Roger Fisher, Harvard Law Professor and author of the best-selling book Getting to Yes, passed away at the end of August, and I have been struggling to put into words how I feel. Roger was my first mentor in academia, and it was he who inspired me to teach negotiation. I was his research assistant during my second and third years of law school (1990-1992); served as a teaching assistant for his Negotiation Workshop, as well as a class entitled Coping with International Conflict; and ended up co-authoring two books with him based on the class, the textbook Coping with International Conflict and the mass-market Beyond Machiavelli.
For those of us who knew him personally, he was an inspiration. I still remember the first time that I met him — as a second-year law student after I had been hired to be his RA by the previous RA and having not met him personally beforehand. He was almost a foot taller than me — this very imposing, properly dressed professor, who peered over his glasses and in a very refined East Coast accent pronounced: “So I understand that you are to be my research assistant.” “Yes,” I stammered, wondering how I would be able to get along with someone so daunting. In fact, that was the only and last time that I felt intimidated by him.
Roger was so welcoming, his smile so sincere, that even when you disagreed with him (as I did on occasion), you wanted to continue the conversation.
After years of meeting some of the most challenging leaders in the world from some of the most challenging places in the world, he had the ability to put everyone at ease. His ideas and proposals must be reasonable, one thought, since they came from this very warm, respectful man. Of course, some read Roger’s niceness — both in person and in his writings — as soft. Little did they know, I remember thinking, what he had been through in World War II as a pilot and losing so many friends, and how that experience had driven him to try to make the world a better place. His desire for peace did not come from a naive wish that we should all just get along. No, his desire for peace came from the hard calculation that negotiations rarely cost someone his or her life. And his success in international negotiations — from suggesting the process used at Camp David to assisting negotiations in one way or another from South Africa to Central America to the Middle East — was amazing.
His persona inspired generations of students to go into negotiation teaching, training, and consulting. A family tree of Roger’s students — now into multiple generations as we teach others — would be both wide and deep, in the legal academy, in business, and with a global reach into foreign ministries around the world. As for Getting to Yes and its progeny, these books changed the popular thinking about negotiation. The incredible popularity of the book — over one million copies sold and translated into at least 18 languages — continues to this day.
I connect here to the official obituary in the New York Times and the Harvard Crimson obituary, in which you can find further reflections on the Professor’s impressive accomplishments from me and others. Roger, we will miss you.
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