From the Boardroom to the Border: Negotiating for Sustainable Agreements

Delivered on the 18th of November, 2009 at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice
Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego
San Diego, California

William Ury
From the Boardroom to the Border: Negotiating for Sustainable Agreements

Editor – Kaitlin Barker
Senior Program Officer – Diana Kutlow

It’s an enormous pleasure for me to be here this evening, and I really want to express my deep gratitude to the Institute for Peace & Justice, to the School of Peace Studies, and to Mrs. Joan B. Kroc for this opportunity and privilege to be with you.

Thirty-three years ago when I started my studies and involvement in international conflict, there were no schools for peace studies. There was no institute for peace and justice. There certainly was no conference on environmental conflict resolution. There were no courses really on negotiation or mediation, and so it’s a distinct pleasure to recognize the progress that’s being made in the field.

The Negotiation Revolution

Over the last 30 years, I’ve had the pleasure of watching and witnessing a revolution take place in the world today. A quiet revolution. A revolution that accompanies the knowledge revolution, but it’s quieter. It’s a revolution in the way individuals such as ourselves – our organizations, our communities, our societies at large – make decisions.

A generation ago the principal form of making decisions was very much top- down. The people on the top of the organizational pyramids gave the orders, and the people on the bottom followed the orders. Increasingly over the last 30 years, in great part due to the information or knowledge revolution, the basic structure of organizations has begun to flatten into networks more resembling what you might call networks of negotiation – from pyramids of power to networks of negotiation.

I invite you to think about your own lives for a moment. Let me define negotiation very simply and very broadly as the act of back-and-forth communication trying to reach some kind of agreement. For example, you have an ongoing relationship with a business partner or a family member, and some issue is in tension, like you might want more money for your products and services and they might want to pay you less. Let me ask you a couple questions about your own experience: Who do you find yourself negotiating with in the course of your average day? Your wife, your spouse, yourself. Your children – that’s a tough one. Who else? Your professors, your employees, your boss, your colleagues.

In the course of your day, if you had to make a ballpark estimate of how much time you spend engaged informally in the act of back-and-forth communication, trying to reach an agreement on some issue, however small, what percentage of your time would you estimate it to be? It’s a huge chunk of our time. We don’t always think of it as negotiation, but in the broader sense that’s what we’re doing from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to bed at night.

Now think for a moment about the last 10 years. As you’ve progressed in either your educational or work career, do you find that the amount of negotiation that you’ve done has pretty much stayed the same, gone down or gone up? The vast majority of you say up. That’s what I’m talking about. That is the negotiation revolution, and I’ve seen it taking place in this country, in Mexico, all through Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. It’s a global revolution in the way decisions are made, so we’re pioneers. Negotiation has gone on forever, but the amount and complexity of negotiation has increased. That’s the challenge we’re faced with at this point.

As that shift has taken place, it doesn’t mean that conflict has gone down. If anything, a lot of suppressed conflicts have come to the surface. We’re living in an era where I would say conflict is a growth industry. conflict itself is not a bad thing. It’s natural. It’s human. So the choice we have is not whether to eliminate conflict; the choice is whether we choose to handle our differences in destructive ways through family feuds, lawsuits, ruinous strikes, violence and war, or whether we choose to deal with our differences constructively through listening, dialogue, negotiation, collaborative problem solving and non-violent action. The choice is whether we can transform those conflicts.

The Third Side

Having spent the last 30 years in this eld and being a little bit of a sucker for “lost causes,” I’ve been to Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Indonesia – visiting the places of deep conflict. I’ve found that the secret of peace is actually very simple. The secret of peace is our oldest human heritage. I’ve spent time with a number of indigenous societies, and they know the secret of peace. Every society in the world has its own form of it. And it’s something that I call the third side.

“I’ve found that the secret of peace is actually very simple. The secret of peace is our oldest human heritage. I’ve spent time with a number of indigenous societies, and they know the secret of peace. Every society in the world has its own form of it. And it’s something that I call the third side.”

What is the third side? The third side is basically us. It’s the community of people, the friends, the allies, the neighbors, the people in conflict themselves, who constitute the whole. They have the ability to circle around – like this Greening Borders conference right now is circling around and convening a community of voices, a lot of which haven’t been properly heard or respected. Whether it’s voices of indigenous groups, voices on both sides of the border, voices of environmental groups, civic groups or businesses, it’s bringing all of them together in a community.

I watched this happen when I spent some time many years ago with several groups of San tribesmen, the so-called Bushmen in Southern Africa, Botswana and Namibia, who were still practicing the vestiges of a lifestyle that was really the human lifestyle for 99 percent of our time on earth: existing in roving bands and hunting and gathering in nature.

What I noticed about them is they have a very simple society in some ways, but they have a complex and quite sophisticated system for managing conflicts. And they have a real dilemma. All the men have weapons that are used for hunting, and because their arrows aren’t very strong, they use the poison from beetle dung that turns out to be extremely poisonous to human beings. A human being will die in two days.

So they have the challenge of figuring out: How do we deal with our differences when emotions go up? I watched them as they assembled a circle – all the men and women, and children even – and sat and talked out their issues. They constitute a third side. They’ll talk it out, listen it out, sometimes for two or three days. They ask the heavens for help, any way that they can. They don’t rest until the conflict is not only resolved, but also that there’s some process of forgiveness where the relationship is restored. And if emotions are still too high, someone may have a cooling-off period – go and visit some relatives and come back in a few months.

They have a whole system to transform conflict. When emotions start to go up in the society, everyone’s got an ear to it. Someone goes and hides the poison arrows out in the desert. I’ve seen that in every indigenous society, and really every society has these ways of convening the community.

When I began in this eld 30 years ago, the impossible conflicts were South Africa (the whites and blacks were going to fight a civil war forever), Northern Ireland (Protestants and Catholics were going to kill each other forever) and the Cold War itself (the Berlin Wall would be there forever). And I watched as all of those conflicts previously considered impossible in fact yielded to patient, persistent negotiation and the transformation of the conflict. It doesn’t mean the conflict ends, but the way in which the conflict is handled changes. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, hasn’t ended, but it’s been transformed from violent means to peaceful democratic means. That’s really the opportunity that’s available for all of us.

A number of years ago, at a time when there seemed to be more promise for negotiations in the Middle East, I was invited to Israel and Palestine to spend some time talking to Palestinian and Israeli negotiators and sharing some experiences. At one point I was asked if I would also facilitate a meeting of Palestinians and Israelis who wanted to form a network of community mediators to address disputes among adjoining communities.

It wasn’t easy for the organizers to find a place where the Palestinians didn’t have to cross police lines, but they found an ancient monastery there on the green line, the line dividing Israel and the Palestinian lands. So the Palestinians came in one door and the Israelis came in another door. It was quite a large group, and right in the front row one of the Israelis was in full police regalia and he had a huge weapon with him. I could tell that it was making our Palestinian colleagues uncomfortable, but no one wanted to say anything, which is a typical pattern for a lot of us. We avoid conflict. They didn’t say anything because they didn’t want to raise a tense issue at this first meeting that might destroy the possibility of this network going somewhere.

Early on they asked me to say something about what it would take to make a network, so I thought, OK, I’m the outsider, maybe I can say something here. So I said, “If you’re forming a network, maybe you want to think about ground rules. For example: Should you allow weapons in the room?” And as soon as I said that everyone started to laugh a little bit and smile. Because I had named the problem, we began to engage. You have to move into the
heart of the conflict.

Then the man who was wearing the Israeli police uniform began to protest and say he was really interested in being a community mediator, it’s just that his day job was as a policeman and by regulations he’d have to go home and drop off his weapon, and he hadn’t had time before the meeting. He explained and then we had a little bit of a brainstorming session on what to do about ground rules about weapons. I remember one of the participants suggested during the brainstorm, “What if we allow everyone to bring their weapons into the room?” Then I knew we had some work to do.

The role of the third side is to hold the whole for a moment. That’s the key to me. It’s been the key to success in South Africa, and what I witnessed there was the religious communities, the business communities, the university communities and women’s communities all getting activated in reaching out to try and create a community will to transform the conflict. Nelson Mandela was a third-sider; you can be on one side and still take the side of peaceful conflict transformation. And in turn, the third side within the society was supported by a third side outside, which was people around the world, including university students here in the United States. That created a crucible within which a very difficult conflict could be transformed – not ended, but transformed.

“… you can be on one side and still take the side of peaceful conflict transformation.”

The same thing happened in Europe. I spent many years growing up in Switzerland, and I watched the early beginnings of the European community. If you had been in the ruins of Berlin or London in 1945 and you had said, “Sixty years from now, this is going to be the most peaceful, prosperous part of the world,” people would have thought you were certifiably insane. But what happened is they created Europe, a larger context, an architecture of peace, based on shared prosperity and a shared sense of identity – within which the ancient feud between Germany and France and other European feuds could be peacefully transformed. That is the challenge we face in the world today: How do we create that third side?

Given that this lecture is also part of the Greening Borders conference, I’d like to share with you just four third-side, practical tools that I’ve found very useful for changing the game from confrontation to cooperation.

Go to the Balcony

The very first tool is foundational. Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned since Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton and I collaborated on Getting To Yes is that the single biggest barrier to us accomplishing what we want in a negotiation is actually not the other side, as we often think it is. It’s not that difficult person or that difficult group. It’s actually right here. It’s ourselves. It’s in our own natural human tendency to react – to act without thinking. As Ambrose Bierce once put it, “When angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” That happens time and again. Even though negotiation is supposed to be goal-oriented behavior, we lose it. It’s very natural, particularly because the issues are tough and the emotions are high.

“The foundational third-side negotiation ability is the ability to step back for a moment.”

The foundational third-side negotiation ability is the ability to step back for a moment. I like to use the metaphor of negotiating here on a stage as part of your mind goes to a balcony overlooking that stage where you can get some perspective. It’s the skill that academics would call “perspective-taking,” the ability to step back for a moment. Find a place of calm and perspective where you can see the big picture. From this vantage point you can see not just who’s at the table but who’s not at the table but who needs to be – remembering that you cannot expect people who are not involved in the process to approve the product.

Allow me if you will to share a personal story. Some years ago I’d been invited by President Carter to see if I could be of assistance in the emerging conflict in Venezuela between President Hugo Chavez and his supporters, the chavistas, and the people who wanted him out of office, the anti-chavistas. There had recently been an attempted coup d’etat, and there were literally a million people on the streets who supported him and a million people on the street who opposed him. There was some violence and widespread concern in the international community that this situation was going to tip into a civil war not unlike the way civil war tragically started in Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia 40 years before.

I was trying to see if it might be possible to activate the third side and build a community for peace, and at one point after the second or third trip I was invited to meet with Hugo Chavez. He would not sit down and meet with his opposition, and they didn’t want to sit down with him either. The emotions were so high that there was no way. He considered them traitors; they considered him a communist. There was no talking.

I had a meeting with him at his presidential palace at 9 p.m., so I was there at 9 p.m. Then it was 9:30 p.m. 10 p.m. 10:30 p.m. 11:30 p.m. At midnight I was finally ushered in to see the president, expecting of course to find him alone at this late hour of night, but I found his entire cabinet arrayed behind him. He asked me how things were going and I said, “Well, I’ve been talking with some of your government ministers and the opposition leaders, and it seems to me that we’re actually making some progress here in defusing the crisis a little bit.”

I don’t know whether he was doing this deliberately or if it was just what happened, but then he just lost it. He leaned into me and proceeded to shout at me saying, “You’re being totally fooled! You’re naïve! You’re not seeing what the opposition is doing. They’re engaged in all these dirty tricks.” He was less than six inches away from my face and proceeded to shout at me for almost 45 minutes, in front of his whole cabinet.

And of course I was getting defensive and thinking, “What do you mean? I’m not naïve!” That’s what’s going on inside me and I was in danger of falling off the balcony. I remembered several months earlier I’d been talking with a friend of mine from Ecuador, from the Andes, who said, “You know Bill, if you’re ever in a tense situation, let me teach you a little technique. Just pinch the palm of your hand.” I said, “What do you mean pinch the palm of my hand?” He said, “Yes, just pinch the palm of your hand and it will give you a tiny little bit of pain which will keep you alert.”

So in that moment of need I decided to pinch the palm of my hand as a way of going to the balcony and saying, “Do I really want to get into an argument with the president of Venezuela? Is that going to advance what I’m here for?” I realized it wouldn’t so I thought, Just listen. Be patient. So I just listened and after a while, although it turned out to be a great while, at the end President Chavez’s shoulders kind of sank a little bit, and he said to me in a weary tone of voice, “So Ury, what should I do?”

That was my moment – because when you’re dealing with someone who’s in a highly emotional or angry state, it’s virtually impossible to use reason with that person. You’re just wasting your time. It’s like beating your head against a stone wall. You have to wait until the right time, so that was my cue that he was open.

My suggestion actually was that the entire country needed to go to the balcony for a moment because it was just before Christmas, and the previous Christmas had almost been cancelled because of the conflict. The whole country needed a truce, a collective time to cool off for a moment, and then they could resume the conflict if they liked in January. He thought it was a very good idea, and then he started to get chummy with me and said, “Yes, and over Christmas maybe you should come traveling with me in Venezuela. I’ll show you the country.” But then he thought, “Well, you’re neutral. Maybe that won’t be so good for you because you’re a mediator, but I’ll give you a disguise.”

“… one of the greatest powers that we have is the power not to react.”

To me it illustrated that one of the greatest powers that we have is the power not to react. And that’s what the balcony is. It’s about focusing on what’s truly important. So that is the first key skill: focusing and having that big picture perspective.


The second third-side tool, which I also tried to use in that incident, is simply the ability to listen. It may seem very simple and obvious, but most people associate negotiation with talking. We talk, and we call them “talks.” That’s what newspapers call them. But to me, negotiation is much more about listening than it is about talking.

The key skill that you need is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other, because if you think about it, negotiation is an exercise in influence. You’re trying to change the other’s mind. How are you going to change the other’s mind if you don’t know where that mind is right now? If you observe the behaviors of successful negotiators, you find that they listen much more than they talk. It’s about listening, and it’s about respect. Listening and respect are probably the cheapest concessions you can make in a negotiation. They cost you nothing, but they mean everything to the other side.

“Listening and respect are probably the cheapest concessions you can make in a negotiation. They cost you nothing, but they mean everything to the other side.”

My own personal observation of what was really dangerous in Venezuela, what was at risk of tipping the country into a flashpoint of violence, wasn’t just the enormity of the dispute over political power or economic resources, but the amount of disrespect that was being shown, the personal attacks. I remember President Chavez just being livid that he was being called a mono, a monkey, on the TV stations that were owned by his political opponents. He heard that as a racist insult.

Then when I met with the head of the opposition, he was just furious because all his life he was a devout Catholic – he would go and pray every morning in the central cathedral in the plaza – and now President Chavez had gone on national TV and denounced him as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and an enemy of the people. There was a poster with his face on it; he couldn’t walk down the street anymore without getting abused. One government minister told me that he had to move his children three times in the schools. He was just furious. It’s that kind of fury and humiliation that really can trigger an escalation into violence.

The key thing is respect. I’ve trained police hostage negotiators, and I find it interesting that the number one lesson they cite for dealing with a hostage situation is simply to be polite. If you want to try and reach someone in an agitated state of mind, be polite. Give respect. Sometimes we think of respect as something that someone has to earn. Maybe there is that kind of respect, but I’m talking about the kind of respect that is a human birthright. To me creating that environment of respect is critical in moving forward. The third side creates a larger circle of respect and inclusion.


A third third-side tool is one of the greatest powers that we have: the ability to reframe. If we want to change the game from confrontation to cooperation, we need to learn to change the frame, the way in which we see the situation. We have that power. In any negotiation or conflict it’s almost like there’s a spotlight, and that spotlight can be on positions where it often is in conflicts, on each side digging into their positions: We are refusing to budge. We are refusing to budge.

“What’s really going on? What’s the heart of the issue? How do you move the spotlight from positions to a search for creative solutions that benefit all sides?”

How do you move the spotlight over to a problem-solving conversation where the basic focus isn’t so much on positions, but on the interests, the needs, the desires and the concerns that lie behind those positions? What’s really going on? What’s the heart of the issue? How do you move the spotlight from positions to a search for creative solutions that bene t all sides? It’s not easy to do. A key way of doing that is to ask problem-solving questions that move the spotlight from positions to interests – questions like, “Why do you want this? Please help me understand.”

Some years ago, I was involved as a third party in a negotiation taking place between the Indonesian government and the leaders of a secessionist guerrilla movement in Aceh called the GAM, the Free Aceh Movement. Aceh is the northern part of Sumatra and there had been a war going on for 25 years, or perhaps for 125 years back with the Dutch. Thousands of people killed. Some of you may remember it as the place where the tsunami really had its greatest tragic impact a number of years ago.

We first had a day alone with the leaders of the guerrilla movement and I said to them, “I understand your position, the thing that you’re fighting for, which is independence. Please help me understand what your interests are. Why do you want independence?” And I remember, we were sitting around the table there in Geneva and there was this silence for a while, and they were struggling with that question. The truth was that they knew what their position was, which is what we often do: We know what our position is, what we’re fighting for, but sometimes we haven’t really thought through what our interests are. Why do you want independence?

I was asking them, “Is it economic reasons? Do you want control of the natural gas resources? Is it political control? Is it cultural autonomy, that you want your kids to go to school in your language? Is it that you want a seat in the United Nations? What is it that you actually want, and what’s the priority?”

Once we talked that through, once they were able to get a little bit clear about what their priorities were, then the question was: “How much is warfare going to help you in advancing your interests? How likely is it that you’ll be able to do that in the next 10 years?” They were able to easily acknowledge that, in fact, given the balance of power, they were unlikely to meet those interests in the next 10 years.

And that led to the possibility of asking, “What if you formed yourself as a political party, a political movement? Could you then gain economic, political, cultural self-rule? What might be possible there?” And they began to explore that. It’s not so easy in those kinds of movements because they didn’t have a political party, and they didn’t think it was possible, so it took a year or two of intense debate within the movement.

There were a lot of other people involved – I’m not taking any credit for this. But I was very pleased to see that in the end, after the tsunami hit and it was like a reality test, they actually were able to reach an agreement. It was interesting: The first governor and vice-governor of the autonomous province were actually leaders of the Free Aceh Movement. So again, the conflict didn’t end. It just changed shape by changing the frame, focusing on the underlying interests behind the positions and looking for creative options.

Build a Golden Bridge

Once you’ve reframed and changed the game, the fourth tool I’ll mention is what I call the golden bridge. That phrase comes from a Chinese military strategist 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu, who wrote a book called The Art of War. He talked about building your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across. In negotiation I would reframe that positively as a golden bridge for both of you to advance across.

In other words, what often happens in difficult conflicts is that when we’ve got an idea, we tend to push the other side. We tend to try and put pressure. And of course the more pressure you put on someone, what do they instinctively do? They resist. So unless you’re much more powerful than them, you’re in a standoff. What you find successful negotiators do is attract. Instead of making it harder for the other side, they try to make it easier for the other side to make the decision that they would like them to make.

In a difficult negotiation, it’s almost as if your mind is here and the other side’s mind might be over there. You’re here and you’re saying to them, “Come on over to my position. Come over to where I am.” But if you put yourself in their shoes for a moment, it’s not so easy for them to go where you’d like them to go. It’s almost like there’s a canyon – a Grand Canyon or a chasm – of dissatisfaction and anxiety: Am I going to look like a sellout? Am I going to look weak? What am I going to say to my people?

It’s not easy for them to move where you’d like them to move, so it’s incumbent upon us to leave where our minds are for a moment, begin the conversation over there where they are, and build them a golden bridge over that chasm. Make it as easy as possible for them to move in the direction you’d like them to move.

I’ll give you a very simple example that comes from the lm producer Steven Spielberg. He recounts that when he was about 13, there was a bully who was 15 in his class who beat him up and made his life pure hell for an entire year. He would run home from school, dive under his bed and call out “Safe!” – until one day he asked himself, “How do I get this bully off my back?”

He went up to the bully one day and said (because even then he was making home movies), “You know, I’m making a home movie about fighting the Nazis and I was wondering if you’d like to play the war hero?” The bully laughed in his face, but a couple days later he came back and said OK. So young Spielberg took him and dressed him up in fatigues and a backpack, the whole works, and made him the war hero in his movie. And after that he reports that the bully who beat him up for an entire year became his best friend.

So the question is what’s the logic? What’s the psychological logic by which a bully gets transformed into a best friend? Why does a bully bully? And bullies aren’t only found in the school yard; they’re found in the larger world, unfortunately. What’s a bully looking for? Attention. Control. Power. Respect. Bullying, interestingly, doesn’t come from a feeling of security; it comes from a feeling of insecurity. So what does Spielberg do? He asks what he has as his resources to meet what turned out to be basic human needs. And in doing so, he transforms the bully into his best friend.

When you’re trying to build that bridge, you’re faced with dozens of parties and very complex issues. I want to suggest one bridging methodology that I think might be of use or consideration. When I was a graduate student still at Harvard, I was involved with a number of professors, including my mentor Roger Fisher, and it was the time of the 1978 Camp David Peace Summit.

We sent in a memo suggesting a certain method that had been used in the Law of the Sea negotiations.16 It’s called the single negotiating text method, and it ended up being used at Camp David. At Camp David it was Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin of Israel, President [Anwar] Sadat of Egypt and our president, who was Jimmy Carter at the time. The parties came with their positions. President Sadat wanted the entire Sinai Peninsula back, which the Israelis had occupied in the ‘67 War, and Prime Minister Begin was insisting on keeping about one-third or one-quarter of the Sinai Peninsula. Those were the initial positions.

Now, in a normal negotiation, what do you do? You go back and forth between the parties with their positions, asking for flexibility, so that’s what began to happen. But where do you draw the line in the sand between those two positions? After a couple days with little success, the American meditators decided to explore using this single negotiating text process instead. It’s a very simple process. Essentially it means that instead of starting from the two positions, the Americans went back to the Israelis and Egyptians and said, “Don’t change your positions. We’re not asking you to change your positions. Just tell us a little bit about what your interests are. What are you concerned about? What do you really need? Why do you want the entire Sinai back?”

To the Egyptians, they asked: Why do you want the entire Sinai back? “Sovereignty. The land has been ours since the time of the pharaohs.” To the Israelis, they asked: Why do you want to keep part of the Sinai? “Security. Egyptian tanks have rolled across this land and attacked us.” So then the question becomes not how do we draw up a compromise in between the two positions that would be clearly unsatisfactory, but rather how do we meet those two interests? How do we reconcile those two interests of sovereignty and security?

So there was a wild idea floating out there: Why not give the entire Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt, with sovereignty to Egypt, but at the same time turn the Sinai into a demilitarized zone, addressing Israeli security? The Egyptian flag could fly everywhere but Egyptian tanks could go nowhere.

The Americans put this idea on paper and then came back to the Egyptians and the Israelis, saying, “Look, this is not a proposal. We’re not asking you to accept it. All we’re asking you to do is criticize it. Tell us where it doesn’t meet your interests.” No one likes to make a tough decision, but everyone loves to criticize, so the Israelis criticized and the Egyptians criticized, and then the Americans went back and tried to see if they could improve the idea, make it better for one side without making it worse for the other.

Then they took it back to the parties again and said, “This isn’t a proposal. Just give us more criticism.” They went through 22 or 23 drafts in the course of 10 days. They came to a point at the end where there was no way they could improve it for one side without making it worse for the other. Only at that point did President Carter take it to Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat and say, “This is the best we can do. Do you want it or not?”

Sadat and Begin were then faced with a very different decision than they were under the normal negotiating process of positions, where you hold on to your position and where no one wants to be weak and give in and make that first concession. Instead of having to make politically painful concessions all the way through, they only had to make one decision at the end – not at the start when making one concession could lead to another on a slippery slope, but only at the end when they could see exactly what they were going to get in return. Sadat could see he was going to get the entire Sinai back; Begin could see he was going to get this peace with Egypt. And under those conditions they chose to say yes.

In the Greening Borders conference, for example, if you have an environmental group, a national group and a federal authority, and everyone has their own positions, it’s really difficult to move. But the wonderful virtue of using a single negotiating text that is non-official, simply an idea that continually gets circulated among multiple parties, is that everyone can mark it up. Everyone can tell you what’s wrong with it, and then you have drafters who are continually improving that text over time. It allows much wider participation and no one has to agree to anything until they can actually see at the end if their interests are truly being met in the document. That is one way of building a golden bridge – of involving everyone in the process. There are many other techniques that could be suggested, but I just wanted to suggest that one.

Those are just four basic third-side negotiating powers to consider: the power of going to the balcony, which is perspective-taking; the power of listening and respect, which have to do with empathy; the power of reframing; and the power of bridging. The third side allows people to find common ground. If you think about it, the third side is common ground. It’s the sense of the whole.

What about the Middle East?

Let me turn to the Middle East for a moment. For anyone who’s involved in conflict resolution, the most frequent question you get is, “You’re in the conflict resolution business – what about the Middle East?” It’s the conflict that receives the most attention around the world, and it’s widely held and regarded as absolutely impossible. But is it?

I’ve been a close student of that conflict for over 30 years now, and it’s stuck for sure. But one has to ask: Where is the common ground? This is the genesis of a project I’ve been working on, trying to help unstick the conflict by coming at it from a completely different angle, which is to look for the symbolic common ground in the story. It lies, of course, in the figure of Abraham, from whom so many trace their descendance – 3.5 billion people on the planet trace the origin of their spiritual tradition to the story of Abraham. And it’s not just tracing it to a single figure, but to a figure whose basic message is that everything is interconnected – concerned by modern science of course – and whose basic virtue is kindness toward strangers. Hospitality.

My colleagues and I have been working on trying to go to the heart of the conflict, the heart of the story, in the heart of the Middle East by dusting off the footsteps of Abraham and reawakening the ancient path that Abraham and his family, Sarah and Hagar, are believed to have taken 4,000 years ago. Their path goes from one of his traditional birth places in northern Mesopotamia, in the southern Turkish city of Urfa and the ancient ruins of Harran where he hears the call, all the way down through Syria, Jordan and Israel, and ending in the Palestinian city of Hebron, or Al-Khalil – which is named after Abraham and where he is buried.

We studied the potential and difficulties of the idea at Harvard, and I made a number of trips to the region consulting, and a lot of people here in this country said it was impossible. A lot of people thought this was an absolutely crazy idea, that there was no way anyone would ever travel there. So we did a demonstration journey where we took 25 people of all faiths from 10 different countries. We had priests, a sheik, a rabbi, and we actually retraced the footsteps of Abraham. And there was enough interest in the region, even with all the conflict, that host committees have started to assemble, and I’m pleased to say that this year it’s no longer a vision or a crazy idea. It’s an incipient reality. We now have hundreds of people every month beginning to walk the first segments of the path that are now open where no one would have imagined it possible, in the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and even Syria.

It’s quite amazing to me that the majority of travelers on the path in its very fledgling form, despite the widespread fear, are women, who are natural third- siders. Since our conference here is a U.S-Mexico conference, I’ll mention one woman in particular, a young Mexican woman who was a university researcher in Britain. She’d heard about the path and this summer insisted she wanted to travel alone. We said, “No, no, we’re not ready.” But she had the vision. She had the call, and she set off and traveled alone through Syria for a month, passing from one village to another.

I invite all of you to come, because the path is actually created by people walking. In the words of the Spanish civil war poet, Antonio Machado, in one of his poems: Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar. It means, “Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”

The path is emerging as people begin to travel, as any path is, and it’s emerging because of the hosts in these villages. When you travel in the Middle East you discover that our perception is hostility, but the reality you find when you’re in those villages is hospitality. And what the spirit of Abraham signifies is hospitality.

As you perhaps can tell, I’m an aficionado of peace, and honestly, despite having spent time in many war-torn areas, I still believe that conflicts can be peacefully transformed. I’d like to share with you just one last story from the Middle East, one of my favorite stories that sums up what this is all about. It’s a story about a man who passed away and left to his three sons, as his inheritance, 17 camels. To the first son he left half the camels. To the second son he left one-third of the camels. And to the third son he left one-ninth of the camels.

“I’m an aficionado of peace, and honestly, despite having spent time in many war-torn areas, I still believe that conflicts can be peacefully transformed.”

The three sons tried to divide 17 by 2, by 3 and by 9 – but it doesn’t divide by 2 or 3 or 9. Each wanted more and they started to get into a conflict. Tempers started to rise. Fraternal relationships started to get strained. So finally in desperation they went and consulted a wise old woman. The wise old woman, a third side as it were, thought about their problem for a long time and finally came back and said, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but at least if you want, you can have my camel.”

So the three brothers said OK. They took her camel, and that meant they had 18 camels, which does happen to divide by 2. It happens to be 9. Eighteen divided by 3 equals 6. And 18 divided by 9 is 2. So 9 + 6 + 2 = 17. They had one camel left over, and they gave it back to the wise old woman.

If you think about that story for a moment, you may find that it will resemble a lot of the difficult conflicts that we get engaged in. It seems absolutely impossible. Somehow what we need to do is take a step back from the situation, go to the balcony, change our perceptions a little bit, like that wise old woman, and come up with an 18th camel. The ideas that we’re talking about are not actually new; the third side is really the oldest human heritage for dealing with differences. The third side can be one such 18th camel.

And that is why this school of peace is so important, because it is a place to gather the third side. That’s why the institute is so important, why this conference is so important, and why each one of you is so important. Because there’s an old African proverb that goes: When spider webs unite, they can halt even a lion. Each one of us has that power to weave a certain web, so together we can halt the lion of war. Thank you very much!

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