Mourning the loss of a master of the middle way


We have lost a true master of the middle way — not of meditation (as far as I know), but of mediation.


I am incredibly fortunate to have known and learned from Roger.  He was one of a small handful of people who inspired me to devote two graduate degree programs (one at Harvard Divinity School and the other at Harvard Law School) to the study of conflict resolution.  When I began teaching in the field at the law school, I first co-taught with Roger.


Roger was wise, gracious, and incredibly big-hearted.  He had an irrepressibly positive, “can do” orientation that enabled him to walk into many of the most desperate situations of his era and help create an aire of possibility that, more often than not, made the seemingly impossible happen.


Roger was a generous mentor to scores of younger people who are carrying on his work around the world.


Thank you, Roger.


Roger D. Fisher, Expert at ‘Getting to Yes,’ Dies at 90


Harvard Law School Prof. Roger D. Fisher often told his students, “Peace is not a piece of paper, but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”




Published: August 27, 2012


Roger D. Fisher, a Harvard law professor who was a co-author of the 1981 best seller “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” and whose expertise in resolving conflicts led to a role in drafting the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel and in ending apartheid in South Africa, died on Saturday in Hanover, N.H. He was 90.


The cause was complications of dementia, his son Elliott said.


Over his career, Professor Fisher eagerly brought his optimistic can-do brand of problem solving to a broad array of conflicts across the globe, from the hostage crisis in Iran to the civil war in El Salvador. His emphasis was always on addressing the mutual interests of the disputing parties instead of what separated them. As he would tell his students, “Peace is not a piece of paper, but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”


It did not matter to Professor Fisher whether the warring parties reached out to him or not; he would assume they needed his help. “Most of the time he was not invited. He would invite himself,” Elliott Fisher said. “Our sense growing up was that he would read the newspaper and think, ‘Oh, shoot, there is something to fix.’ ”


For example, when a rebel group took hostages at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, in 1997, his son recalled, Professor Fisher found a way to contact the president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, and gave him suggestions for how to dampen the sense of crisis, including restoration of the power and water in the embassy. This strategy won the freedom of the majority of the hostages. In the end, however, Peruvian forces stormed the embassy, killing all 14 of the rebels and rescuing all but one of the 72 remaining hostages.


Professor Fisher is credited with helping initiate the summit meeting between the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1985, convincing Reagan staff members that just meeting to brainstorm and build relations was more important than settling a specific agenda.


In 1979, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance went to Professor Fisher’s house on Martha’s Vineyard before the meeting at Camp David that would lead to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Professor Fisher suggested to Mr. Vance the “single negotiating text” method that was used to bring the parties together, said Bruce M. Patton, who wrote “Getting to Yes” with Professor Fisher and worked on many diplomatic projects with him. The strategy involved having President Jimmy Carter alone be responsible for writing solutions and letting the other leaders shape the treaty through a back-and-forth critiquing process.


In 1991 in South Africa, Professor Fisher and former students led workshops with both the Afrikaner cabinet and the African National Congress negotiating committee leading into talks to end apartheid and to establish a new constitution.


His upbeat approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems led some critics to assert that he was unrealistic. But Mr. Patton said Professor Fisher recognized and relished the “complexity and irrationality” of the situations he addressed.


Although Professor Fisher mostly worked behind the scenes, he did create and moderate a series on public television called “The Advocates.” A court-style program that took on one policy issue at a time and examined it in detail from different perspectives, it ran for several years on PBS and won a Peabody Award.


“Getting to Yes,” which he wrote with Mr. Patton and William Ury, has sold millions of copies and been translated into 36 languages, and has been used by leaders in business and government. Professor Fisher also wrote other books and co-founded the Harvard Negotiation Project, which teaches conflict resolution skills to students and to international parties in the midst of a dispute.


Roger Dummer Fisher was born May 28, 1922, in Winnetka, Ill. His mother, Katharine Dummer Fisher, had relatives who had ridden the law circuit with Abraham Lincoln; his father, William T. Fisher, a lawyer, was the son of Walter L. Fisher, secretary of the interior in the Taft administration.


On the eve of World War II, Professor Fisher attended Harvard University. Upon graduating he volunteered for the Army, where he served from 1942 to 1946 doing weather reconnaissance in both the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Four of his eight college roommates died in combat; that, as well as seeing the aftermath of battle, persuaded him to dedicate his life to helping avoid war.


After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, he served on the Marshall Plan staff and as assistant to the solicitor general in the Eisenhower administration before joining the Harvard law faculty in 1960.


In addition to his son Elliott, Professor Fisher is survived by another son, Peter; two brothers, John and Frank; and five grandchildren. His wife of 62 years, the former Caroline Speer, died two years ago.


Professor Fisher stayed active in advising diplomats until about seven years ago, when illness made him too weak. His constant advocacy was a force many of his friends found comforting.


His family recalled that when Professor Fisher celebrated his 80th birthday, his colleague John Kenneth Galbraith toasted him by saying, “Whenever I thought, ‘Someone should do something about this,’ it eased my conscience to learn that Roger was already working on it.”


A version of this article appeared in print on August 28, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Roger D. Fisher, Expert at ‘Getting to Yes,’ Dies at 90.


Buddha, the first behaviorist


Esther and I have been reading about the Kazdin approach to positive parenting.  (We have two really great kids.  We’re mainly hoping to train their parents.)  Kazdin, a Yale psychology professor, focuses on promoting desired behaviors – like picking up your messes and not whacking your siblings when they’re annoying you – with positive reinforcement, especially praise.


He’s a hardcore social scientist who has conducted hundreds of rigorous experiments over several decades.  The research demonstrates that his approach is better than punishment at producing good behavior, though Kazdin grants very gentle and brief forms of punishment – a mildly disapproving look, for example, or a well administered time out – a minor role in a program that’s otherwise all about encouraging and rewarding the “positive opposite” of undesired behavior.


Interestingly, some parents object to this approach out of concern that it somehow changes the “essence” of their child, even if they’re not thrilled about the way this “essence” is manifesting itself at the moment.  Other parents are skeptical for the opposite reason:  If you’re not getting to the “essence” of who my child is and what’s wrong with her, and if you’re not altering her essence, how could the behavior possibly change?  My child has become a bad kid.  You need to swap out some parts.


Kazdin observes that 100+ years of psychological theorizing and research (and, one might add, millennia of philosophizing about human nature prior to that) have yet to locate this elusive human “essence.”  There’s no empirically validated, consensus picture of a “thing” that corresponds to what we so casually, and confidently, refer to as the self.


Here I am, sure enough, but this self I refer to, on close inspection, is a stream of embodied functions, feelings, thoughts and actions.  There are reasonably distinctive elements and narratives that tend to persist (more or less) across time and contexts, but that proverbial god-in-the-machine I’m so sure is the “real, forever me” seems nowhere to be found.


Kazdin sidesteps this bottomless pit – this vast void – and focuses instead on shaping behavior; on how we present ourselves, whatever these selves may or may not be.  By doing so, he gets results that parents and children find deeply satisfying and which positively change their perspectives on themselves and one another.


Zen is both very different and not so very different.


Most people come to Zen practice mid-stream in a personal program of research into and theorizing about – a/k/a searching for – the self.  Zen meets us wherever we are in that process, at once taking it very seriously and making light of it.  Unlike Kazdin’s approach, Zen coaxes, cajoles and comforts as we explore the vast void.


Ultimately, we find ourselves in it, of it, and as it.  Distinct within, but not separate from, this vast universe we inhabit.


Our questions don’t get answered intellectually, but they do get answered experientially.  Intellectually, they simply lose their urgency, their attractive force.


That way of knowing and being is so meaningful.  And, it also brings us right back to Kazdin territory.


From this frame of mind, what matters is the here-and-now.  What’s here and now is conditioned by the past, of course, and our actions here-and-now partially condition our common future.  How we show up here-and-now matters.  It matters presently, and it matters to a future we hope to experience, and which we know others will experience.


From this perspective, our essence is nothing more or less than what we do, how we present, here-and-now.  We co-create this here-and-now.  So, as the Germans say, “mach es gut.”  This translates literally to “make it good.”  Figuratively, it’s more like “take care,” which is the same idea.


Some people who are new to Zen initially bristle at the odd rituals and chants that are part of the traditional liturgy, yet they’re a key feature of the “taking seriously and making light of ourselves,” of participating in/co-creating the here-and-now and making it good, and of transmitting the wisdom of all this temporally.  Same with the precepts.  Path and destination: one and the same.  We express and realize – we actualize – ourselves in/through/as these forms and practices, and as all we do.


Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as doings than as beings.


I shared the condensed version of this thought-stream with Josh recently.  He smiled, nodded, and said, “Buddha was the first behaviorist.”