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Getting to a Deeper YES

Higher wisdom goes to Harvard Law School
by Elizabeth Debold

Tl-ling! The gentle ring of a brass bell, announcing the end of meditation, guides you out of the depths of stillness where you had lost yourself. The silence had been so profound that you'd forgotten that you were not alone. As your eyes begin to focus, you look around—you are surrounded by hundreds of others. And then, with a start, you remember: you are at Harvard Law School attending a workshop on negotiation and conflict resolution.

How did meditation get to Harvard Law School? Harvard Law has long been the training ground for Supreme Court justices, secretaries of state, senators, and statesmen and -women of all political persuasions. Its graduates become the elite corps who handle the most difficult disputes on the planet. Since 1983, Harvard Law School has housed the Program on Negotiation, the world's leading think tank on negotiation and conflict resolution (an interuniversity consortium comprising Harvard, MIT, and Tufts). And in the last two years, a fledgling project of the Program on Negotiation is bringing something new to seeking peace—inner tranquillity. The Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, founded by Erica Ariel Fox, teaches mindfulness practices as essential to the art of conflict resolution. The Insight Initiative's mission is “to broaden and deepen the way we understand, teach, and practice negotiation and dispute resolution by integrating insights from the world's ethical, philosophical, and spiritual traditions.” And meditation, Fox asserts, not only is central to achieving that mission but is also enabling negotiators to be more successful in getting to yes.

Getting to Yes, in fact, is the title of the blockbuster bestseller written by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton, who are among the founders of the Program on Negotiation. They revolutionized the practice of negotiation by arguing that the best and most effective way to settle disputes is to break out of aggressively adversarial zero-sum (I win, you lose) dynamics and adopt a win-win—or non-zero-sum—approach. Now, in a rough-and-ready, litigious capitalist society, I-win, you-lose has been the way the game of life is played. We live in a culture where “the Donald” has become an icon of success for ruling over a dog-eat-dog “reality” TV show that salaciously celebrates competition and betrayal and in a world where armed conflict, simmering violence, and relentless lawsuits are just part of the landscape. But in the midst of all of this, for the past twenty-some years, Getting to Yes has sold over one million copies and been translated into eighteen languages—to this day, it sells three thousand copies per week in North America alone. This ever-escalating demand for a positive, win-win approach to settling our differences marks a significant transformation and maturation in humanity's historical struggle to get along. “Win-win appeals to people's higher and better nature,” Fox comments. “Fundamentally, people actually do want to operate at a higher level of functioning, and our culture doesn't give people training in what that looks like. They literally don't know what it would mean to come into what feels like an adversarial situation and do it differently.”

In fact, in the heat of an emotionally charged conflict, even negotiators who have learned the win-win strategy often lose the plot and become competitive. “People understand the idea behind these basic practices of collaboration,” she states. “But it's not integrated into their being, into who they are. They are just taught a set of skills. So when the pressure is on and the stakes are high, they fail to respond appropriately and return to their old competitive habits.” Through the Insight Initiative, Fox is teaching negotiators to reach for a deeper reality beneath the surface level of separation. “Win-win is far more than the recognition that 'if we're both nice to each other, we're going to get a better deal,'” she observes. “There's a spiritual principle underneath win-win that I would call interconnectivity, meaning that we're really truly in this together. We are in a shared field of interconnection. If you deeply recognize this, then when you have a conflict with someone, you find yourself in a radically different state of consciousness that could lead to a very different outcome.”

Fox, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, pioneer in the mediation movement, and faculty member of Elat Chayyim, a spiritual retreat center, has struck a nerve with the Insight Initiative. The public forums sponsored by the program—such as a dialogue between Peter Senge and Jon Kabat-Zinn—have packed the halls of Harvard Law. And their summer trainings have brought together negotiators from all over the world, many of whom have reached a point of crisis in their profession: “Many people are deeply burnt out by overwork and by realizing the futility of conflict practices like litigation, for example, which is emotionally and financially draining—not to mention often futile,” says Fox. “They don't feel that the work of their hands is actually serving the world in a positive way. More people than we realize have an interest in something that they might call spiritual, but they're isolated from each other.” Creating networks to connect these practitioners so they have greater influence is also one of the Initiative's goals. Fox recognizes “the potential for having global public cultural impact because it's housed at Harvard, one of the most powerful institutions for shaping society in the world.”

This potential for impact may be what is most significant about the Insight Initiative, because the enormous popularity of the win-win strategy has evolutionary implications. As Robert Wright argues in his influential book Nonzero, and as more and more evolutionary theorists are beginning to recognize, win-win tends to be the way evolution happens—through cooperation that benefits all parties. By deepening our understanding of win-win to encompass the fundamental spiritual principle of interconnectivity or Oneness, the Insight Initiative is helping to create a new worldview that may be able to lead us beyond all division. Fox notes that “bringing master spiritual teachers to teach with us here at Harvard is a way to support this evolution. My quest is to tap into the wells of wisdom from the spiritual traditions without all the religious trappings that are not appropriate in this kind of context. And my vision is that in the next five to ten years, there will be an integration of these ideas and of awareness practices in business, in law, in education, in social services—that these deeper dimensions of how to address conflict will become mainstream.” And that would be a win-win for all of us.


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This article is from...


December 2005–February 2006


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