Best-selling author and speaker William Ury helps people get to Yes in all areas of life, from family feuds to boardroom battles.
Below is the full text of William Ury’s TED Talk titled: The Walk from “No” to “Yes”.
William Ury – Full TRANSCRIPT
Well, the subject of difficult negotiation reminds me of one of my favorite stories from the Middle East, of a man who left to his three sons, 17 camels.
To the first son, he left half the camels; to the second son, he left a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he left a ninth of the camels.
The three sons got into a negotiation — 17 doesn’t divide by two. It doesn’t divide by three. It doesn’t divide by nine. Brotherly tempers started to get strained.
Finally, in desperation, they went and they consulted a wise old woman.
The wise old woman thought about their problem for a long time, and finally she came back and said, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but at least, if you want, you can have my camel.”
So then, they had 18 camels. The first son took his half — half of 18 is nine. The second son took his third — a third of 18 is six. The youngest son took his ninth — a ninth of 18 is two.
You get 17. They had one camel left over. They gave it back to the wise old woman.
Now, if you think about that story for a moment, I think it resembles a lot of the difficult negotiations we get involved in. They start off like 17 camels, no way to resolve it.
Somehow, what we need to do is step back from those situations, like that wise old woman, look at the situation through fresh eyes and come up with an 18th camel. Finding that 18th camel in the world’s conflicts has been my life passion.
I basically see humanity a bit like those three brothers. We’re all one family. We know that scientifically, thanks to the communications revolution, all the tribes on the planet — all 15,000 tribes — are in touch with each other.
And it’s a big family reunion. And yet, like many family reunions, it’s not all peace and light. There’s a lot of conflict, and the question is: How do we deal with our differences? How do we deal with our deepest differences, given the human propensity for conflict and the human genius at devising weapons of enormous destruction? That’s the question.
As I’ve spent the last better part of three decades, almost four, traveling the world, trying to work, getting involved in conflicts ranging from Yugoslavia to the Middle East to Chechnya to Venezuela — some of the most difficult conflicts on the face of the planet — I’ve been asking myself that question.
And I think I’ve found, in some ways, what is the secret to peace. It’s actually surprisingly simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. It’s not even new. It may be one of our most ancient human heritages. The secret to peace is us.
It’s us who act as a surrounding community around any conflict, who can play a constructive role. Let me give you just a story, an example.
About 20 years ago, I was in South Africa, working with the parties in that conflict, and I had an extra month, so I spent some time living with several groups of San Bushmen. I was curious about them, about the way in which they resolve conflict.
Because, after all, within living memory, they were hunters and gatherers, living pretty much like our ancestors lived for maybe 99% of the human story.
And all the men have these poison arrows that they use for hunting — absolutely fatal.
So how do they deal with their differences?
Well, what I learned is, whenever tempers rise in those communities, someone goes and hides the poison arrows out in the bush, and then everyone sits around in a circle like this, and they sit and they talk and they talk.
It may take two days, three days, four days, but they don’t rest until they find a resolution or better yet — a reconciliation.
And if tempers are still too high, then they send someone off to visit some relatives, as a cooling-off period. Well, that system is, I think, probably the system that kept us alive to this point, given our human tendencies.
That system, I call “the third side.” Because if you think about it, normally when we think of conflict, when we describe it, there’s always two sides — it’s Arabs versus Israelis, labor versus management, husband versus wife, Republicans versus Democrats.
But what we don’t often see is that there’s always a third side, and the third side of the conflict is us, it’s the surrounding community, it’s the friends, the allies, the family members, the neighbors. And we can play an incredibly constructive role.
Perhaps the most fundamental way in which the third side can help is to remind the parties of what’s really at stake.
For the sake of the kids, for the sake of the family, for the sake of the community, for the sake of the future, let’s stop fighting for a moment and start talking. Because, the thing is, when we’re involved in conflict, it’s very easy to lose perspective. It’s very easy to react.
Human beings — we’re reaction machines. And as the saying goes, when angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
And so the third side reminds us of that. The third side helps us go to the balcony, which is a metaphor for a place of perspective, where we can keep our eyes on the prize.
Let me tell you a little story from my own negotiating experience. Some years ago, I was involved as a facilitator in some very tough talks between the leaders of Russia and the leaders of Chechnya. There was a war going on, as you know.
And we met in the Hague, in the Peace Palace, in the same room where the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal was taking place. And the talks got off to a rather rocky start when the vice president of Chechnya began by pointing at the Russians and said, “You should stay right here in your seats, because you’re going to be on trial for war crimes.”
And then he turned to me and said, “You’re an American. Look at what you Americans are doing in Puerto Rico.”
And my mind started racing, “Puerto Rico? What do I know about Puerto Rico?” I started reacting.
But then, I tried to remember to go to the balcony. And then when he paused and everyone looked at me for a response.
From a balcony perspective, I was able to thank him for his remarks and say, “I appreciate your criticism of my country and I take it as a sign that we’re among friends and can speak candidly to one another. And what we’re here to do is not to talk about Puerto Rico or the past. We’re here to see if we can figure out a way to stop the suffering and the bloodshed in Chechnya.”
The conversation got back on track. That’s the role of the third side, to help the parties go to the balcony.
Now let me take you, for a moment, to what’s widely regarded as the world’s most difficult conflict, or the most impossible conflict, the Middle East.
Question is: where’s the third side there? How could we possibly go to the balcony?
Now, I don’t pretend to have an answer to the Middle East conflict, but I think I’ve got a first step — literally, a first step — something that any one of us could do as third-siders.