Choosing to Help

It is the spring of 1997 and I am sitting in Pound 107 while Roger Fisher ’48, Williston Professor of Law, Emeritus, is telling a story about his serving as a weather reconnaissance pilot in World War II. As a teaching assistant for the Negotiation Workshop, I have heard the story at least a dozen times by now and feel my mind wandering. And yet, against my will, as the story reaches its crescendo and the combination punch line/negotiation lesson flows from Roger’s lips, I find myself involuntarily leaning forward and, a second later, helplessly bursting into laughter. The note I jot down to myself is: “All of life is about who tells better stories.”

Storytelling was indeed one of Roger’s finest talents. His sense of timing, the inflection of his voice and his radiant smile seemed to be perfectly calibrated with his audiences, whether they were law students, diplomats, soldiers or community mediators.

But teaching about “all of life” was Roger’s real gift and his ongoing legacy for generations of students and others whom he touched, directly or indirectly, through his work.

In many ways, Roger did not fit in easily at Harvard Law School. In a profession that trains students to identify analytical gaps in others’ reasoning and to posit critical arguments for why something—an idea, a vision, a reform—that might seem likely to happen at first glance couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t happen, Roger took a different tack. His energies seemed ever focused on figuring out how things that seemed unlikely could be made reality. In this way, he unwittingly exposed himself to charges that he was an ivory tower idealist, unaware of the harsh realities of a world filled with malevolence and evil.

But to those who knew him, to those who witnessed his sharp mind in action every day, just the opposite was true. Here was a man who, after serving in Europe in World War II, returned home to learn that his college roommate and two close friends had perished in the conflict; a man who, as a young State Department lawyer, assisted W. Averell Harriman in crafting the Marshall Plan; a man who served as a fierce and partisan advocate for the government in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court as a young lawyer. Though he had witnessed the consequences and carnage of violent conflict, Roger somehow chose to see, engage and elicit the best of human potential.

Roger was a master at the art of perspective-taking, of understanding how deep human needs—to be heard, valued, respected, autonomous and safe—when unmet or trampled upon, become seeds of evil and violence, seeds that can cause us to villainize each other, and that motivate us to see the world in stark black-and-white terms. For Roger, the purpose of perspective-taking was never to excuse or justify evil. Rather, it was a way to discover new approaches to diplomacy, to influence and to understanding. These approaches resonated with many because they cut across cultures and appealed to common human needs, which he often termed “interests,” instead of appealing to force, coercion and power. Roger’s revolutionary approach to negotiation, one that typically began by putting the protagonist in the chair of her perceived opponent, giving her a view of the world through her adversary’s eyes, inspired generations of Harvard Law School students to commit themselves to conflict resolution as a career.

Roger’s brilliant and, at times, counterintuitive, thinking is embodied in a series of best-selling books, articles, and manuscripts spanning the second half of his long and storied career. The most famous of these, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” 3d. (co-written with William Ury and Bruce Patton ’84), has been translated into 36 languages and has sold millions of copies. Though at times dismissed for choosing to write prescriptively and in easily comprehensible terms to a mass audience instead of articulating grand theory for an academic one, Roger nonetheless gave birth to an entirely new field of study within the academy, one that has changed fundamentally the face of graduate school education, not just in law schools, but in schools of business, public policy, communications and diplomacy.

He used his academic vantage point to tackle real-world problems. His direct interventions and advice advanced negotiations that facilitated the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, eased the way for a peaceful transition of power in post-apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s, and promoted the resolution of a border dispute and the signing of a permanent peace treaty between Ecuador and Peru in 1998.

But it is a mistake to think that Roger’s attempts to make a difference were always, or even mostly, successful; I suspect they were not. In my early days teaching at the law school, I can recall venturing into his office on occasion for some counsel or to ask a question. After sharing his thoughts with me, he would motion for me to sit down: “Now, can I ask you for your advice? I am writing a letter to the secretary of state about X …” Time and again I was struck, first, by the notion that a professor, senior to me by half a century, valued the input of a 20-something neophyte, and, second, that Roger seemed completely undeterred by the small chance that the secretary of state would read his letter. Always, with Roger, there seemed to be an unrelenting urgency to bring theory to practice, to make a difference on the ground. “The problem,” Roger would say, “is not in finding a solution. Lots of smart people discover good solutions all the time. The problem is finding a way to get there.”

Thirty years after Roger first started teaching the Negotiation Workshop at Harvard Law School, the course remains one of the most popular at the school, and the pedagogy it deploys—creative and interdisciplinary—remains a model for others at Harvard and around the world. In designing the course, Roger drew from many academic and pedagogical wells. He experimented with new teaching methods, the use of simulations, and the use of video and intensive personalized feedback. He looked outside the confines of the law to integrate the work of thinkers like Chris Argyris in action science and Howard Raiffa, a renowned Bayesian decision theorist, to name just a couple. In both its content and its form, even with 20 years of innovation since his retirement, Negotiation Workshop remains one of the enduring gifts that Roger left Harvard Law School.

But there is more than just the concepts, the pedagogy and the form of Negotiation Workshop that I carry with me as a teacher, more than just the course content and delivery style.

For example, I remember Roger, at the end of class each day as students filed out of Pound 107, walking up and down the rows throwing away the empty Coke bottles and candy wrappers students had left at their seats. By the midpoint of the semester, students disposed of their own garbage.

Those of us who had the honor of having Roger as a professor or of working with him in Negotiation Workshop will surely recall similar subtle teaching moments along with his more blunt exhortation, “Choose to help.” In other words: Don’t just do your job well, but be observant; find ways to exert your influence to make a positive difference whenever you can.

As I think about Roger’s career, his many accomplishments and his long life, it seems to me that his admonishment to us embodied his own sense of calling: “Choose to help.”

In a profession where sharp-edged critiques tend to outnumber new ideas, and in a world where threats, whether of lawsuits or of wars, seem to eclipse the voices of engagement and dialogue, Roger’s contributions—his scholarship, his stories, his example and his never-ceasing “choose to help” attitude—are to me as inspiring, fresh and urgent as ever. And I trust they will remain alive in the heart of this student—and in those of so many others—for years to come.