Doctor Yes

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"Since our freshman year, beginning in the fall of 1939 with World War II, the primary focus of my interest has been how the world copes with its conflicting values, perceptions, wants and needs," wrote Roger Fisher '43, LL.B. '48, in his fiftieth reunion report. Fisher enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942 and served as an airborne meteorologist, flying weather reconnaissance in B-17s and B-29s over the North Atlantic and South Pacific. "After losing my roommate and some of my best friends in war," he says, "I knew we had to find a better way for people to deal with their differences."

Roger Fisher has helped to get to yes in many precincts of a troubled world.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

He studied international law at the Law School, spent 15 months in Paris in the European headquarters of the Marshall Plan, and followed that with six years of practicing international law with the Washington, D.C., firm of Covington & Burling, working on such problems as Pakistan's dispute with India over the water of the Indus River.

Conflict Management Group website:

For two terms starting in 1956, as assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, Fisher argued cases for the government before the Supreme Court. He was good: winning 10 out of 12 cases, he recalls. But when he came to Harvard as a lecturer on law in 1958, "I looked at the cases I'd argued before the Supreme Court, and most of them should have been settled," he says. "They didn't settle because most of the advice given law students on settling was how to argue for more than you should get, offer less than you expect to give, and compete as to who can be more stubborn and who can better threaten to walk away without a deal. That's the way the Middle East bargains today."

Fisher and a student of his, William Ury, Ph.D. '82, presented a better way to settle differences in the first popular book on negotiation, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, published in 1981 and in a second edition in 1991 with Bruce Patton '77, J.D. '81, now Beal lecturer on law, as a third coauthor. In transparent prose, with many case-study examples of strife, the book urges disputants to separate personalities from substance and to focus on interests, not positions; to shun the idea that conflict-solving must be a zero-sum game to carve up a pie of fixed size, and instead to invent options for mutual gain; and to use independent standards of fairness to measure proposed resolutions. The book was and is a bestseller. Wishing to get to yes more often in their daily lives, whether reasoning with the boss about a raise or with a spouse about what to have for dinner, the hopeful have bought about three million copies in 25 languages. In North America alone, Getting to YES now sells 3,000 copies a week. "It's a good way of launching a field," says Howard Raiffa, LL.D. '02, Ramsey professor of managerial economics emeritus, a joint chair at the Business School and the Kennedy School, and a founder of the Program on Negotiation. Raiffa is himself the author of an early landmark work, The Art and Science of Negotiation (1982).

Fisher became a full professor in 1960. In 1979 he founded the Harvard Negotiation Project — now part of the Program on Negotiation and of which he is still director, with Patton as deputy director — and in that year worked with the White House counsel and Iranian leaders to develop a negotiated outcome for the Iran hostage crisis through Algerian mediation. In 1984 he and Patton founded the nonprofit Conflict Management Group, which today has offices on Waterhouse Street in Cambridge, hard by the law school. Under its banner or Harvard's, Fisher has helped ease conflict in El Salvador, South Africa, Cyprus, and Colombia, and between Ecuador and Peru, and Georgia and South Ossetia. At 81, he is now Williston professor of law emeritus, but not fully retired: with psychologist Daniel Shapiro, he is at work on a book about the role of emotions in negotiation, and he continues to teach negotiation and to consult to businesses and governments throughout the world.

Fisher first met Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat in 1971, the year before publication of his book Dear Israelis, Dear Arabs: A Working Approach to Peace. He thought then, and is fond of saying now, that peace is not a piece of paper. "The Arabs and Jews will have a series of problems — water for irrigation will be a big one. They have to have not only a framework — presumably two states, if that can be established — but also people who know how to work with each other, who instead of picking up a rock or a gun pick up a telephone and say, 'Let's have lunch tomorrow. I see a problem.' Peace is not an end to differences, it is a process — a way of dealing with differences. Presidents and prime ministers want a big signing on the White House lawn to say, 'Okay, we've solved that problem.' But that's not life."


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