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TEDxMidwest

William Ury: The walk from "no" to "yes"

October 17, 2010

William Ury, author of "Getting to Yes," offers an elegant, simple (but not easy) way to create agreement in even the most difficult situations -- from family conflict to, perhaps, the Middle East. (Filmed at TEDxMidWest.)

William Ury - Mediator
William Ury is a mediator, writer and speaker, working with conflicts ranging from family feuds to boardroom battles to ethnic wars. He's the author of "Getting to Yes." Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Well, the subject of difficult negotiation
00:15
reminds me of one of my favorite stories
00:18
from the Middle East,
00:20
of a man who left to his three sons 17 camels.
00:22
To the first son, he left half the camels.
00:25
To the second son, he left a third of the camels,
00:28
and to the youngest son, he left a ninth of the camels.
00:30
Well three sons got into a negotiation.
00:32
Seventeen doesn't divide by two.
00:34
It doesn't divide by three.
00:36
It doesn't divide by nine.
00:38
Brotherly tempers started to get strained.
00:40
Finally, in desperation,
00:42
they went and they consulted a wise old woman.
00:44
The wise old woman thought about their problem for a long time,
00:47
and finally she came back and said,
00:49
"Well, I don't know if I can help you,
00:51
but at least, if you want, you can have my camel."
00:53
So then they had 18 camels.
00:55
The first son took his half -- half of 18 is nine.
00:57
The second son took his third -- a third of 18 is six.
01:00
The youngest son took his ninth --
01:03
a ninth of 18 is two.
01:05
You get 17.
01:07
They had one camel left over.
01:09
They gave it back to the wise old woman.
01:11
(Laughter)
01:13
Now if you think about that story for a moment,
01:15
I think it resembles
01:17
a lot of the difficult negotiations we get involved in.
01:19
They start off like 17 camels -- no way to resolve it.
01:22
Somehow, what we need to do
01:24
is step back from those situations, like that wise old woman,
01:26
look at the situation through fresh eyes
01:29
and come up with an 18th camel.
01:31
Now finding that 18th camel in the world's conflicts
01:35
has been my life passion.
01:37
I basically see humanity a bit like those three brothers.
01:40
We're all one family.
01:43
We know that scientifically,
01:45
thanks to the communications revolution,
01:47
all the tribes on the planet, all 15,000 tribes,
01:49
are in touch with each other.
01:52
And it's a big family reunion,
01:55
and yet, like many family reunions,
01:57
it's not all peace and light.
01:59
There's a lot of conflict,
02:01
and the question is,
02:03
how do we deal with our differences?
02:05
How do we deal with our deepest differences,
02:07
given the human propensity for conflict
02:09
and the human genius
02:11
at devising weapons of enormous destruction?
02:13
That's the question.
02:16
As I've spent the last better part of three decades,
02:18
almost four,
02:21
traveling the world,
02:23
trying to work, getting involved in conflicts
02:25
ranging from Yugoslavia to the Middle East
02:28
to Chechnya to Venezuela,
02:31
some of the most difficult conflicts on the face of the planet,
02:33
I've been asking myself that question.
02:36
And I think I've found, in some ways,
02:38
what is the secret to peace.
02:40
It's actually surprisingly simple.
02:42
It's not easy, but it's simple.
02:45
It's not even new.
02:48
It may be one of our most ancient human heritages.
02:50
The secret to peace is us.
02:52
It's us who act
02:55
as the surrounding community
02:57
around any conflict,
02:59
who can play a constructive role.
03:01
Let me give you just a story, an example.
03:03
About 20 years ago, I was in South Africa
03:07
working with the parties in that conflict,
03:09
and I had an extra month,
03:11
so I spent some time living
03:13
with several groups of San Bushmen.
03:15
I was curious about them and about the way in which they resolve conflict.
03:17
Because, after all, within living memory,
03:21
they were hunters and gatherers,
03:23
living pretty much like our ancestors lived
03:25
for maybe 99 percent of the human story.
03:27
And all the men have these poison arrows that they use for hunting --
03:30
absolutely fatal.
03:33
So how do they deal with their differences?
03:35
Well what I learned
03:37
is whenever tempers rise in those communities,
03:39
someone goes and hides the poison arrows out in the bush,
03:42
and then everyone sits around in a circle like this,
03:45
and they sit, and they talk, and they talk.
03:49
It may take two days, three days, four days,
03:52
but they don't rest
03:54
until they find a resolution,
03:56
or better yet, a reconciliation.
03:58
And if tempers are still too high,
04:00
then they send someone off to visit some relatives
04:02
as a cooling-off period.
04:04
Well that system
04:06
is, I think, probably the system that kept us alive to this point,
04:08
given our human tendencies.
04:11
That system, I call the "third side."
04:13
Because if you think about it,
04:16
normally when we think of conflict, when we describe it,
04:18
there's always two sides --
04:21
it's Arabs versus Israelis, labor versus management,
04:23
husband versus wife, Republicans versus Democrats.
04:25
But what we don't often see
04:28
is that there's always a third side,
04:30
and the third side of the conflict is us,
04:32
it's the surrounding community,
04:34
it's the friends, the allies,
04:36
the family members, the neighbors.
04:38
And we can play an incredibly constructive role.
04:40
Perhaps the most fundamental way
04:43
in which the third side can help
04:45
is to remind the parties of what's really at stake.
04:48
For the sake of the kids, for the sake of the family,
04:51
for the sake of the community, for the sake of the future,
04:53
let's stop fighting for a moment and start talking.
04:56
Because, the thing is,
04:59
when we're involved in conflict,
05:01
it's very easy to lose perspective.
05:03
It's very easy to react.
05:05
Human beings -- we're reaction machines.
05:07
And as the saying goes,
05:10
when angry, you will make the best speech
05:12
you will ever regret.
05:14
And so the third side reminds us of that.
05:17
The third side helps us go to the balcony,
05:20
which is a metaphor for a place of perspective,
05:22
where we can keep our eyes on the prize.
05:25
Let me tell you a little story from my own negotiating experience.
05:28
Some years ago, I was involved as a facilitator
05:31
in some very tough talks
05:34
between the leaders of Russia
05:36
and the leaders of Chechnya.
05:38
There was a war going on, as you know.
05:40
And we met in the Hague,
05:42
in the Peace Palace,
05:44
in the same room where the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal
05:46
was taking place.
05:49
And the talks got off to a rather rocky start
05:51
when the vice president of Chechnya
05:53
began by pointing at the Russians and said,
05:55
"You should stay right here in your seats,
05:58
because you're going to be on trial for war crimes."
06:00
And then he went on, and then he turned to me and said,
06:02
"You're an American.
06:04
Look at what you Americans are doing in Puerto Rico."
06:06
And my mind started racing, "Puerto Rico? What do I know about Puerto Rico?"
06:09
I started reacting,
06:12
but then I tried to remember to go to the balcony.
06:14
And then when he paused,
06:17
and everyone looked at me for a response,
06:19
from a balcony perspective, I was able to thank him for his remarks
06:21
and say, "I appreciate your criticism of my country,
06:24
and I take it as a sign that we're among friends
06:27
and can speak candidly to one another.
06:29
And what we're here to do is not to talk about Puerto Rico or the past.
06:32
What we're here to do is to see if we can figure out a way
06:35
to stop the suffering and the bloodshed in Chechnya."
06:38
The conversation got back on track.
06:41
That's the role of the third side,
06:44
is to help the parties to go to the balcony.
06:46
Now let me take you for a moment
06:48
to what's widely regarded as the world's most difficult conflict,
06:51
or the most impossible conflict,
06:53
is the Middle East.
06:55
Question is: where's the third side there?
06:57
How could we possibly go to the balcony?
07:00
Now I don't pretend to have an answer
07:02
to the Middle East conflict,
07:04
but I think I've got a first step,
07:06
literally, a first step,
07:08
something that any one of us could do as third-siders.
07:10
Let me just ask you one question first.
07:13
How many of you
07:15
in the last years
07:17
have ever found yourself worrying about the Middle East
07:19
and wondering what anyone could do?
07:22
Just out of curiosity, how many of you?
07:24
Okay, so the great majority of us.
07:26
And here, it's so far away.
07:29
Why do we pay so much attention to this conflict?
07:31
Is it the number of deaths?
07:34
There are a hundred times more people who die
07:36
in a conflict in Africa than in the Middle East.
07:38
No, it's because of the story,
07:40
because we feel personally involved
07:42
in that story.
07:44
Whether we're Christians, Muslims or Jews,
07:46
religious or non-religious,
07:48
we feel we have a personal stake in it.
07:50
Stories matter. As an anthropologist, I know that.
07:52
Stories are what we use to transmit knowledge.
07:55
They give meaning to our lives.
07:58
That's what we tell here at TED, we tell stories.
08:00
Stories are the key.
08:02
And so my question is,
08:04
yes, let's try and resolve the politics
08:07
there in the Middle East,
08:09
but let's also take a look at the story.
08:11
Let's try to get at the root of what it's all about.
08:14
Let's see if we can apply the third side to it.
08:16
What would that mean? What is the story there?
08:18
Now as anthropologists, we know
08:21
that every culture has an origin story.
08:23
What's the origin story of the Middle East?
08:26
In a phrase, it's:
08:28
4,000 years ago, a man and his family
08:30
walked across the Middle East,
08:33
and the world has never been the same since.
08:35
That man, of course,
08:38
was Abraham.
08:40
And what he stood for was unity,
08:42
the unity of the family.
08:44
He's the father of us all.
08:46
But it's not just what he stood for, it's what his message was.
08:48
His basic message was unity too,
08:50
the interconnectedness of it all, the unity of it all,
08:53
and his basic value was respect,
08:56
was kindness toward strangers.
08:59
That's what he's known for, his hospitality.
09:01
So in that sense,
09:04
he's the symbolic third side
09:06
of the Middle East.
09:08
He's the one who reminds us
09:10
that we're all part of a greater whole.
09:13
Now how would you --
09:15
now think about that for a moment.
09:17
Today we face the scourge of terrorism.
09:19
What is terrorism?
09:22
Terrorism is basically taking an innocent stranger
09:24
and treating them as an enemy whom you kill
09:27
in order to create fear.
09:30
What's the opposite of terrorism?
09:32
It's taking an innocent stranger
09:34
and treating them as a friend
09:36
whom you welcome into your home
09:38
in order to sow and create understanding,
09:41
or respect, or love.
09:43
So what if then
09:46
you took the story of Abraham,
09:48
which is a third side story,
09:51
what if that could be --
09:53
because Abraham stands for hospitality --
09:55
what if that could be an antidote to terrorism?
09:58
What if that could be a vaccine
10:01
against religious intolerance?
10:03
How would you bring that story to life?
10:05
Now it's not enough just to tell a story --
10:08
that's powerful --
10:10
but people need to experience the story.
10:12
They need to be able to live the story. How would you do that?
10:14
And that was my thinking of how would you do that.
10:17
And that's what comes to the first step here.
10:20
Because the simple way to do that
10:22
is you go for a walk.
10:24
You go for a walk in the footsteps of Abraham.
10:27
You retrace the footsteps of Abraham.
10:30
Because walking has a real power.
10:33
You know, as an anthropologist, walking is what made us human.
10:36
Walking, it's funny, when you walk,
10:39
you walk side-by-side
10:41
in the same common direction.
10:43
Now if I were to come to you face-to-face
10:46
and come this close to you,
10:48
you would feel threatened.
10:51
But if I walk shoulder-to-shoulder,
10:54
even touching shoulders,
10:56
it's no problem.
10:58
Who fights while they walk?
11:00
That's why in negotiations, often, when things get tough,
11:02
people go for walks in the woods.
11:05
So the idea came to me
11:07
of what about inspiring
11:09
a path, a route --
11:11
think the silk route, think the Appalachian trail --
11:13
that followed in the footsteps
11:16
of Abraham.
11:18
People said, "That's crazy. You can't.
11:20
You can't retrace the footsteps of Abraham. It's too insecure.
11:22
You've got to cross all these borders.
11:25
It goes across 10 different countries in the Middle East,
11:27
because it unites them all."
11:29
And so we studied the idea at Harvard.
11:31
We did our due diligence.
11:33
And then a few years ago, a group of us,
11:35
about 25 of us from about 10 different countries,
11:37
decided to see if we could retrace the footsteps of Abraham,
11:39
going from his initial birthplace in the city of Urfa
11:41
in Southern Turkey, Northern Mesopotamia.
11:44
And we then took a bus and took some walks
11:47
and went to Harran,
11:50
where, in the Bible, he sets off on his journey.
11:52
Then we crossed the border into Syria, went to Aleppo,
11:55
which, turns out, is named after Abraham.
11:57
We went to Damascus,
11:59
which has a long history associated with Abraham.
12:01
We then came to Northern Jordan,
12:03
to Jerusalem,
12:06
which is all about Abraham, to Bethlehem,
12:08
and finally to the place where he's buried
12:11
in Hebron.
12:13
So effectively, we went from womb to tomb.
12:15
We showed it could be done. It was an amazing journey.
12:17
Let me ask you a question.
12:20
How many of you have had the experience
12:22
of being in a strange neighborhood,
12:24
or strange land,
12:26
and a total stranger, perfect stranger,
12:28
comes up to you and shows you some kindness,
12:31
maybe invites you into their home, gives you a drink,
12:34
gives you a coffee, gives you a meal?
12:36
How many of you have ever had that experience?
12:38
That's the essence
12:40
of the Abraham path.
12:42
But that's what you discover, is you go into these villages in the Middle East
12:44
where you expect hostility,
12:46
and you get the most amazing hospitality,
12:48
all associated with Abraham.
12:50
"In the name of father Abraham,
12:52
let me offer you some food."
12:54
So what we discovered
12:56
is that Abraham is not just a figure out of a book for those people.
12:58
He's alive; he's a living presence.
13:01
And to make a long story short,
13:04
in the last couple of years now,
13:06
thousands of people
13:08
have begun to walk parts of the path of Abraham
13:10
in the Middle East,
13:12
enjoying the hospitality of the people there.
13:14
They've begun to walk
13:17
in Israel and Palestine,
13:19
in Jordan, in Turkey, in Syria.
13:21
It's an amazing experience.
13:23
Men, women, young people, old people --
13:25
more women than men, actually, interestingly.
13:27
For those who can't walk,
13:30
who are unable to get there right now,
13:32
people started to organize walks
13:34
in cities, in their own communities.
13:36
In Cincinnati, for instance, that organized a walk
13:38
from a church to a mosque to a synagogue
13:40
and all had an Abrahamic meal together.
13:42
It was Abraham Path Day.
13:44
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, it's become an annual event
13:46
for thousands of people to run
13:48
in a virtual Abraham Path Run,
13:50
uniting the different communities.
13:52
The media love it; they really adore it.
13:54
They lavish attention on it
13:57
because it's visual,
13:59
and it spreads the idea,
14:01
this idea of Abrahamic hospitality
14:03
of kindness towards strangers.
14:05
And just a couple weeks ago,
14:07
there was an NPR story on it.
14:09
Last month,
14:11
there was a piece in the Guardian,
14:13
in the Manchester Guardian, about it --
14:15
two whole pages.
14:18
And they quoted a villager
14:21
who said, "This walk connects us to the world."
14:24
He said it was like a light that went on in our lives.
14:27
It brought us hope.
14:30
And so that's what it's about.
14:32
But it's not just about psychology;
14:34
it's about economics,
14:37
because as people walk they spend money.
14:39
And this woman right here, Um Ahmad,
14:41
is a woman who lives on a path in Northern Jordan.
14:44
She's desperately poor.
14:47
She's partially blind, her husband can't work,
14:49
she's got seven kids.
14:52
But what she can do is cook,
14:55
and so she's begun to cook for some groups of walkers
14:57
who come through the village and have a meal in her home.
15:00
They sit on the floor.
15:03
She doesn't even have a tablecloth.
15:05
She makes the most delicious food
15:07
that's fresh from the herbs in the surrounding countryside.
15:09
And so more and more walkers have come,
15:12
and lately she's begun to earn an income
15:14
to support her family.
15:16
And so she told our team there, she said,
15:18
"You have made me visible
15:21
in a village where people were once ashamed
15:24
to look at me."
15:26
That's the potential of the Abraham path.
15:28
There are literally hundreds of those kinds of communities
15:31
across the Middle East, across the path.
15:33
The potential is basically to change the game.
15:37
And to change the game, you have to change the frame,
15:40
the way we see things --
15:42
to change the frame
15:44
from hostility to hospitality,
15:46
from terrorism to tourism.
15:49
And in that sense, the Abraham path
15:52
is a game-changer.
15:54
Let me just show you one thing.
15:56
I have a little acorn here
15:58
that I picked up while I was walking on the path
16:00
earlier this year.
16:02
Now the acorn is associated with the oak tree, of course --
16:04
grows into an oak tree,
16:06
which is associated with Abraham.
16:08
The path right now is like an acorn;
16:10
it's still in its early phase.
16:12
What would the oak tree look like?
16:14
Well I think back to my childhood,
16:16
a good part of which I spent, after being born here in Chicago,
16:18
I spent in Europe.
16:20
If you had been
16:22
in the ruins of, say, London
16:24
in 1945, or Berlin,
16:26
and you had said,
16:29
"Sixty years from now,
16:31
this is going to be the most peaceful, prosperous part of the planet,"
16:33
people would have thought
16:35
you were certifiably insane.
16:37
But they did it thanks to a common identity -- Europe --
16:39
and a common economy.
16:43
So my question is, if it can be done in Europe,
16:45
why not in the Middle East?
16:48
Why not, thanks to a common identity,
16:50
which is the story of Abraham,
16:52
and thanks to a common economy
16:54
that would be based in good part on tourism?
16:56
So let me conclude then
17:00
by saying that in the last 35 years,
17:02
as I've worked
17:05
in some of the most dangerous, difficult and intractable
17:07
conflicts around the planet,
17:09
I have yet to see one conflict
17:11
that I felt could not be transformed.
17:14
It's not easy, of course,
17:17
but it's possible.
17:19
It was done in South Africa.
17:21
It was done in Northern Ireland.
17:23
It could be done anywhere.
17:25
It simply depends on us.
17:27
It depends on us taking the third side.
17:29
So let me invite you
17:32
to consider taking the third side,
17:34
even as a very small step.
17:36
We're about to take a break in a moment.
17:38
Just go up to someone
17:40
who's from a different culture, a different country,
17:42
a different ethnicity, some difference,
17:45
and engage them in a conversation; listen to them.
17:47
That's a third side act.
17:50
That's walking Abraham's path.
17:52
After a TEDTalk,
17:54
why not a TEDWalk?
17:56
So let me just leave you
17:58
with three things.
18:00
One is, the secret to peace
18:02
is the third side.
18:05
The third side is us.
18:08
Each of us,
18:10
with a single step,
18:12
can take the world, can bring the world
18:14
a step closer to peace.
18:17
There's an old African proverb that goes:
18:20
"When spider webs unite,
18:22
they can halt even the lion."
18:24
If we're able to unite
18:27
our third-side webs of peace,
18:29
we can even halt the lion of war.
18:31
Thank you very much.
18:34
(Applause)
18:36

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William Ury - Mediator
William Ury is a mediator, writer and speaker, working with conflicts ranging from family feuds to boardroom battles to ethnic wars. He's the author of "Getting to Yes."

Why you should listen

William L. Ury co-founded Harvard's Program on Negotiation and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project. He is the author of The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No & Still Get to Yes, and co-author (with Roger Fisher) of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, translated into 30+ languages. He is also author of the award-winning Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People and Getting To Peace (released in paperback under the title The Third Side).

Over the last 30 years, Ury has served as a negotiation adviser and mediator in conflicts ranging from corporate mergers to wildcat strikes in a Kentucky coal mine to ethnic wars in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. With former president Jimmy Carter, he co- founded the International Negotiation Network, a non-governmental body seeking to end civil wars around the world. During the 1980s, he helped the US and Soviet governments create nuclear crisis centers designed to avert an accidental nuclear war. In that capacity, he served as a consultant to the Crisis Management Center at the White House. More recently, Ury has served as a third party in helping to end a civil war in Aceh, Indonesia, and helping to prevent one in Venezuela.

Ury has taught negotiation to tens of thousands of corporate executives, labor leaders, diplomats and military officers around the world. He helps organizations try to reach mutually profitable agreements with customers, suppliers, unions, and joint-venture partners.

The original video is available on TED.com
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