Roger Fisher - Parent of the Field

Roger Fisher - Parent of the Field

Interview Transcript

Roger Fisher is among the very few writers on peace and conflict issues who is justly famous throughout the world because one of his early works has been translated into so many languages and has gone through so many editions. Getting to Yes, written with his young colleague William Ury, is the one book that anyone in the field must have heard of, and has undoubtedly read. It was actually the second handbook-style, easy to read volume produced by this Harvard lawyer, the first being the little known but equally practical International Mediation: A Working Guide published in 1978.

Interestingly enough, as becomes evident from the following interview, Professor Fisher strenuously denies that he ever had any intention of starting up a new field, or of becoming anything like a “parent” of anything. All he has ever tried to do, he claims, has been to try to help people to make better decisions and to negotiate more effectively by moving outside a “win-lose” framework and thus achieving better outcomes all round.

Be that as it may, Fisher’s career has been a fascinating and varied one, even though – after service in the Second World War, working on the post-War Marshall Plan and then having a brief but distinguished career with a law firm in Washington – he has remained firmly based in Harvard Law School since 1958, ending his official career as the emeritus Williston Professor of Law. At Harvard in 1979 he founded the Harvard Negotiation Project and five years later the Conflict Management Group which merged with the humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps, in 2004. Not surprisingly, the focus of much of Fisher’s teaching at Harvard was on negotiation and conflict management, much of it informed by his activities outside the classroom as a consultant and adviser to governments and top decision makers throughout the globe.

This dual interest in practice and practical scholarships goes back a long way. In 1964 he edited one of the first books on managing conflict – International Conflict and the Behavioral Sciences: the Craigsville Papers – in which he first introduced the idea of “fractionating” a conflict to make it more manageable. A year later he was working with John Burton on one of the latter’s problem solving workshops. From that point on, he undertook a long series of practical interventions into on-going conflicts, negotiations, peace processes and hostage crises while at the same time producing a stream of readable books around the theme of improving processes and outcomes. Among the best of these was International Conflict for Beginners [1969] and, most recently [with psychologist Daniel Shapiro] Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate [2005] in which he discusses some of his first-hand experiences of seeking better outcomes and of reasoning with the powerful. 

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