Remembering Roger Fisher

Roger Fisher was a singular intellect. He wasn’t especially interested in explaining why something happened; Roger wanted to know how to change what would happen, especially in the realm of violent conflict. He wasn’t opposed to war: he volunteered for service in the Army Air Force in WWII. But having lost his college roommate and many friends in that conflict, he also understood its steep cost.

Today Roger is best known for his work in conflict resolution and negotiation, as well as the seminal book he co-authored: “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.” The late Harvard professor taught how to achieve good outcomes by taking a problem-solving, on-the-merits approach to resolving differences. But his legacy is much broader. Roger sought to build a toolbox for analyzing and diagnosing the causes of conflict and finding practical, effective ways to resolve them.

Roger sought unabashedly to “change the world,” and he did so profoundly.

Like any hard scientist, Roger believed that one had to build such tools by testing and refining them in the crucible of practice. And this he did most effectively. Roger’s efforts contributed to multiple steps toward peace in the Middle East, including the Camp David summit that led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; to peace in Central America, especially in El Salvador; to the resolution of the longest-running war in the western hemisphere between Ecuador and Peru; to the breakthrough that enabled the resolution of the Iranian hostage conflict in 1980; to a fundamental reshaping of the U.S.-Soviet relationship; and to the negotiations and constitutional process that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.

The acclaimed economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that his guilt in not personally tackling tough conflicts was assuaged by the sure knowledge that Roger was already working on it. Roger’s efforts earned him multiple nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and you could certainly argue that he contributed to saving more lives than almost any of his contemporaries.

Unlike many practitioners, Roger was able to capture and explain his approach simply enough for others to emulate. The clarity of “Getting to Yes” helps to explain why it sells as well today as ever, has shaped a significant portion of traditional negotiation research for 30 years, and leaves readers feeling better equipped to achieve their goals in negotiations.

Generations of Roger’s students credit tools they learned in his Negotiation Workshop for daily successes in multiple fields; close observers have long been struck by his ability, and now that of his successors, to enable young students to successfully use his approaches in situations that would typically seem beyond their experience. In this, Roger showed that a complex realm such as negotiation or conflict resolution can be broken down and taught much like tennis or golf, though no one should underestimate the rare intellectual gifts required to do so.

Roger sought unabashedly to “change the world,” and he did so profoundly. More important, his ideas will continue to spread through the efforts of his many devoted students in the field he helped create. Few of us can hope to have such an impact. We need more like him, and since they will be hard to find, we should be working all the harder to encourage those who might be able to walk in his footsteps and promote his critical work. One of Roger’s favorite questions was “What should I do for the rest of my life?” Now it is for us to answer, as we think how best to make sure his legacy and lessons live on.

This program aired on September 3, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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