Becoming a Possibilist

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Hello, friends, and welcome in this episode of Insights at the Edge. I’m with the hugely accomplished and hugely capable William Ury. Let me tell you a little bit about William. He’s the co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and anthropologist by training. He’s one of the world’s most influential experts on negotiation and collaborative problem solving. For more than four and a half decades, he served right at the center, at the heart and in the heat of some very high-stakes situations across the world, functioning as a mediator and negotiation advisor. And he’s taught the skills of collaborative problem solving to tens of thousands of people around the world, including military officers, labor leaders, corporate executives, and diplomats.

William is the co-author of the world’s all-time best-selling book on negotiation, you’ve probably heard of it, Getting to Yes, along with eight other books, including a new book, which is what we’re going to be talking about. It’s called Possible: How We Survive and Thrive in an Age of Conflict. William, welcome.


William Ury: It’s a real pleasure, Tami, a real pleasure to speak with you.


TS: Likewise. People ask you, and this is the kind of question I imagine someone like you gets asked a lot, are you an optimist, are you a pessimist? And you respond with?


WU: I actually am a possibilist.


TS: You have to explain to us what that means.


WU: Which means I don’t have a crystal ball to know what’s going to happen in the future, but I know that in the present moment, there are possibilities for us as human beings to transform our conflicts. The reason why I know that is I’ve seen it happen so many times with my own eyes in conflicts ranging from at home, in the workplace, but in the larger world from impossible conflicts like racial apartheid in South Africa where it seemed like war was going to go on forever and where a political transformation took place, sectarian strife in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants where it, again, seemed to gone on for generations, it would go on forever. More recently, in the country of Colombia, where 50 years of civil war, hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of victims, and yet the war with the largest guerrilla group came to an end. So I’ve seen it happen. That’s why I’m a possibilist. Possibilists are people who look at conflict and see not just obstacles, but they see opportunities to explore ways to transform those conflicts.


TS: William, I was reading your new book Possible and at the same time I was having some conversations with some different people in my life, and I was in this possibility mind, if you will, immersed in your book. In the midst of having these conversations, I was talking to someone who is convinced they’re going to get the same illness that ran in their family, even though there’s very little indications that that’s true right now. I was talking to someone else who was talking about global warming and basically giving up at this moment in time. And I realized I felt out of sync with the perspective that these people were sharing. I was coming from this possibilist mindset and I thought, “Huh, I don’t know exactly even how to have these conversations without feeling at odds with other people.” And yet the whole point that you talk about is how we can connect with other people. So how do we talk to people who are definitely not in a possibilist set of being?


WU: Well, simply, I mean, none of this is rocket science. This is all about tapping into our own innate human potentials. The phrase I like to use is meet animosity with curiosity. In other words, bring your natural inherent curiosity to the situation. And as you find yourself growing at odds or irritated, pause for a moment, go to what I call the proverbial balcony, which is a place of common perspective inside of ourselves where we can keep our eyes on what’s truly important, keep our eyes on the prize, and then from that place, be curious, ask questions. Why do you feel that way? Tell me more. Help me understand how you see the situation.

Just be curious about why it is that they feel that, for example, climate change means doomsday and there is no way out. But just be curious, and out of that curiosity, out of those open-ended conversations, out of that listening, people naturally start to feel heard. They start to feel respected, they start to feel seen, and then new possibilities emerge from that conversation. So the conversation will go in a very different direction than the one in which you just bristle at each other.


TS: Now, this idea of going to the balcony, this is one of the I think takeaways that many people get from your work because it’s so visual and it’s interesting, because I’m now going not in the normal place that I occupy right here on the ground at eye level, I’m going somewhere. Tell me about how we take ourselves to the balcony and how that changes things, what you do inside yourself.


WU: Yeah, that’s the thing, Tami, that I’ve learned, maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last 45 years of conflict, is that the biggest obstacle to us getting what we want or moving the direction we want to go in any conflict or negotiation is not what we tend to think it is. We tend to think it’s that difficult person we’re dealing with in the office or at home, or a whole difficult people, organization. Actually, the biggest block to me getting what I want is right here. It’s me. It’s not the person on the other side of the table. It’s the person on this side of the table. It’s the person I look at in the mirror every morning. We get in our own way through our very understandable, very natural, very human tendency to react. In other words, to act without thinking, to act out of fear, out of anger.

And as the old saying goes, when you are angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret. You will send the best text you will ever regret. So the ability to pause for a moment, do all the things that so many of the podcasts and Sounds True really invite you to do, which is to go inward first. That turns out to be key. It turns out that negotiation, even though we think of it as influencing the other, the first step is influencing ourselves. It turns out to be an inside game in which the process starts from the inside out.


TS: What’s interesting to me about this balcony idea specifically, because I’m not just going into the cave of the heart or something, I’m somehow getting a bird’s eye view. So I want to talk specifically about that shift in perspective and what that feels like inside of you when you do it, especially in a conflict torn discussion or situation.


WU: Well, can I give you an example?


TS: Yeah.


WU: Sure. So where this really struck me like a thunderbolt was the occasion about 20, 25 years ago, I was asked by former president Jimmy Carter to go down to the country of Venezuela, which was in the middle of a political dispute, very, very bitter, where there were a million people on the streets demanding the immediate resignation of the president, Hugo Chavez, and a million people on the streets supporting him. There was some violence and there was some fear of widespread civil violence, even civil war. Anyway, I had a number of meetings with President Chavez, but one of them, he liked to meet at night, it was 9:00. I showed up with my colleague Francisco Diaz from the Carter Center. We waited patiently, 10:00, 11:00, finally at midnight we ushered in to see the president and we find him not alone, as we expected, but with his entire cabinet arrayed behind him.

He said to me, “So you’re here, tell me, what do you think of the situation here in Venezuela?” And I said, “Mr. President, I’ve been talking to some of your ministers here, I’ve been talking to some of the opposition leaders, and it seems to me they’re making some progress.” Well, progress wasn’t the word he wanted to hear. He said, “What do you mean progress?” And he leaned in very close to my face and proceeded to shout at me so I could really feel his hot breath. “Well, you don’t see the dirty tricks those traitors on the other side are up to. You’re naive. You third parties are fools.” And it just went on and on. Of course, when someone is shouting at you like that, and I was thinking, “Oh, a year’s worth of work down the drain,” feeling embarrassed in front of the entire cabinet, a lot of internal feelings.

At that moment, for whatever reason, I remembered, a friend of mine once said, “If you’re ever in a tough situation, pinch the palm of your hand.” And I said, “Why would I pinch the palm of my hand?” “Because that will give you a momentary pain. It’ll keep you alert.” And I remembered to do that. And what it did was, I then was able to kind of, just for a moment, in a flash of a moment, notice my own feelings, observe, like from a balcony, observe, self-observation, observe my own feelings of embarrassment, of fear, of thinking. My mind’s raising, well, how am I going to defend myself? And instead ask the question, what is it that you really want to happen here? And is it really going to do any good if you get into a shouting match with the president of Venezuela?

I realized I was there to kind of calm the situation down, so I just bit my tongue and I just listened to him. Having listened first to myself, and that’s the key, noticed my own feelings, and my own nervous system could start to settle down a little bit. And I had some space to really listen to him and observe it as if it was a play, like you’re on the balcony and everything is going on on the stage and just watch him. 10 minutes went by, 20 minutes went by, 30 minutes went by, this was a man who could give speeches for seven hours, but with no reaction from me, he began to run a little bit out of steam and suddenly, watching his body language, I saw his shoulders slowly sink. And in a weary tone of voice, he asked me, he said, “So Ury, what should I do?” Well, that is the faint sound of a human mind opening.

So that was my opportunity. So I said, “Mr. President, it’s almost Christmastime, last Christmas, all the festivities around the country were canceled. Why not give everyone a break? Call a truce, a tregua in Spanish. Three weeks, give them a chance to enjoy the holidays for their families, and maybe in January they’ll come back into better mood to listen.” Well, he stopped for a moment. He looked at me for a moment, he thought about it, and then he said, “You know what? That’s an excellent idea. I’m going to propose that my next speech.” He clapped me on the back with his hand and his mood had completely shifted. And what I learned then and there was that the single greatest power we have in a difficult conflict situation, whether it’s at home, at work, or in the world, is the power not to react, but to pause for a moment and go to that proverbial balcony.


TS: That story really says so much. Now, one of the questions I have for you, as someone who has been personally on a lot of different meditation retreats and received a lot of meditation training, done a lot of practice, that’s the way I learned to take a witness or an observer’s perspective. You teach this, go to the balcony, to all kinds of people all over the world. Outside of meditation, how do people develop this capacity, this quality?


WU: Practice. We have a chance to practice every single day. All these things, these are lifelong lessons, whether it’s learning to pause or learning to listen to the other side, but they’re natural human potentials that we all have. And I ask audiences, I say to them, the people I work with, all kinds of audiences from business people to unions, to teachers, to students, “What’s your favorite way to go to the balcony?” And everyone has one. I mean, it could be just to breathe, like they teach you in meditation class. Take a few deep breaths, and there’s a kind of clarity that emerges. It might be to take a break. It might be to go for a walk in nature, which is my favorite way to go to the balcony if I have time, just because the effect of nature just kind of calms me, give me a sense of perspective.

I like to go walk in the mountains. That’s a real balcony where you can kind of see a view, or if you’re by the ocean as you are, you can kind of see the view. Or some people like just to have talk with a friend or go for a workout. Everyone has their favorite ways of doing this. Today, in today’s world, which is increasingly stressed and social media and everything going off, we need the counterpoint of finding our balconies, both the short-term balconies. It could be just saying nothing. One of the most powerful things you can do in any conflict or negotiation is just use the power of silence. Just a few seconds of silence, 10 seconds, 15 seconds of silence. In fact, I have a colleague at MIT who’s done a study of negotiation and correlated the amount of silence you could record in the conversation with the degree of the cooperativeness of the outcomes. In other words, more silence, more cooperation.


TS: There’s just one more thing about this balcony metaphor, because I find it so powerful so this is why I’m spending so much time here, which is, it’s this notion of instead of being behind my eyes, I’m somehow in a different set of eyes. My eyes are someplace else. I’m now a player with other players in conflict versus now I’m looking down upon it. So I wonder if you can just say something about that, this shift in perspective.


WU: I love that. Yeah, it’s a metaphor, and I find metaphors really powerful because they do, like you’re just suggesting, the metaphor just allows you to kind of imagine yourself visually on a balcony, which is a mental, emotional, even spiritual place of perspective. Just that metaphorical use of the imagination there, I just find it so useful. Just, “Oh, okay, I imagine a visual balcony,” and it’s like, “Yeah, okay.” Then suddenly I’ve got that inner perspective. Neuroscientists would say you’re kind of engaging your prefrontal cortex to control your limbic system. There would be other kinds of language. But it’s that kind of the ability to detach, that little bit of detachment. It doesn’t mean that you’re running away from the conflict. On the contrary, you go from balcony to stage, balcony to stage, balcony to stage, balcony to stage, and you just practice that and you have a chance to practice it in every conversation.

It’s just the more we do that, the more we can know what our favorite ways of going to the balcony are, cultivate them. Even think about building. Like I’m going to have a stressful meeting. Make sure there’s timeouts, make sure there’s breaks. You don’t have to go on forever. Okay, you’re going to talk for two minutes or five minutes or 10 minutes and you’ll take a break. Just titrating the amount, because it’s so often, we’ve got to find ways to break that natural reaction, reaction, reaction, reaction, an eye for an eye, and we all go blind. I mean, that leads us nowhere. So balcony … I mean, paradoxically, the best way to start a difficult conflict conversation, a difficult negotiation is to stop. The best way to start is to stop. The best way to engage is first to disengage.


TS: As a possibilist, one of the interesting things that you say right in the beginning of Possible is, you sort of turn this view of conflict on its head and you write, “Conflict can produce better ideas and ultimately better relationships.” And you go on, and I’m just going to read this for a moment, “When I wrote Getting to Yes more than 40 years ago, yes meant a mutually satisfying agreement. Today, I believe the meaning of yes must be expanded. The new yes means to lean in and embrace conflicts for all they have to offer us. The new yes is a transformative yes.” So I wanted to understand more this view of conflicts that they’re going to help us have better relationships. Really?


WU: Yeah, really. I know. I mean, that wasn’t the way I used to think too. I used to think as most people do, that conflict is something negative. But in the sense that we’re in a world of conflict, what I’ve learned as an anthropologist and a negotiator is that conflict actually is something natural. It’s part of human life, it’s part of everyday life, it’s everywhere. In fact, wherever I ask people, I say, “Is conflict staying pretty much the same as it always has been? Is it going down over time? Is it going up?” And everyone’s hand, it’s going up, and there’s no end in sight. So our choice isn’t about ending conflict. And then I realized the problem isn’t conflict. The problem is the way we deal with conflict. We have a choice whether or not to deal with a conflict destructively through vicious arguments, fights, lawsuits, wars, in which everybody ends up losing, or to handle it constructively through listening, through dialogue, through constructive problem solving, through negotiation.

That’s our choice, is to transform conflict. It’s to change the form from destructive to constructive. In that sense, actually paradoxically, in this world, hard to believe, but we actually may need more conflict, not less, more healthy conflict. Because wherever there are injustices, we’re going to need conflict to engage it. Even in a marriage, for example, psychologists will tell you that the best couples are not the ones who have no conflict. The most healthy relationships are the ones where people know how to engage their differences, surface their differences, express them, but express them in a respectful, constructive way. That’s the key.


TS: So in principle, I can start to get excited about this, and I’m going to just use an example that is from my own life that I think maybe people can relate to. It’s relatively benign, but a neighbor who contacts me and has a conflict about a property dispute and who’s responsible for this or that, and I think, “Oh, this is a chance for me to get to know my neighbor better. This is going to be a transformational conflict. We’re going to be in better relationship, we’re going to have dinner.” But it actually goes kind of south, William, because this ends up being a “difficult person.” So now I’m in the balcony, I’m looking at this situation, I want it to be transformational, but the truth is, conflict is a pain in the you know what.


WU: Right.


TS: So how do we take on this view of like, “Oh, I am still feeling all of this positive energy about transforming our relationship”?


WU: I love your questions, Tami. So yeah, the thing is, a lot of us, I would say when we’re faced with conflict, we tend to fall into what I call the 3A trap. The first A is, a lot of us don’t like conflict, so we avoid it, and that’s our natural tendencies. We avoid it. But when you avoid it, most of the times the issue doesn’t go away, it often gets worse, it simmers, it stews, and whatever. So there’s another one, which is the second A, is to accommodate. We appease, we just give in because we don’t … And that’s not satisfactory at all. And the third, of course, which is very common, is to attack. A for attack. We attack the other side and then we know where it goes.

So the question that we face is, how do we get out of the 3A trap? This is where I’ve learned that the best way out of the 3A trap is to do the exact opposite of avoiding, which is paradoxically to lean into the conflict. Instead of freezing where it paralyzes your ability to bring your full potential to the situation, you lean in. You lean in with curiosity. You lean in with natural creativity, maybe some creative ways to actually engage that because the best creative ideas come from actually when there are divergent opinions and collaboration. Is this easy? No, it’s not easy. This is some of the hardest work human beings can do, but it’s also some of the most satisfying because in the end, even with your difficult neighbor like that, you’ll get to know your neighbor a little better. You might hear things from them that you hadn’t expected to hear. You think they’re difficult, you haven’t heard their story.

What is it about them you haven’t heard? But somehow when we engage, it gives us a chance to have a conversation. So the thing is not to say, “Okay, I’m just going to block out my neighbor.” It’s like, “Okay, how can I …” Having gone to the balcony, which is the first foundation, because oftentimes we jump in without the balcony, and then of course we’re going to get into an unproductive conversation. But if we have that balcony perspective, which we can all cultivate, and from that, bring that curiosity. There’s a key thing which is critical, which we often miss, we think of negotiation as talking. I’m going to have a talk with my neighbor. We’re going to have peace talks or whatever. We always talk about us talking. Actually, negotiation is much more about listening. There’s a reason why we’re given two ears and one mouth, which is to listen twice as much as we talk. And it’s listening. That turns out to be key.

Listening is the not just listening the way we often listen which is, you listen to the other side just to kind of, “Okay, I’m taking in their words,” in order to refute. What am I going to say and reply? No, it’s listening where you put yourself or try to put yourself in the other side’s shoes. It’s empathetic listening, trying to understand how they see things. It doesn’t mean giving up how you see things, but it means listening to how they see things. How does your neighbor view the situation? You hear your neighbor’s feelings and you hear their needs. And then guess what? New possibilities might emerge that you hadn’t thought about for a way to satisfy what you need around that property dispute and a way to satisfy their needs.


TS: When you hear that someone says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear everything you’re saying,” but this person, you don’t know this person, and I’m sure you’ve heard versions of that again and again.


WU: For sure.


TS: Where does your mind go, William?


WU: I’ve heard that so many times. This is the one reason why I wrote the book. Everyone thinks it’s impossible. This person is impossible. These situations are impossible. And granted, it’s hard. A possibilist looks at the negative possibilities as well as the positive possibilities. They look at the full range. And granted, it’s hard. This is what I can say, is that it is like you think your neighbor’s difficult. Imagine, here’s your Catholics and Protestants fighting in Northern Ireland, bloodshed and everything.


TS: Yeah.


WU: If they could find ways, they didn’t end the conflict. That’s the whole thing. They just transformed it. They decided to end the war to make it less destructive, to end the troubles. If Blacks and whites in South Africa, with all of that was going on there, could find a way through it. If Colombians, 50 years of civil war could do it, then maybe so can we.

So yeah, is it easy? No. Are some people extremely difficult? Yes. I’m not even saying you can reach agreement with everyone. I’m not even talking about necessarily reaching agreement. You may not reach agreement with them, but you can transform the way you deal with them. The key thing is, it starts with you, and the key … I started talking about listening. What listening does is, it is maybe the most basic gesture for communicating respect, where someone then feels seen and heard. I’m not talking about respect in the sense of you like the person or you approve of their behavior. I’m talking about basic human dignity. It may be the cheapest concession you can make in any negotiation, is listen to them and give them a little respect because their dignity might not mean anything to you, but it means everything to them.


TS: No, it’s interesting that you’re separating out this notion of reaching agreement and transforming the relationship. I think many of us think those two things, that we’re focused on the agreement. Tell me what it means to transform the relationship. How do you know that’s working?


WU: Well, yes, it’s working when, as I mentioned, there’s a quality of listening to each other. Even if you don’t agree with each other, you might in fact reach what I would call second order agreement, which is, we’re never going to reach agreement on this issue whether it’s, I don’t know, abortion, I don’t know, whatever the issue is. We’re not going to reach agreement on it, but let’s at least reach second order agreement. Let’s agree on where we agree and where we disagree and maybe explore why we disagree. What are the underlying reasons and different world experiences that would lead us to disagreement? And that actually we can do in an open, curious, respectful way that will improve the relationship, because we’re going to have a lot of conflict. The conflict is like … So the relationship, it’s like a container, within which, it’s like a pot. You can cook the food in it. It’s a strong container.

So yes, a lot of conflicts are going to go through our lives right now, but if we can build those transformative containers with relationships with community, then we can handle the conflict, we can deal with the conflict, and we can take the positive healthy aspects of conflict that allow us to come up with new ideas, creative ideas. I mean, think about whether it’s at the core of a healthy marriage or of a healthy family or a healthy workplace where the best ideas come from differences emerging and being expressed, and then you think of new things that you hadn’t thought about. A healthy democracy is not one in which everyone agrees. A healthy workplace is not one in which everyone agrees. It’s one where it’s safer differences and you can engage those differences. So that’s really why it’s about relationship and not necessarily about reaching agreement because you may not reach agreement, at least not now.


TS: So in Possible, you reflect on your four plus decades of creative problem-solving mediation in these difficult situations. And there are three high-level teachings that you bring forward. One, you’ve already shared with us, going to the balcony. The second one, you call creating a golden bridge. I wonder if you can explain that and also give an example from your work in the field.


WU: For sure. So balcony is about unlocking our inner potential, the potential within us. It’s that place of common perspective. It allows us to bring our best to it. Bridge is then about unlocking the potential that exists between people, between the parties in a conflict. So often in negotiation and conflict, what we tend to do is, we were just talking about, is conflict starts to rise, tensions start to rise, people take positions, and we each dig into our positions and we refuse to budge, and then we start pushing the other to get them to change their position. Of course, the more we push, what do they do? Naturally, they push back, and we’re at a stalemate or we get into a fight, and it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Building a bridge, building a golden bridge is the exact opposite of pushing. It’s almost like your mind is here, their mind is way over there. And you’re saying to them, “Hey, come on over to my position, come over to my position.” And if you put yourself in their shoes for a moment, it’s not so easy for them to do that because for them, it’s like there’s a giant chasm, like a Grand Canyon, that’s filled with doubt, anxiety, unmet needs, dissatisfaction, trauma, past history, whatever it is. They can’t cross that chasm to get to you. So our job, interestingly, is to leave where our mind is for a moment. It’s not mean surrendering your principles or anything like that, but just leave where your mind is for a moment and begin the conversation. Start at where their thinking is and then proceed to build them a golden bridge over that chasm of dissatisfaction.

In other words, instead of making it hard for them, try to make it as easy as possible for them to make the decision you want them to make. Instead of pushing, attract. And it all starts with the process of listening. I could give you an example too, but it’s like doing the exact opposite of what we might naturally do, which is we react, we take a position, we push. In this case, it’s a different script, which is, you go to the balcony, you get to yes with yourself in some sense, and then you can proceed to get to yes with the other, starting by listening and opening up possibilities for creativity.


TS: Share with me this notion of attract and a story that shows how you were able to achieve that.


WU: Well, let’s see. I could give you an example … I can give you an example from the larger … What do you want? Do you want an example from the world of politics? Do you want an example-


TS: Either.


WU: Okay, either one. Okay. So I’m in Brazil right now. You’re just finding me here in Brazil. Today I went to the 30-day mass of a friend of mine who was once a client of mine, who died a month ago, and his name was Abilio Diniz. He was a business guy, very, very well known here in Brazil, very well known. He was the founder with his father of Brazil’s largest supermarket chain, a retailer. It was called Pao de Acucar. 11 years ago, I got a call from his wife and daughter, who were very concerned because, Abilio is his name, he was involved in a titanic dispute with his business partner over control of the company. So imagine a real titanic dispute. They were going at it hammer and tongs. Every boardroom meeting was a titanic battle. There were lawsuits and arbitrations. The thing had gotten into the media, the press. There were character assassinations, and had been going on for two and a half years, and it was slated to go on for at least another seven years because Abilio was going to be chairman of the board.

So in a situation like that, where’s the bridge? It seemed impossible. I mean, everyone thought this was just absolutely impossible. These two egos, these two things were just going to go at it. I wasn’t sure that I could be of any help, but I agreed to meet with Abilio. I met with him not in his office, but in his home because I thought, “Okay, that’s going to be a more propitious balcony.” So I met with him in his home, and he had a second family, his young kids were running around, daughter and son. And I was wondering, “What kind of father are they going to have? He’s so enmeshed in this titanic conflict.” So I asked him a key question in a bridge, which is, “Abilio, tell me, what do you want? What do you really want here?” Which is a question we can all ask ourselves in any conflict, what do you really want?

He, like a very good business person, rattled off his list of six things he wanted. He wanted a certain amount of stock. He wanted the elimination of the three year non-compete clause. He wanted the company headquarters. He wanted the company sports team. He had a really good list. I looked at him and I said, “Yeah, I understand that, but Abilio, what do you really want?” And he looked at me for a moment. He was like, “What do you mean what I really want? I just told you what I wanted.” “No, no. What do you really want? You’re a man who seems to have everything. You’ve got a family, you’ve got village to do anything you want with your life. What do you really want here?” He looked at me for a long time. There’s silence, and silence is really important, and it gives people a chance to reflect. He finally looked at me and he said to me, “I want,” and he used Portuguese, “liberdade,” which means freedom. “I want my freedom.”

The way he said it, the tonality in which he said that, gave me a sense that I really hit gold there. It was kind of an emotional tonality, like “Wow, it came from deep within him. He wanted his freedom. He wanted his freedom.” And I knew that freedom actually had a lot of resonance for him because many years earlier he’d been leaving his apartment and he was kidnapped by a group of urban political guerrillas. They held him in a coffin for a week, and he thought he would never survive. So he felt like he was hostage, and that’s how we often feel in conflicts. We feel like we’re hostage to these situations. And he wanted his freedom. So I said, “So what does freedom actually mean to you?” He said, “Well, freedom actually means time to spend with my family.” He pointed to his little kids and his wife. “That’s the most important thing in my life, and it means freedom to make the business deals I love to make.”

Well, that’s the key to building a golden bridge, which is to look behind the positions, the concrete things we say we want. It’s the dollars and cents. In this case, it was enough stock and the limited non-compete clause and the company headquarters, for what are the underlying interests and needs, the basic human needs that drive people. In this case, it was freedom. And also, as I found out, it was dignity. Everyone wants their dignity. It had gotten so public, he didn’t want to be seen as a loser. He was a very important business leader. So it was freedom and dignity, and that was just enough … Oh, then there was one other thing I’ll just say to him, which is, I asked him, which is a good question, again, an inner question, which is, I said, “Abilio, who can give you the freedom that you really want? Is it only Jean-Charles, your business rival who’s in France? Is he the only one who controls your freedom? Or can you yourself give yourself some of that freedom?”

He said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “Well, you want to spend time with your family. What’s stopping you from spending time with your family right now? What’s stopping you from doing business deals right now?” It was like that freedom, he suddenly realized he was empowered, that he had actually had more power inside of himself than he thought, which is again, it’s the way in which we trap ourselves in these conflicts as we think, “Oh, the other side can liberate us.” But no, it’s only we who can start to really liberate ourselves from within. And paradoxically, that actually freed up, I don’t know, whether released some anxiety with him, but it actually gave me more flexibility then so that when I met with the representative of his business rival, who was the other person’s mentor in Paris, I met him on a Monday, and by Friday we’d found a formula that both business rivals in this impossible conflict could both have their freedom, both have their dignity, and they were signing an agreement to end their dispute in a law office.

I took them both to the company headquarters where they talked to the executives, and then Abilio later talked to all the employees and so on, and explained what it was. And it was over. It was over in four days, something that had gone on for two and a half years, was widely expected to be impossible. And it was not just a win for each side, but more importantly, it was also a win for their families who were suffering from it, from all the employees who had divided loyalties, from the communities in which they lived. It was just a real lesson for me. When I asked Abilio, I said, “How do you feel about it?” He said, “Well, I got everything I wanted.” He said, “But the most important thing is I got my life back.” And later on, his wife Geyze, whom I just came from visiting, said to me, “You know what? His little son Miguel, he said …” Little Miguel said to her, “Daddy’s not on the phone all the time.”

So that was immensely, I don’t know, satisfying to me. It was kind of a piece. And it really transformed his life. He said the last 11 years were the best years of his life because he was free. And that’s what building a golden bridge means. It means going to the balcony, listening, trying to figure out what people really want, trying to figure out if there’s a way that both sides can get their needs satisfied and on the people around them. That’s the essence of a golden bridge. I think we all have the capability of doing that in whatever kind of disputes, whether it’s in our workplace or in our families, is to build those bridges. That’s why balcony is about unlocking the potential within us, and bridge is about unlocking the potential between us.


TS: Now, you mentioned it’s possible to be a possibilist and also look at the negative possibilities in a situation. So I’d like to look at when you’re not able or we’re not able to build a golden bridge in a situation. What’s going on? What makes it so we just can’t do it? We can always take that perspective from the balcony, if you will, I think. You can always do that, always available, any moment. But it seems to me that you can’t always build a golden bridge. Wouldn’t you say that’s true?


WU: Absolutely, that’s true. It’s hard in a lot of situations or in some situations. Some situations we can build it. Actually what I find paradoxically, and this is a paradox too, is we think, what I hear people saying, “Well, it’s impossible to build that bridge.” So we’ve got to reduce what we really want. We’ve got to be less audacious as it were. In my experience, we have to be more audacious. And that’s why I put the word golden in there. You have to actually … For example, with my friend Abilio, the lawyers and whatever, they were looking for a bridge, but it was like, it’s kind of a thing that split the different compromise that was unsatisfying to either side and they never got anywhere really. Or you didn’t get very far. Okay, we’re going to cut the non-compete clause, we’re going to give this amount of stock. At that level, they talked more at the surface level. By going deeper, by trying to find out what each side really wanted, we were able to go down to the level of basic human needs, something that we all want.

Everyone wants freedom, right? Everyone wants safety. Everyone wants a sense of well-being. Everyone wants their families to be well. Whatever the thing is, dignity, these are universal needs. When you frame it that way, suddenly there are possibilities that emerged that wouldn’t be otherwise obvious. And having said that, there are going to be situations in which, at least for now, you’re not going to reach an agreement. You might be able to transform the relationship as we mentioned before, but you’re not going to reach agreement. And that’s why there’s three things in the book, right? There’s the balcony, there’s the bridge, but because it’s hard for us sometimes to go to the balcony and it’s hard for us to build the bridge, we need that third source of support, and we can get into that. But oftentimes it’s hard, it’s hard to do, and we just have to acknowledge it’s hard to do and we need help.


TS: Now, you brought up this word, we need greater audacity. And you say that one of the core principles, if you will, of anyone who’s a possibilist, is something you call humble audacity. So explain what you mean by humble audacity.


WU: Yeah, it’s a paradox, but I believe in this world, I mean if we’re going to deal with the conflicts, we have to … A possibilist is kind of a realist. They look the situation full in the eye, they see, “Wow, this is going to be really hard.” They look at the negative possibilities, but then they use the negative possibilities of like war or lawsuits or just destruction to motivate them to look for the positive possibilities.

Humble audacity means the more audacious you’re going to be, and for it to be working, you have to be just as humble as you’re going to be audacious. Because humility allows us to see, to face the brutal facts, to face the situation the way it is. It allows us to listen to the other side. So it’s a paradox. The more audacity, the more humility is needed in order to be effective. Yeah, I find that’s the motto of a good possibilist, is humble audacity. You have to be audacious enough to tilt that windmill or to take on that situation, but it requires equal amounts of checking your ego at the door, of humility to be able to see what’s actually happening, to face what’s happening, and to listen to the other side because it’s not so easy to do. But that takes humility. It takes an ability to look beyond your immediate selfish needs.


TS: Let’s talk about the third side because there’s a couple other things I want to get to, but I want to keep weaving this all together for our listeners. This is something really important and I think quite fresh in the way you approach creative problem solving, this notion of bringing in the third side. How did you first discover this?


WU: Well, I had this question. It’s hard to build those bridges, both in the micro, in our home lives, our work lives, but in the macro, in the world. Where’s the help going to come from? Back in 1989, I began the year in Moscow. I was working on how to reduce the risk of a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. And we had a conference in Moscow, and still in the Soviet Union, around the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we brought together the surviving participants of the Cuban Missile Crisis on all sides to really understand how did we get so close to a thermal nuclear war, where we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. And I was really sobered by it. I thought, “Well, wow, how are we going to do this?”

And then I went to Africa immediately thereafter with President Carter, former President Carter, trying to be a third party in wars in Ethiopia and Sudan. And then I flew down to South Africa. I’d always wanted to spend time as an anthropologist with the Indigenous peoples of South Africa, the First Nations of South Africa. There are something called the Bushmen, the San. They go by different names and live out in the Kalahari. They were practicing hunter-gatherers and certainly within living memories, they’d been full-time practicing hunter-gatherers. And I was curious because human beings, we evolved as hunters and gatherers. That was our basic lifestyle for 99% of our history. And I want to know, how did they resolve conflict?

I spent some weeks with two different groups in the Kalahari, in Namibia and Botswana. What was interesting was, I observed them and I interviewed them about how they did it. What they do is, they don’t see conflict the way we see conflict. We see see conflict always as just two sides. There’s husband versus the wife. There’s labor versus management, sales versus manufacturing. I don’t know, there’s just two sides. You versus your neighbor. Hamas versus Israeli, whatever. The Democrats versus the Republicans. Always two sides. They actually see that there’s actually a third side to the conflict, which is the surrounding community. All the people around of which the parties actually are part, but there’s the larger community, it’s the third side. The third side is the side of the whole that we’re often blind to. So when a dispute starts to arise in their communities, they live in small scale societies, it turns out that every man uses this poison arrows for hunting, and it’s absolutely fatal.

If someone gets angry, all they do is, it’s like injecting someone else and the person’s going to die, but it takes three days. So the person who’s shot will then pick up another arrow and shoot someone else. And pretty soon, two, three, four, if you have a small group of 25, all your hunting capacity is gone. So what do they do? When tempers start to rise, everyone listens and pays attention. And then someone goes and hides the poison arrows out in the desert, and then the whole community gathers around the campfire. I mean, the women, the men, even the children, and they just talk and they listen to each other and they just all talk. It’s a little bit disorganized, but they talk. They will sit around for a day or two days or three days, but they don’t rest until they get to the bottom of it of what’s causing this disturbance.

It’s not enough just to reach an agreement. There has to be some kind of reconciliation of the relationship because they know that if you just settle it like there, maybe it erupts the next week. And if tempers are too high, the elders who often voice the consensus of the group will suggest to one of the parties that they go visit a relative at another watering hole for a few months. There’s a kind of cooling off period. So they have an entire system based on community involvement, which is the intervention of the third side to actually transform conflicts. And I suddenly realized that’s our birthright. Every indigenous culture has that, we do too, but we have to reinvent it in our modern context. I thought, “Well, how does that work on a modern thing?”

But then I went down from there to South Africa, which was then beset by the evils of apartheid. And I watched the same thing happen, which is the whole society came together, the business community, the labor community, the women’s groups, the faith leaders, the society mobilized, as a kind of container to say, “Hey, we need to end apartheid. We need to move towards majoritarian democracy.” The community mobilized. And that third side within South Africa of the civil society was supported by an external third side of the international community. And those two containers were sufficient to allow a conflict to transform in about four or five years, which seemed absolutely impossible. I saw the third side in action, in a large scale, complex modern society, and I realized that’s the secret. The secret is us. The secret is all of us working together, and it’s there inherent in any situation. There’s always a third side, and that’s the potential we need to tap into to help the parties go to the balcony and build those golden bridges.


TS: When you see something like the third side in action right now with a very difficult seeming to many people, impossible conflict in our world happening right now in the Middle East between Israel and the people of Palestine, there’s a sense that the third side is also arguing and is part of the chaos and is adding to the conflict and not coming together necessarily to be part of a solution. I’m wondering how you see that, and for those of us who want to be a positive part of the third side, what kinds of directions you’d point us in?


WU: Well, the first thing is, it’s heartbreaking what’s going on there right now. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and horrific. While one side may win a battle, in the end, everyone loses the war in the long term because everyone loses. Particularly, we’re losing our quarter to the innocents. So I would say there the opportunity is, again, just applying the same things we’re talking about, is we need globally, and actually people need to go to the balcony because what’s happening is this reactive that’s often trauma-based, right? It’s trauma-based reaction that’s going at it. So the first step is to go to the balcony and ask, what do people really want? What’s the real question here? Is the real question, which is what’s often seen in the press, is who’s winning and who’s losing? If you ask that question in a marriage, who’s winning this marriage, your marriage is in serious difficulty.

In a larger scale, the Israelis and Palestinians are like in a bad marriage. I mean, it’s like they’re living in the same land. So the question is not who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. The question is, because if you’re asking that question, all sides eventually lose, is how can two peoples live side by side in the same land in security and safety, in dignity and in peace? And if that’s the question, so you reframe the question. To reframe the question in order to build those bridges, is it going to be easy? No. Is it going to take time? Yes. Is there a solution? Let’s give up the notion of solutions. There’s going to be no quick fix, but there are processes. There’s no ending to it, but there are beginnings. And that is going to take the mobilization, the activation of the third side, both within the Middle East, in Israel and Palestine, and within the larger region and within the United States to forge a winning coalition, a container within which that conflict can gradually be transformed.

Does it seem impossible? It seems oftentimes. Of course, to a lot of people, it seems impossible. But again, if Catholics and Protestants could do this in Northern Ireland, when it also seemed absolutely impossible, and it was also the religion involved and a lot of things, if Blacks and whites in South Africa could do it, if Colombians can do it, Israelis and Palestinians can do it too. And there are examples actually. There are examples of successes that can be built on. So it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible because whatever … Just remember, the conflict in the end is created by human beings and it can be changed by human beings.


TS: When you say, William, there are beginnings, tell me what you mean when you see beginnings, maybe little even seeds or shoots right now.


WU: Well, let me just give you an example that people forget about, but 30 years ago, there was a major surprise attack by an Arab nation, in this case, Egypt, on Israel, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Yom Kippur War. Thousands of people were killed. It seemed like a major catastrophe, even an existential threat and so on. And that was in 1973. When I was a graduate student studying negotiation, I was amazed to see in 1978, out of the wreckage and out of the seeming impossibility. Because Israel and Egypt were the two major military powers at the time. They’d fought four wars in the previous 25 years. Every observer’s expectation was, there’s going to be another war soon. And instead, President Carter, Jimmy Carter, brought the adversaries to Camp David to a balcony, a place of nature, a place of perspective, not just for one day, but for 13 days, brought them there, the leaders of Egypt and the leaders of Israel.

It was not easy. But in the end, what emerged was, and through going to the balcony, very interesting negotiation methodologies. And I happened to be a fly on the wall because I participate a little bit in preparing a memo about those kind of negotiation methodologies that went to the Americans and was used. But the amazing thing was, out of that came a peace accord, the Camp David Peace accords between Egypt and Israel, that have lasted to this day, 45 years later, through wars, assassinations, coup d’etats. Again, it didn’t end the conflict, but it ended the war, it transformed the relationship. So we have examples of that already in the Middle East that we can learn from.


TS: One of the questions I have for you, William, in reading Possible and hearing about all of your examples that are taking place on such a large scale is, I think I have a sense of how to apply your work to the immediate challenges in my life and in my relationships. I gave what seems like such a small example in retrospect of a neighbor with a property dispute, but probably pretty common for people with their neighbors. And of course we can all relate, I think, to our intimate partners and the people we work with. But when you talk about conflicts and solving conflicts at such a large global scale, the examples you give, I notice I feel, and maybe some of our listeners feel, I feel like it’s just sort of out of my realm of experience. I don’t know how to be a helpful third-side member in so many of these situations. I don’t feel educated enough or knowledgeable enough. So I wonder how you think the principles that you’re talking about, how we can apply them in this larger way when that’s not the arena we operate in as people.


WU: For sure. I understand that, Tami. This is what I would say. I’m an anthropologist. An anthropologist is someone who studies human beings and studies human nature, human culture. What I’ve found in my experience, because I work at all the different levels, is human beings are human beings. So whether it’s settling something with your partner or your workplace or trying to settle things between two nations, of course there are differences, major differences in context, but it’s basically human beings dealing with human beings. And the same principles apply, balcony, bridge, and third side, just as examples, the importance of listening. And I’ll just give you an example too. I mean, in the end, all of this boils down to things that are personal.

Go back to Camp David for a moment. The last day at Camp David, President Carter, the Americans were able to bring the Egyptians and Israelis. Okay, we’ve got a potential agreement here. They’re getting ready, they’re packing their bags, getting ready to go to Washington, the White House, to announce it. And then it all breaks down, which is often what happens. Things like those last-minute breakdowns, there was a blow up because President Carter had promised President Sadat of Egypt a side letter on Jerusalem. Prime Minister Begin of Israel heard about it. Jerusalem was like a nerve, a live nerve for him and for the Israelis. So they said, “That’s it. It’s all off.” Ordered his delegation to pack their bags and it was all over, or it seemed that way. So President Carter then went over to Prime Minister. They had the little different cabins at Camp David.

So he went over from his cabin over to Begin’s Cabin, and he remembered that Begin had asked his assistant previously a few days earlier for a signed picture of Carter with Begin and Sadat for his grandchildren. I think there were like eight grandchildren. So he signed each picture very carefully for that person’s name, Irit, Merav, and so on. He signed it very carefully, “With love, Jimmy Carter.” And he went over, sad, of course, because the thing had failed. And he was thinking of all the consequences of the failure, including war. He went over to Begin and he handed him the books. He said, “Mr. Prime Minister, you had asked me for these books, signed books, and I haven’t …” Begin opened one of the books, and he saw his grandchild’s name, “For Irit and then Merav.” And suddenly his eyes started to fill with tears. And Carter said, “I would hope to tell them that their grandfather and I had helped bring peace finally to their countries. I’d hope to be able to tell them that.”

Begin didn’t cave at that moment, but the mood distinctly shifted at that human being to human being touch. And President Carter then left the cabin and went over to President Sadat to tell him what had happened. When he got back to his cabin, he got a call from Begin who said, “I’ve decided I’m going to let that side letter of Jerusalem go. We can go ahead with the agreement.” It all boils down in the end into human being to human being. So it’s the same that you’ll see. If you were just parachuted into these situations, you just see human beings contending with issues. It’s just that the stakes seem to be higher and they’re more complex too because there are more people. But it’s the same basic dynamics often at work and the same basic principles apply.


TS: All right, William, I have two final questions for you. They’re both personal. The first one is something I’ve noticed at people who have done a really big work in the world, is this way that it seems about what they’ve given to other people, but somehow in the process they’ve really been changed by the work they’ve done. And I wonder for a moment you could reflect how you’ve been changed by all of this creative, collaborative, problem solving work you’ve done.


WU: Yeah, Tami, it’s absolutely true. It’s been a lifetime of using myself as a little lab because I have to learn, and trying to take lessons from this area and apply it at home and whatever. So I feel like it’s been a lifelong lesson in learning, in pausing, in listening, in going to the balcony, building a bridge, taking the third side. Without question, it’s hard work. But the interesting thing I’ve found is, when I was a boy, when I was five or six, my family moved to Europe for a bit. It wasn’t that long after World War II. And Europe was very different. You could feel the shockwaves still of World War II and World War I before it. Tens of millions of data, there were ruins you could see. Every expectation there’d be World War III, there was a nuclear bomb shelter in the school with big steel blast doors.

And I felt like, “Wow.” I started to worry about it as a kid. I thought, “Wow, the whole world’s going to blow to smithereens because we can’t get along with each other.” So that really planted the question. And what I’ve found actually, and I saw it in a smaller scale, I saw quarrels at the family dinner table, so I had that question of how can we human beings deal with our differences? At whatever level they are, there must be a better way. And that’s been my lifelong guiding question. Somehow, interestingly, by moving into the middle, by going into the middle of conflict, going often into places that people would consider to be the hearts of darkness, actually, I find a release, kind of like, “Oh, okay, I’m engaged.” The anxiety starts to fade. I start to feel animated. I’m engaged. I’m acting, I’m moving.

What’s so interesting is that in those situations, we’re working with parties themselves who are struggling with the conflicts. It’s amazing the sense of aliveness that starts to emerge as people engage with these issues instead of numbing them or just attacking the other side. It’s just, it’s really, in the end, it’s what would seem to be extremely hard, really work you wouldn’t wish on anyone, it can become enormously fulfilling. The other thing I think about it is, the mission sometimes may seem impossible, but the company is often awfully good. You just find the players on the parties or other third parties. It’s just like, when you’re tackling these difficult situations, there is an aliveness. There’s an electricity that feeds us. And I think that’s the magic of conflict and that’s actually transformed my life.


TS: Final question, William. I can’t end our conversation without having you share with our listeners briefly the story of your very own possibilist daughter and what you recount in the book Possible she was able to achieve.


WU: Right. My daughter Gabi has been my greatest teacher. She’s 25 now, but she was born with congenital issues that affected her organs, her bones, her spinal cord, her spine. And she actually ended up having over 15, 16 major surgeries. We didn’t know if she would live. The one thing is that, as a child, she never wanted to be treated any different. She wanted to show that she could do anything, even though she was a lot shorter and she couldn’t run as fast and so on. And she always wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. When she was like 15, the girls went for a run and she couldn’t go for a run. The teacher said, “Well, why don’t you do a plank where you put your arms, your forearms down on the floor, and you hold your body rigid and see how long you can hold it?” I can hold it for about 30 seconds or a minute.

When they came back, Gabi was still holding the plank. It had been like eight or nine minutes. The teacher said, “What?” And suddenly she went, “Ah, Guinness World Record,” and she was sent away for the record. The record at the time for longest female abdominal plank was 40 minutes. So she started training and she sent away and she took it seriously. And on her birthday, because you couldn’t go for these things until you’re 16, she decided to go for it. And lo and behold, is she did hold the plank for an hour and 20 minutes at her birthday party and she doubled the world record, and the next week she was on Good Morning America, and Guinness World Records was presenting with a world medal. She gave a talk about it, a TED Talk about it, and she entitled it “What’s Wrong With Me? Absolutely Nothing.” So she’s a possibilist and she’s been one of my greatest inspirations and teachers, and it’s actually to her that I’ve dedicated the book.


TS: I’ve been speaking with William Ury, a possibilist inspiring other possibilists. He’s the author of the new book Possible: How We Survive and Thrive in an Age of Conflict. A final humble but audacious call out to all the possibilist, William.


WU: Yes. Well, this is the thing. My request for you, I’m a grandfather now, I have a little one-year-old grandson, almost two actually, Diego. I had a chance to hold him in my arms on his first day for an hour, and I thought, “Okay, there’s all this potential, this possibility in a young being like that, as we know with children and grandchildren.” And I was wondering what kind of world we’re going to leave them. So my request is that you, every one of us has these abilities. Every one of us has these abilities to be curious, to be creative, to be collaborative. There are birthright. So my humble request to you is to take your natural inner possibilist, apply those natural human capabilities to the conflicts around you, starting with the ones at home, at work, and then gradually bring them out into the world. Because if we can transform our conflicts, we can truly transform our lives and we can transform this world. Thank you.

TS: And a deep bow. William Ury, thank you so much. And if you’d like to watch Insights at the Edge on video and participate in the after show Q&A session with our guests, come join us on Sounds True One, a new membership community featuring award-winning original shows, live classes, community learning, guided meditations, and more with the leading wisdom teachers of our time. Use promo code PODCAST to get your first month free. You can learn more at Sounds True: waking up the world.

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