By amanda ripley

This is article was originally published in POLITICO on March 10, 2024. To read it on POLITICO’s website, click here.

President Joe Biden was spotted carrying a new and extremely timely book onto his helicopter last week, en route to Camp David. The book, Possibleis by William Ury, a veteran negotiator who has worked behind the scenes to help transform some of the most malignant conflicts of the past 47 years, from the Middle East to Colombia to Ukraine.

When Ury wrote this latest book on conflict resolution, he was thinking specifically of how to be useful to American leaders at a time of profound division within the country — how to distill what he has learned into actionable advice. (One tip: to remain calm in a hostile moment, when, say, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is screaming directly into your face, pinch the palm of your hand.)

A previous book that Ury co-authored, Getting to Yescame out in 1981 and remains one of the best-selling business books of all time. But Ury himself has evolved and has a new approach to negotiating the most intractable conflicts of our time. He spoke to POLITICO from his home in Colorado about what he has learned — and what might be the hardest lesson for Biden to accept.

Do you know who gave Biden your book or how he came across it?

I do. A friend of mine in the White House heard about the book. She said that for Biden, the theme of America is possibility. So she gave it to him. But I’m sure he receives lots of books. How it is that he actually took the book as he was getting on the helicopter? That’s an utter mystery to me.

And I was humbled and delighted because I wrote the book to see if I could pass on what I’d learned. And [Biden] has an enormous opportunity, as do others. I should also say, I did pass the book to Ivanka Trump and to Jared Kushner, too. And Ivanka Trump posted about it on Instagram. So I’m trying to spread these possibilities as far as I can because these things are larger than politics.

What does Biden’s choice to take the book with him to Camp David reveal about him? I know we’re speculating now.

Well, I believe he actually believes in the power of negotiation.

How do you know that?

Well, I met him first about 40 years ago, just after Getting to Yes had come out. I was in the Senate at the invitation of Sen. Alan Cranston, from California. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking up the nuclear freeze resolution, and somehow Cranston said to Biden, “Here, here’s a copy of this book, and I’m going to try and get to yes with you.” And then I spent some time with Biden, and I’ve tracked his career ever since.

You’ve written a lot of books over the years. Where does this one fit? It’s no longer actually Getting to Yes, right? I mean, it’s a little more complicated.

That’s right. There’s an evolution. Because after all these years, people ask me — having been in all these war zones, the Middle East, Chechnya, [North] Korea, Colombia — “Well, are you an optimist or are you a pessimist?” I used to say I’m an optimist, but now say I’m a possibilist. In other words, I believe in human potential. Because I’ve seen people take seemingly impossible situations like the one we’re facing today in this country, and transform them, turn them around, make them more possible.

I have had a lot of different adventures. But the coal mine strikes, the family feuds, the boardroom battles, the civil wars — it’s all human beings who are faced with fear, anger, threats, humiliation and trauma. And the question is, can we find a better way?

You’ve learned that the first fight we have is internal: How are we thinking about the conflict in our own heads? You write in the book about “going to the balcony” in your mind, when you’re in conflict. Can you explain what you mean?

I like to use the metaphor, which came from one of my colleagues at Harvard, Ron Heifetz, who teaches leadership. Imagine that you’re negotiating on a stage; you’re actors on the stage, and there might be many actors. Imagine that part of you goes to a mental and emotional balcony overlooking that stage. In other words, a place of calm and perspective where you can keep your eyes on the prize and see the larger picture. And I would say maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned since writing Getting to Yes is that the single biggest obstacle is not what we think.

We think it’s the difficult person that we’re dealing with — that difficult country, the difficult other party, whatever it is. It’s not. It’s me, the person I look at in the mirror every single morning. It lies in our natural, very understandable, very human tendency to react, to act out of fear, to act out of anger. And so we get in our own way. And that’s why part of Possible is, how do we go to the balcony, particularly in these times when so many things are coming at us, fast and furious, and we’re in a reactive age.

I think often about your story of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He started screaming at you, in your face, during a very tense time in that country, and you just listened, calmly, until he wore himself out. So you “went to the balcony,” but you must have had to practice the pause so many times to do it in that moment. I mean, it is very hard to do.

It is hard to do, but we all actually have our favorite way of doing it. I ask people regularly, what’s your favorite way? “Oh, I take a couple deep breaths, or I bite my tongue, or I count to 10.”

Didn’t you pinch your hand, or something like that?

Yeah. In that moment, I pinched the palm of my hand because a friend of mine had told me a little bit of pain will keep you momentarily alert. And it worked. It wasn’t easy because the president of Venezuela is shouting at you, leaning close, right in your face. You could feel the hot breath. In front of the entire Cabinet.

I was starting to get defensive, of course, but then I stopped for a moment, and I observed, and this is what we do need to do, is to notice your own thoughts. Because when you notice them, they start to relax. And then, paradoxically, the way to listen to someone else is first to listen to yourself.

We can assume that Biden will get thousands of opportunities to go to the balcony this election cycle. What would you advise him to do when, say, he gets attacked on the debate stage or heckled by members of Congress?

One of the greatest powers you have is the power, in the moment, to not take the bait.

I remember once I was facilitating a conversation between the leaders of Chechnya and Russia, when Chechnya was fighting a war against the Russians for independence. And we were meeting in the Hague, and at one moment, the vice president of Chechnya was excoriating the Russians and saying, “You’re war criminals,” and went into all the suffering of the Chechen people through the centuries.

And then he looked at me and he said, “You’re an American, and President Bill Clinton, he’s supporting Boris Yeltsin, he’s supporting the Russians.” And he said, “You’re oppressing the people of Puerto Rico.” And then everyone, there were about 30 people around the table, everyone looks at me, how am I going to respond?

Somehow I took a moment of silence, and I said, “First of all, I hear all the pain and suffering of the Chechen people. I hear that.” I kind of acknowledged the pain. And then I said, “I take your criticism of my country as a sign that we’re among friends, and we can speak candidly to each other. And what we’re here to do is to see if we can prevent further suffering, so let’s talk about that.” And it was just a reframe.

How did you think of that? Such a good response.

Believe it or not, the very next day he invited me to meet with him privately, and he handed me this ceremonial Chechen sword that was 200 years old as a gift on behalf of the Chechen people. So, go figure.

It sounds like from the balcony, you’re less likely to get trapped, you’re less likely to get sucked into the conflict, which is where we make mistakes.

Absolutely. Because negotiation is supposed to be a goal-oriented behavior. You’re trying to advance your objectives. But what I find in conflict is, we often act in ways that go exactly contrary to our own interests.

Yeah. I’m thinking about a recent POLITICO Magazine piece about pro-Palestinian protesters camped out in front of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s home. They seemed to be very nice grandmothers and mothers who are in a lot of pain about what’s happening in Gaza.

And then the Blinken family car comes along, with two little kids in there, and the protesters start screaming and throwing fake blood and saying, “Your father’s a baby killer.” It’s amazing that they think this is going to work. It’s undermining your own case, right?

That’s a really good example. We fall off the balcony, and we react, and a lot of that behavior comes because we’re experiencing the trauma of what’s happening over there. And often times, the victims of trauma become perpetrators. It’s a known psychological phenomenon and yeah, it’s sad. We need to learn to break that cycle. The best way to start a negotiation is to stop. It’s to pause, it’s to go to the balcony. It’s to breathe.

Do you know if any other presidents have ever read any of your other books?

Yeah, I worked, for example, for seven years as a senior adviser to the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. Here he was facing 50 years of civil war, hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of victims. But no one believed that peace was possible. And he was one who read Getting to Yes. And so he thought, there’s got to be a better way.

When you think about all the different lessons in Possible, what’s one that you think is most relevant and urgent for President Biden right now?

One central lesson would be that we might not be able to resolve a conflict like the one in the Middle East, but we might just be able to transform it. In other words, gradually change the form of the conflict from destructive fighting and war into constructive conflict and negotiation. This is hard work, but it is possible. That’s what I’ve seen happen in other seemingly impossible conflicts in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants, or in South Africa, between Blacks and whites, or in Colombia negotiating with the largest guerilla group, the FARC. In each case, the conflict didn’t end, but the war did.

It’s going to require, and this is what the president can stress, reframing the basic question from who’s winning and who’s losing, to how can we meet the basic human needs of all sides?

That’s the greatest power I think the president has, is to help people reframe that basic question. The only way out is through a negotiated process that respects the basic needs of the parties, and that’s going to take a lot of help from the international community. And that’s where President Biden can play a leadership role.

It’s easy for people to be pessimistic these days about deep-seated conflicts like the Middle East, and yet nothing is as dangerous as a spirit of pessimism because it leads to resignation and quickly becomes a self-confirming prophecy. So the job of a leader like Biden is to keep reminding us of what’s really possible.

Given what you know about Biden, what do you think might be hardest for him personally to do — or to accept — from the book?

Well, I think it would be hard for him to give [Donald Trump] respect. That would be really hard for him because he really doesn’t like this guy. The guy makes his blood boil.

Respect, I find, is the cheapest concession you can make in a negotiation. It costs you the least and it means the most to the other person. Because the other person’s dignity might not mean that much to you, but it means everything to them. And what drives really bitter conflict more than anything else is the feeling of humiliation. That’s often what drives violence.

When I was working with Chávez, the very first meeting I had with him, I asked him, “What could your political adversaries do tomorrow morning that would convince you that maybe it would be worth talking to them?” And he looked at me, he said, “You know what they could do? They could stop going on television and calling me a mono,” which is Spanish for monkey. And he grimaced his face at that moment, and I could tell he was taking it as a racist illusion to his indigenous heritage. That was the first thing that came to mind — personal respect.

I’m not talking about respect in the sense that you approve of their behavior. I’m talking about basic human dignity. And what I’ve found in negotiations is that you might abhor a person’s behavior, but if you can give them that respect, that’s the beginning of a process.

It just takes people by surprise. Even if it doesn’t have all the desired effects, you interrupt the dance.

The mere offer of it, even if it’s not accepted, it changes the tune.