Part I: Extended Interview with Bruce Patton, Author of “Difficult Conversations” and “Getting to Yes”

Eric van Ginkel, international mediator, speaks with Bruce Patton, co-author of Getting to Yes and Difficult conversations, about the development of mediation in the United States, missed opportunities, and difficult conversations. He states that there’s “toxic waste” in our thoughts. When you recognize this, difficult conversations can be less difficult. The other thing that helps in difficult conversations is talking to yourself.

Bruce Patton is a co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP), and as Deputy Director of HNP led it from 1979 until 2009. He is still Distinguished Fellow of the HNP. He is a founder and partner of Vantage Partners, where his work focuses on negotiation and relationship management in supplier, alliance, outsourcing, and merger contexts; managing internal executive teams or cross-matrix conflict; and on negotiation advice and capacity building. Bruce is also a founder and Board member emeritus of the nonprofit Conflict Management Group (now part of Mercy Corps). His many publications include Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (with Roger Fisher and William Ury) and Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (with Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen).

Special Unpublished Introduction!

Eric van Ginkel (EvG): So, if I may ask, how did you get involved in negotiations and mediation?

Bruce Patton (BP): I was always interested in problem-solving, and I was advised that if I pursued medicine, which I had a real interest in, as I had a strong science background, that you had to either choose research, in which case you didn’t get to see many people, or you had to specialize, in which case you got bored.

It was actually bad advice, as I learned later from the examples set by some of my friends. But I did take the advice and decided I would work on social problems instead.

When I was a senior at Harvard College, Professor Roger Fisher came from the Law School to teach a course for the first time, called “Coping with International Conflict.” It was a set of tools and ideas that he had been developing through the 1960s about how you systematically go about trying to make something happen, that made sense to me. This was a critical moment in my life. He was the first person I had found anywhere in academia who was really interested in solving problems. And tackling problem solving in a systematic way.

As I took his class in College, Roger and I took a liking to each other. It turns out that he had decided to offer me a job several days before I decided to ask him for one. But he didn’t tell me that. My section person [1] told him I was graduating and wouldn’t be available. As he was thinking about it, I came up with a proposal for how I could get funded to work for him. His “yes” was both amused and fast… So we improved that course and I went to law school and we did some work for the international peace academy…

EvG: So you went to Harvard Law School after graduating from Harvard College?

BP: Yes. (smiling) I had hopes of going to a nice warm place such as Stanford [2], but having found Roger I decided to stay in Cambridge, Mass. We did some work on peacemaking. Roger had some theories on ceasefires, and we wrote a manual for peacekeepers. Then they asked us to write something about mediation. So Roger and Bill Ury with my help wrote a book called “International Mediation, a Working Guide: Ideas for the Practitioner”. [3]

Actually, Cyrus Vance [4] read the book before the Camp David [5] summit between Israel and Egypt in 1978. And he then used the single-text negotiating approach, now called the one-text process, that we first described there.

EvG: That is just one of several methodologies that you suggest in this book, isn’t it? BP: Oh yes, the book offers a lot of great ideas. Unfortunately, it is hard to get, but it is still available.

A couple of weeks before Camp David, Cyrus Vance took a vacation and rented a house right next to Roger’s on Martha’s Vineyard. I went out there and played tennis with Vance, who was a very avid player.

After we had played some competitive tennis, he came over to the house and asked whether we had any advice he could use at the upcoming negotiations between Egypt and Israel to be held at Camp David. We told him we had just written this book and recommended he take a look at these few pages. I am sure he read it and then completely forgot about it. But he let us take a picture with us and the book.

When the US negotiators got to Camp David, they discovered that Begin and Sadat literally couldn’t stand each other. They couldn’t be in the same room without getting into an argument, and they both threatened to leave. So the mediators decided they had to do some type of shuttle diplomacy, and that is apparently when Vance remembered the idea of the one-text and they decided to use it. It was pretty nice for us to know that it actually worked. He sent us a very nice note afterward. So Roger had these great ideas and Bill Ury and I were saying to each other “why isn’t everybody in the world beating a path to this door? This is really powerful stuff that ought to be out there.” We concluded that it was so different from the focus of most academics, that Roger was seen by many people as an eccentric, and that there was no institutional backing of it. And people were set in their ways.

We proposed that we set up the Harvard Negotiation Project and give it an institutional identity. Also, this way Roger would get some acolytes. We thought this would be an easy sell, and Roger said, “You know what, I created the Law and Humanities Program, and it was fabulous. But I ended up spending all my time fund-raising, and I am a terrible administrator. So, no, I don’t want to do that.”

Bill and I were thrown for a loop and had to think about it. I said to Roger, “can we at least talk about it? Can’t we get some people together to just brainstorm? We’re thinking late August.” Roger said, “I don’t know. Besides, in August everybody will be on vacation.” So we asked, “you don’t mind if we try, do you?” To which Roger said, “No I don’t mind, but don’t get your hopes up.”

In the meantime, Roger went off to China for a month with his son. When he came back we said, “the meeting is all set.” Roger asked, “what meeting?” We said, “this brainstorming meeting, remember?” I said to Roger, “you were right, everybody was indeed on vacation, so they were all free and everybody agreed to come.”

So everybody came: Howard Raiffa [6], Larry Susskind [7], and Jeff Rubin [8], just to name a few, and they all said “this is a great idea and we should do this!”

As a result of Roger’s reluctance, I made a commitment to him that as long as he was the Director of this Program, I would run it.

EvG: Fabulous!

BP: I kept that commitment. Roger became director emeritus two years ago, when Jim Sebenius took over the directorship. I ran it for Roger until then, actually until another year after that. At that time, I retired, - sort of… I gave up most of my administrative duties.

So then we said, “how do we get these ideas out there?” And then it occurred to us that it was not such a big leap from these mediation ideas to negotiation. At the time, there were about nine international mediators. If you changed it to negotiation, obviously you would have an audience of everyone. So we set out to create “Getting to Yes”, which took another few years. And, in a sense, the field got created around us. I had assumed long since that I would commit to either business or government or academia.

EvG: Rather than practicing law?

BP: Yes. I knew I was never going to do that. Law is a tool that is very useful in this culture, but practicing law was not what I was headed to do. Instead, I found that I had opportunities at a higher level in all three of the areas of business, government, and academia by staying where I was. We created a consulting firm, a not-for-profit intervention firm, and the Harvard Negotiation Project, and an awful lot happened!

EvG: Yes, a lot did happen. And you handled all three areas at the same time.

BP: Yes. Well, with colleagues. The for-profit consulting firm allowed us essentially to keep a larger team employed. There is a limit to what you can do within academia: how many research assistants can you fund?

EvG: Yes. And you can compensate them much better in a for-profit setting.

BP: Yes. People naturally gravitated to different places; you could say that I had my thumb everywhere.

by Eric van Ginkel

Read Part II: “Bruce Patton on Mediation as a Profession and Difficult Conversations.”

End Notes
1. Comparable to a mentor.
2. Located near Palo Alto, California.
3. International Peace Academy, New York, NY; published in 1978. Now available from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School Clearinghouse or directly from the Harvard Negotiation Project.
4. Cyrus Vance was Secretary of State under President Carter, and served from 1977 to 1980. A champion for negotiations over conflict, Vance pushed for a détente with the Soviet Union by conducting negotiations and creating economic ties, arms reduction, and the return of the Canal Zone to Panama. He is largely credited with the success of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, signed on September 17, 1978.
5. Camp David, officially known as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, is a mountain-based military camp in Thurmont, Maryland used (since 1942) as a country retreat by the President of the United States and his guests.
6. Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Managerial Economics Emeritus, and joint chair of the Harvard Business and Harvard Kennedy Schools.
7. Professor Emeritus of Managerial Economics at Harvard, co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (“PON”), co-author of APPLIED STATISTICAL DECISION THEORY, (with Robert Schlaifer), and author of THE ART AND SCIENCE OF NEGOTIATION and NEGOTIATION ANALYSIS (with John Richardson, and David Metcalfe).
8. Co-founder of PON; first Executive Director of PON; Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founder of the Consensus Building Institute.
9. Also one of the co-founders of PON; social psychologist and Professor at Tufts University, and expert in third-party processes in international negotiation; Prof. Rubin died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1995.
10. James Sebenius is a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He was instrumental in the School’s decision to make negotiation a required course in the MBA Program. In 2008, he succeeded Roger Fisher as Director of the HNP. Among his major publications is 3-D NEGOTIATION: POWERFUL TOOLS TO CHANGE THE GAME IN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DEALS (with David Lax).

Eric van Ginkel is an international arbitrator and mediator, and an Adjunct Professor of Law in Dispute Resolution at the Straus Institute of Pepperdine University Law School. In addition to intellectual property matters, he handles a large variety of matters, including complex business and commercial real estate disputes. Eric was the co-editor of the IBA Mediation Newsletter until December of 2010. He serves as arbitrator and/or mediator for several US and international dispute resolution institutions.