstorm ways to meet their needs.

Ury and Fisher also provide guidance in the communication needed to reach win-win solutions: “Speak about yourself, not about them…If you make a statement about them that they believe is untrue, they will ignore you or get angry; they will not focus on your concern. But a statement about how you feel is difficult to challenge. You convey the same information without provoking a defensive reaction that will prevent them from taking it in.” What Ury and Fisher lay out in their book now is foundational in conflict resolution, mediation and negotiation.

william-ury-2Shortly after their collaboration on the book, Fisher and Ury co-founded the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School. Established in 1983, the PON is “a university consortium dedicated to developing the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution.” The PON has drawn together scholars, students and practitioners to work on creating a new generation of negotiators in many spheres of social, political and economic life.

Ury is not just a scholar. He has been a mediator in many conflicts and an advisor to mediators in others—from high-level corporate mergers to wildcat strikes in Kentucky coal mines. During the Cold War, Ury helped create nuclear crisis centers to prevent the outbreak of accidental nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That idea met the needs and interests of both adversaries. Following the Cold War, he helped to negotiate an end to the civil war in the Aceh region of Indonesia, and he helped to keep civil war from erupting in Venezuela. Ury joined with former President Jimmy Carter and founded the International Negotiation Network to assist in ending civil wars around the world.

Before his books and success in conflict resolution, Ury originally studied social anthropology. He was trained at Yale and Harvard, and studied negotiation practices in diverse settings from Western boardrooms to gatherings of indigenous people in southern Africa and New Guinea. In The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, Ury draws on wisdom from many traditional societies where a third party—the community surrounding a conflict—plays a role in resolving the crisis. He outlines 10 roles for people on this third side: for example, they can provide security, respect and recognition. They can teach skills for handling conflict. They can act as mediators or arbiters. They may need to contain conflict by acting as witnesses or may need to interpose themselves between factions.

More recently, Ury has turned his attention to the Middle East and helped to establish the Abraham Path Initiative, which encourages cultural tourism to foster understanding. Participants walk together along the traditional routes of the patriarch Abraham’s journeys—and experience culture and hospitality along the path. Despite entrenched conflict in that region, Ury sees his methods bearing fruit around the world. He says, “Violence is not the only contagious phenomenon. So is cooperation.”