In Oslo And 'Oslo,' Humanity Is Key

Negotiation is not a blood sport. It is a collaboration, an effort undertaken by two parties who will often have to work with each other long after the deal is done. That belief is the basis of my philosophy, it guides my strategy, and, when I spoke at last month’s International Negotiation Competition in Oslo, it was the key message I shared with the audience.

It’s a curious coincidence that the competition brought me to Norway’s capital at a time when Oslo has frequently been on my mind.

Oslo was an apt setting for the participating students to refine their negotiating skills, learn from each other, and embrace the message of collaborative negotiations. Not so long ago, this city played host to two delegations with as much historical baggage as you’re likely to find at the opposite ends of any table. I’m referring, of course, to the negotiations that lead to the Oslo Accords of 1993-95, which began in Oslo with Israel and the PLO formally recognizing each other for the first time.

These talks had begun to resurface in the public consciousness as I planned my trip to the competition; the play Oslo, by J. T. Rogers, won the Tony award for Best Dramatic Play just last month. Of course, I eagerly booked my tickets to see one of the monumental negotiations of my lifetime reflected in art.

What a surprise and delight it was, then, to see Terje Rod-Larsen, a major player in the negotiations and the focal point of the play, speak at the competition. Now President of the International Peace Institute, he shared with us the philosophy that anchored him as he built bridges between unwilling negotiators.

Both Rod-Larsen’s address and the play provided opportunities to deepen the understanding of how compromise and peace are possible even against a backdrop of hatred and distrust. The key, at the competition as in Oslo, is building relationships. With Rod-Larsen’s help, the negotiators forged bonds and began to recognize each other as human, rather than “terrorists” and “occupiers.” The play illustrates how the simplest things―sharing meals, using first names, discussing family―brought down barriers and made it possible for the parties to break ground. At the end, negotiation through friendship opened the door to peace between Israel and Jordan and led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

As I considered the twin experiences of the play and sharing the stage with Rod-Larsen at the Negotiation Competition’s master class, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate these law students were to be exposed to the concept of collaborative negotiation. In today’s polarized atmosphere, we risk losing touch with the humility that guided Rod-Larsen in facilitating the Oslo Accords, with what I call the power of nice. Too often icons in the business, entertainment and political realms tout, and become famous for, their slash and burn approach, for crushing their enemies and leaving them nothing.

This method more often than not doesn’t work in the long term. If the positive example of Oslo is not proof enough that humility and humanity breed lasting understanding (and deals), then turn to history to see the results that bravado and conquest bear. The Treaty of Versailles, ending the first World War, was the product of a process where the victors wanted nothing less than to humiliate and cripple their enemies. But the parties had to exist side by side in the peace that the treaty created, and the peace did not last.

Coming to the negotiating table wielding brass knuckles does not result in the best deals ― it kills deals and damages relationships that could sustain agreements and lead to more. And forcing your negotiating partner to take a loss not only undermines any agreement, it means that business will be next to impossible in the future. It is instead better to come to the table with Larsen’s spirit of humility and humanity.

When Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress finally came to power in South Africa after decades of struggle, they treated their oppressors with restraint and a measure of understanding. Mandela explained, “No one is more dangerous than one who is humiliated.” This reflects the spirit of the Oslo negotiators, of the characters in Oslo, and my and Terje Rod-Larsen’s addresses to the students at the International Negotiation Competition. I hope and believe that it now reflects the spirit of those students as well. The next generation needs more Rod-Larsens, and fewer Frank Underwoods.