William Ury: Walking the “Abraham Path” to Negotiate Peace

As I indicated in my last blog posting, I recently had an opportunity to read closely Fisher, Ury and Patton’s edition of the business classic, Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (2011). It’s a remarkable, foundational text on how two or more parties can set aside their positions and negotiate for interests which they have in common–so long as they devote time and energy to investigating what they are.

Shortly before the latest edition of Getting to Yes was published, one of its co-authors, the internationally-renowned negotiator, William Ury, gave a TEDTalk, whose insights illustrate the usefulness of creatively negotiating for agreement and peace. Whether one’s a freelance copywriter or marketer negotiating fees; an international rights’ activist or mediator in the Middle East, striving to find some common ground; Ury’s insights are worth listening to, in the “walk from ‘no’ to ‘yes:’ ”

Just as all human beings are part of the 15,000 tribes on earth (as Anthropologists tell us), we are all part of one family. And in that context, Ury says, “the secret to peace is us” – the community that surrounds any conflict, a “third side” beyond the major players, which consists of family members, friends, allies, neighbours. That “third side” restores a fair perspective to negotiators, when so many of us react automatically (and in hostility). The “third side” in the context of the conflict in the Middle East, refers to Christians, Moslems and Jews, who all feel personally involved in its intractable war.

As Ury eloquently says, “Four thousand years ago, a man and his family crossed the Middle East and the world has never been the same since.” The man was of course Abraham, who stood for the unity of family, the father of us all. And whose basic value was respect and kindness (esp. hospitality) towards strangers. Ury says that Abraham is the “third side” of the Middle East and governs our position within a greater whole.

Some 10 years ago, thinking of how Abraham stands as an antidote to terrorism and conflict, Ury contemplated the usefulness of re-living Abraham’s story, of walking in his footsteps, in a common direction and in a side-by-side manner that would embody no threat to either party. With fellow negotiators, Ury plotted a path that followed Abraham’s footsteps, from his birthplace to his grave (from “womb to tomb”). They did this despite others’ claims that such a project was impossible, that is was unthinkable to cross the boundaries of some of the 10 most hostile geographical countries the world.

On the contrary, the first set of travellers in 2008 found that people in the local villages offered them food and hospitality, in the name of Abraham. The prophet and shared ancestor continues to be a living presence to the people of the Middle East. And with that walk as inspiration, “Abraham” walks and runs uniting different communities from countries as disparate as the U.S. and Brazil, have since been held.

Organizers have found that Abraham influenced not only the psychology of the welcome and hospitality, but also the economic welfare brought to poor residents who live on the path. Those residents began regularly to cook and serve delicious food to passing tourists. For many locals, financial survival, after lifetimes of abject poverty, ensued. From “hostility” comes “hospitality,” Ury observes. And “terrorism” is transformed into “tourism.”

And why not?

Ury observes that iIf Europe was able to rebuild from the devastation of 1945 to peaceful prosperity, common identity and a common currency, why not the Middle East, too?  Abraham as the progenitor of community and the daily transactions of tourism offer the common economy. Self-interest among nations gives way to sharing.

Ury closes his talk with three insights: (1) The secret to peace is the “third side;” (2) The third side is each of us; and (3) “Each of us, with a single step can . . . bring the world a step closer to peace.”

Principled Negotiation, a method of discussing differences made famous by the Harvard Negotiation Project, is now at work in the most violent, conflict-ridden regions of the world. And despite bloodshed, such as (most recently) the civilian losses of the war between Israel and Hamas, there is hope that peace and respect can still be achieved.

Why does all this matter? Why blog on this, now? The applications of the Abrahametic “third side” to creative work amongst us (in democratic nations) are just as real:

–a divorcing husband and wife realize that when they stop bickering over positions and negotiate for shared custody of their offspring (to include emotional stability, not to mention ballet, painting, foreign language classes, etc.), both parents’ and children’s welfare are best preserved;

–a freelance creative finds some shared cultural ground with clients who once persisted in low-balling his fees (their “position” giving way to the interests they share with him);

–a company COO stops micromanaging the busy writer on staff and so begins to trust her ability to yield good work on time;

–in holding a catered “open-house” in an improvised studio, a newly formed team of self-employed designers show the depth of their portfolios (posted on the wall, the tables, the napkins . . .) and meet potential buyers, who otherwise have not access to their work.

All of these scenarios have happened to people whom I know, in the tradition of Abraham.

Arguing from a “third side” (as philosophers and theorists have advocated for generations) must not efface difference, but nonetheless strive to uncover and preserve shared interests amidst otherwise opposing forces.

How does Abraham’s path, as a “third side,” in the conflict in your business or in your life, offer you opportunities for peace, a fair livelihood and mutual respect?

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