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: In terms of advice, again, I would say that in order to succeed in this field, and I'll let whomever is listening to this decide what success is, you have to be persistent. My dad was a doctor, and it was very clear that you went to medical school and you did your residency and etc. The path was laid out for you. It doesn't work that way in this field, and so you need to understand that and you need to be persistent about it. You need to be creative. You need to not be afraid to suggest why you could do something and how you could do it and how you might make a difference doing it. And so when people tell you things at face value, that's fine and you should accept them, but you should also think about creativity and how you could creatively kind of make yourself available and make yourself into a position. I mean, some of the jobs that I've had were jobs that I essentially kind of created and suggested to people and they said okay. Some of the current work that I'm doing with Bill is about how to say no in a negotiation and still kind of get there, because most people are very afraid of saying no. It's funny, the guy over here, Bob Bourdon???, has a quote on his door that says, if you ask and somebody says no, you feel stupid for five minutes. If you don't ask, you feel stupid for your whole life.

I think one piece of advice is ask. The worst thing that somebody can say is no, and they will say no, and another piece of advice is that you need have sort of tough skin in this field, that you're going to get rejected, like every other field. And it's not that this field is tougher than others, but it is a field where there aren't as many jobs as there are people who would like them. Definitely walking the talk is important. Or at least try to walk the talk. I'm not even saying that you're going to succeed every time. I mean I obviously don't, but I do try. It's very hard to actually be in this field, to teach people principles and other things when you're not doing them yourself. They can see that very quickly, and so any credibility that you might have is gone.

In addition to that, I would say don't sacrifice your principles. If your principles tell you that X, Y, and Z is important for example, for me, when I got my PhD, there was more opportunity to go into the business world and make a lot more money, and you know, that's attractive. I have a wife and a daughter and I've got another child on the way, and there are days I think, gee, maybe a six figure income would be nice. That's not what I want for my life. The last piece of advice is to kind of go with the flow of opportunity. I think we all have ideas of the different parts of the field that we want to work in, and I know for example, that different projects took me in different ways that I never really thought I would go in. I found a lot of value in that. I mean, there's a core of what I'm interested in, and what I like, and that doesn't change, but I'm not afraid to delve into realms that I don't know a lot about. Lastly, it's important not to be afraid to learn from people of other disciplines, because people see conflict in other disciplines in a very different way, and generally people are afraid of that. That's my advice.

As for the last thing, some important lessons, I don't think it's enough to do good. I think people get into this field saying they want to do good, and that's great, but you really have to be prepared. You have to do your homework, it's like anything else. It's certainly noble to want to do good and to help the world in some way, shape or form, or help people. You're actually going to do more harm if you're not prepared. So that's one. And I think related to that is to know when you're not the right person for the job, to know when to say when in some ways, that there are other people that would be better-suited for that. I think, because people are trying to make a name for themselves, they sometimes may take on things that aren't appropriate, and that they may not have the expertise for. I think that's more relevant when you may be impacting other people. If it's a learning process, though, if it's a knowledge-based kind of thing, then I think it's great to explore, not to be afraid of delving into other realms. Trying to live the things in your own life is obviously a lesson.

Q: Live things in your own life?

A: Well, live the principles that you're talking about that are associated with conflict resolution. I think when you really feel like you understand conflict, you're in trouble. What's so unique about it and why I like this field so much is because conflicts follow patterns, yes, but rarely are ever exactly the same. There's a humility that we have to give to the process of conflict. We can't ever have the hubris enough to say that we understand conflict fully. At least that's my opinion, because then it keeps you humble, and you respect the power of what conflict is and what it's about. The last lesson is to think of the skills associated with this field broadly. These are really life skills. I know that since being in this field my life has gotten easier. I think about life in general as you're on a ship and you're weaving in and out of the course of life, and the skills involved in this help you do that, help you make the right tacks, and help you make the right come abouts, and all the other kinds of boating terms that you might use. I really have noticed a difference in my ability to deal with familial problems and professional problems, and it's just something where you have a repertoire of skills that you're not afraid to go into situations with.

When I teach classes on negotiation or train people in negotiation, I say, you know, I'd really like you to think broadly about negotiation. Most people think about sitting down across a table, when in fact you're negotiating with people every day, all the time. And so if you think about the skills that are related to that and associated with that, then it very much makes sense that once you learn these things they will lead to something that makes your life a little bit easier. I think that's why it's caught on.