HomeVolume 7April 2022Join the peace games

Join the peace games

- 12 Mins Read

Join the peace games
Photograph by Metin Ozer

WILLIAM URY is an author, anthropologist, and one of the world’s leading negotiators and mediators. He has spent his life building bridges in conflict situations and teaching other people how to do the same. His book, Getting to Yes, is a worldwide bestseller, translated into thirty-five languages.

This is part 3 of an interview conducted by GUILA CLARA KESSOUS and JULIAN PÉLABÈRE on the occasion of the 2021 United Nations and NERA Humanity Prize, which was awarded to William for his efforts in promoting innovative thinking to change the world for a better future, to help us better understand what is negotiation, and how we can all live together for a better life, a better future.


GCK: William, you have already mentioned BB3 – balcony, bridge, and third side. Is that your advice to bring more peace within ourselves and in our relationship with others? Is BB3 the magic formula? Do you have any advice you could give us?

WU: Well, first of all, in the last forty-five years since I started Getting to Yes, the biggest lesson I have learned is that to influence others we first need to learn how to influence ourselves. We keep thinking that we want to change the minds of others, but it starts right here. The single biggest obstacle for me in my personal life, or for me to get what I need to satisfy my interests, is not the difficult person on the other side of the table. It’s not the difficult person in life, as difficult as that person might be. It’s right here. The most difficult person is the person we look at in the mirror every single morning, and that’s a lot of what going to the balcony is about.

There is a saying, “When you are angry, you’ll make the best speech you ever regret,” and I think that’s very true. Human beings naturally get frustrated and angry, and say things that they later regret. That happens a lot in conflict. Gandhi noticed this and he said, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” So, learn the ability not to react. Neuroscientists tell us it takes about ninety seconds for any emotion like anger or fear to go through your system. Learn to pause, a little bit of silence.

There is an interesting study done by one of my colleagues on negotiation, where they studied different groups and measured the number of pauses in the conversation. That was it. There was a direct correlation between the number of pauses, how collaborative the process was, and how successful the outcome was.

So just slow down. We live in a very fast world. We need to pause. We need to go to the balcony. We need to take some time for ourselves.




The biggest lesson I have learned
is that to influence others we first
need to learn how to influence ourselves.
We keep thinking that we want to
change the minds of others,
but it starts right here.




Take emails, for example. When you get an email or a text that makes you irritated, the temptation is to hit the reply button and get it out of your system. Then the whole thing escalates, right? There is a balcony button on the screen that we never use, called “save as draft.” Write it out, save it as a draft, then go to the balcony, meditate, go for a walk, have a coffee with a friend, sleep on it, and then go back and look at that message. You’re going to hit “delete.” And then you’re going to pick up the phone and you’re going to talk to that person or, even better, listen to that person because that’s the key in negotiation. We think of negotiation as talking, but successful negotiation is more about listening.

So, learn to pause, learn to listen effectively, learn to listen not just from your perspective. The hard thing is to listen from the other side’s perspective, to put yourself in their shoes, in their frame of reference. If we can learn to do that, then I think that’s the secret of success for negotiation.

GCK: What can you share with us about your balcony, William? What is your way to find peace? Do you have a style of peace-making for yourself?

WU: Well, Guila, it’s a good question. You know, when I was a boy of six, I moved from the United States to the Swiss Alps for a year. I fell in love with mountains. Nowadays I live in Colorado, which is like Switzerland in the US. The mountains are my personal balcony.




We think of negotiation as talking,
but successful negotiation is
more about listening.




Original photograph by ANTENNA

I travel around the world, to Afghanistan, to the Middle East, to Korea, but I come back here to the mountains. The mountains have been here for tens of millions of years. I get perspective. Going out for a walk in the mountains is my way of regenerating myself in this world of conflicts. That’s my personal balcony: taking a walk, nature, beauty.

There is nothing like beauty to give a little bit of hope. There are so many problems, and it is so easy to fall into despair. Beauty awakens the heart again, brings a sense of wonder, and then it gives you the strength to go back into the fray, fight the good fight, transform conflicts, because it’s never-ending. This game never ends, but it’s a game in which everyone can benefit, as opposed to the usual games like sports where someone wins and everyone else loses. This is a game where everyone benefits, not just us but our children, our grandchildren, and successive generations.

JP: I really love what you say about looking for a third win, and how negotiation is not like sport with a winner and losers. Can you give us more clues to understand what is winning in negotiation?

WU: Thank you, Julien. To me, winning a negotiation is satisfying your interest. Your interests are your deep desires, your aspirations, your concerns, your fears, and, in the end, it’s basic needs. Every human being has a few basic needs: a basic need for well-being (to put food on the table for your family and so on); for security and safety; for some kind of recognition, some sense of autonomy and dignity, right? So, to me that’s success. Success is when there is dignity for everyone, well-being for everyone, and a sense of safety for everyone. That’s the goal of negotiation – to meet the basic needs. You may not always get everything you say you want – you know everyone says, “I want this sum of money, I want that territory” – but the basic needs are met.

Let me give you an example. About two decades ago, I was involved in mediating with a Swiss institution. It was a conflict in Indonesia, a civil war that had been going on for decades over the Province of Aceh.
I was sitting in Geneva with the leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and I said, “You’ve been fighting for over thirty years for independence. What do you want? What’s the purpose of the negotiation?”
“We want independence – that’s what we want.”
“Okay, I got it. Why do you want independence? What’s independence going to give you?”
I can tell you, around that table in Geneva there was silence. They didn’t quite know how to answer that question. They knew what their position was – independence – but they hadn’t thought through what they really wanted independence for.
I asked, “Is it because of economics? Do you want control over your natural resources? Is it political? Do you want a seat at the United Nations? Is it symbolic? Is it that you want autonomy for your culture, so that your children can go to school in your own language? What does independence mean to you?”

The truth is, they realized that militarily they were never going to defeat the Indonesian army, so the question was: Could they meet the interests for which they were fighting without necessarily getting independence? They could still keep the dream of independence. Five years later, they reached an agreement that gave them full political autonomy. The leaders of the GAM became the Governor and the Vice-Governor of the Province. In the parliament, in the province, their own language was respected. They gained control over their natural resources. Did they get independence? No. But their basic needs were beginning to be addressed, and the basic needs of the people were addressed. That’s really the purpose of negotiation.




Success is when there is
dignity for everyone,
well-being for everyone, and
a sense of safety for everyone.
That’s the goal of negotiation
– to meet the basic needs.




GCK: This notion of meaning is extremely important. Do you think this willingness of meaning is also something that we have to look for in a world of Covid? We know it’s going to be a spiral, and we know that there will be a lot of violence. Things will also be complicated regarding security, and for our children and children’s children. So, would you say this notion of meaning is the most important to keep, no matter what conflict or negotiation we are going through?

WU: There is a basic human need for meaning. People want their lives to be meaningful, and to me that’s one of the great opportunities with peace-making – to redefine what gives meaning to our lives. It used to be that war gave people’s lives meaning. Can peace give people’s lives even more meaning?

We can make that happen. That’s why we have the peace-making profession, the negotiation profession. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been a race between human beings’ technological genius to devise weapons of incredible destructiveness that could put an end to all of life on Earth, and our moral, emotional, political, and social capacities to find ways to live together and create meaning together.

Creating meaning is the great challenge, the ongoing challenge we face today. How do we make peace genuinely meaningful and not just some kind of an abstract thing? It goes back to your first question Guila, it’s in the game of the impossible yes1. Let me give you a dream here: What if we had (in addition to the Olympic Games) the Peace Games, in which teams were organized around the world to resolve the world’s toughest conflicts? They would not be competing with each other but against the challenge of these impossible conflicts. It would be a league, like a league of nations … call it a league of possibilists. There would be teams playing and working with each other. I really think we could transform these impossible conflicts. That’s what the world needs – peace games. There were war games, and now we need peace games. That would bring meaning to people. People love to play games, so may we all join this league of possibilists!


Original photograph by Priscilla Du Preez


What if we had the Peace Games,
in which teams were organized
around the world to resolve
the world’s toughest conflicts?
They would not be competing
with each other but against
the challenge of these impossible conflicts.
It would be a league,
like a league of nations …
call it a league of possibilists.




GCK: I am in! You’re right in saying that playfulness needs to be there, because even if people want meaning, they don’t want sad meaning. They want joyful meaning. They want objective meaning. They want dynamism and the willingness to live. Living is also a way not only to make efforts, but also progress, with people flourishing – Getting to Yes with happiness.

William, I want to thank you so very much for these very precious moments we have spent together. It has been a great pleasure to have you as a speaker. Julien and I were very honored that you accepted this prize, and we would like to thank our great host, the Center for Executive Education at the University of Peace. We would like to thank our sponsor, Heartfulness, and their event “Connecting for Peace,” together with Institut NERA and UNESCO Artists for Peace. So, thank you for talking to us so sincerely from the heart. We wish you all the very best.

What can we do to help you continue in this wonderful direction that you are taking us?

WU: Join me in forming this league of possibilists. Let’s play these peace games and let’s tackle the world’s problems. It would give me joy to welcome you all into this league.

GCK: Definitely. You heard Professor William Ury. We are all invited to this possibilist movement that he is creating for more peace in the world. Please join him. Thank you again William.

WU: My pleasure. Thank you all. Un grand plaisir. Merci. Infiniment.



1 In part 1 of this interview in the February 2022 edition, William Ury said, “I think of peace-making as being the impossible yes. It may seem impossible, but it is actually a whole series of yeses over time, because the game of conflict is not a final game. It’s not a win-lose final game. It’s an infinite game. It goes on. Relationships go on.”

William Ury

William Ury

Co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, William is one of the world’s leading experts on negotiation and mediation. He is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a professional facilitator – I want to help create the peace games. Where do I sign up?

  2. We need more World citizens like William, for a peaceful world, where everyone is happy and the world is a peaceful happy village.

  3. A nice article. The tips are good. One of the common problems/ challenges with most people is the greed to accumulate wealth more and more at any cost. They do not even think why they want so much wealth, and hence regret when life is about to end.

  4. Excellent presentation of a stable and positive way forward in our world. Thank you. It is useful not only for the macro, also for the micro.

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