Common Obstacles

Joshua Weiss

Associate Director, Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Well, I think in most negotiation processes in general, rigidity is probably one of the biggest obstacles. I think we're not hardwired for this, but we've learned it. I think most people who don't think deeply about negotiation processes come in with one way and one idea of how to resolve the problem, and it's their way. So a significant challenge is to show people that there are multiple routes to getting where you want to be, and to pry them away from the sort of my way or the highway approach. That's one obstacle. I think the managing of emotions is another that makes its way into most negotiation processes.

In fact, there was a long period where people said don't have your emotions In fact, that's obviously not what makes a process go. It's having your emotions constructively, and most people don't have the skills or knowledge to do that, and I think that obstacle sort of leaks into the next one, which is communication skills. This field continues to grow because the reality is that people don't have those skills and they don't really know how to do this stuff. Another obstacle is the conferring of legitimacy on these groups to be part of a process. I mean, once you start a peace process, you've conferred a certain amount of legitimacy on them, and so a lot of people will make the case that the hardest part of all of this is to get the parties to the table, because you're breaking down barriers. With the Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis could not talk to the PLO. It was illegal, it was forbidden by Israeli law. That's a fairly large challenge. I mean, Israelis cannot engage in a peace process, officially. That's why Oslo evolved the way Oslo did, because officially the Israelis couldn't do it.

We talked about power and peoples' perception of power. Usually perception of power is greater than the reality, and a lot of times the perception is, particularly in intrastate conflicts, that the more powerful party has got all the choices and the less powerful party has no choices. That's not true, because if there was no choice for the lesser party then why are they at the table? There's a reason that they're there, and the weaker party needs to understand that. It needs to think about different ways of influencing the other party. Part of it, again, is how they see the situation, how they see their plate. If I'm a Palestinian living in Gaza or West Bank on tiny swaths of land, I don't see a whole lot of hope. But there are different ways of doing things, and obviously the recognition of the state of Israel and etc. were things that the Israelis valued that the Palestinians could give them. So I think the perception of power is clearly a block that needs to be overcome by the people. Also, I would say that people tend to see value narrowly in most negotiations, and arguably in peace processes as well. We define value in monetary terms, when there are lots of different ways of seeing value, and that's where a lot of creative ideas and solutions come forward.

Q: Is that sort of expanding the pie?

A: Yeah, it is. I can relate it to a story that I was just reading in the paper a couple weeks ago about an old woman who lived in Vermont, who was selling her home. She ended up having an offer from a couple who offered her a substantial amount, and she also got an offer from a single individual, a single guy, who offered a lot less. She decided to sell the house to the single guy. Somehow this reporter got a hold of the story and said to her, why would you do that? And the older woman said because I really got a sense that he would take care of my house the way I would have.

Now, you know, most people would say okay, lady, you should have taken more money. But money is not the only way that people see value. There's sentimentality, there's symbolism, there are all kinds of things that play into why peace processes and negotiations in general happen and how they can evolve and more forward. I think value narrowly is the obstacle. Helping people see value in a much broader capacity is clearly a way of moving a process forward. I think the last obstacle is that most people don't take the time to prepare, and this goes for any negotiation in general. Mediators might prepare, but parties in peace process don't take the time because they're not sure how to prepare. I'm the kind of person that thinks that 80-90 percent of what happens in a negotiation is a direct result of how you've prepared for that negotiation.