History of the Harvard Negotiation Project


The Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) was founded in 1979 by Roger Fisher, Samuel Williston Professor of Law, at the urging and with the help of William Ury, then a doctoral student in anthropology, and Bruce Patton, a JD student, both of whom had been working as teaching and research assistants to Professor Fisher. In 1977, Fisher had created an undergraduate course called Coping with International Conflict, in which he presented a series of analytic frameworks for systematically tackling a real-world problem, honed through his own sustained efforts working on a long series of international conflicts, including the Vietnam War and the Middle East. Many of these ideas had received very favorable reviews in the think tank and foreign policy community, and frequently offered profound insights.

Given the power of these approaches, Ury and Patton wondered why they weren’t even more widely known and applied. Their conclusion was that by working alone while asking such profoundly different questions from his academic colleagues, Fisher was seen as something of an eccentric genius. Based on this diagnosis, they believed Fisher’s frameworks would get more leverage and attention if they had an institutional home with a cadre of students and scholars working to apply and extend them. Fisher was initially reluctant, fearing the administrative and fundraising burden of running an organization, but was persuaded by colleagues that the endeavor was worthwhile, and relieved by Patton’s promise to manage the effort. With the blessing of then Harvard President Derek Bok, the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) was born as a university-wide effort located administratively at Harvard Law School where Fisher taught.

The effort was named a “project” rather than a program to help avoid the tendency of organizations to be consumed by ensuring their own continued existence. The idea was that the “project” should continue only as long as there were worthwhile activities to pursue.

Initial funding was provided by a grant from the Exxon Education Foundation to revise and improve the materials for the undergraduate course. But soon after, core funding was raised by sharing with Harvard Law School the revenue generated from summer negotiation workshops taught for lawyers and executives by Fisher and Patton. This was supplemented over time by grants from foundations and individuals to fund specific activities.

Building Theory for Practice

The goal of the new endeavor was to improve the theory and practice of negotiation and conflict management. In particular, it was to create theory of use to practitioners. This is quite a different task from the usual academic inquiry, which often focuses on studying the world as it is and capturing its full complexity. Practitioners want to know how and to what extent they can change the world. And as practitioners we cannot manage all that much complexity. One of the most famous papers in psychology argues for “the magical number 7, plus or minus 2” as the number of chunks of information people can process in real time.[*] Practitioners are thus constrained to simplify the world in order to manage it, but social psychologists have shown repeatedly that in doing so we are prone to myriad cognitive errors that result in simplistic rules that may get us into trouble as often as they help. The goal of the Negotiation Project was to create frameworks simple enough to use in real time that were not simplistic.

This goal is one that is familiar to lawyers. As Fisher often explained, “Advocates had learned in court that it was not an effective strategy to say, ‘Your honors, this case is too complicated and you’re not smart enough for me to explain it in the time available.’ Rather they have learned to say, ‘I know this case seems complicated, but I am going to show you that it really boils down to a few key questions.’ And the best advocates do just that. They have learned over time that boiling a complex subject down to its essentials and finding an organizing framework that explains the whole without contradictions or leaving things out is a discipline.” It turns out that building frameworks that are comprehensive and yet relatively simple (and useful) is at least as challenging as other intellectual pursuits.

Note that this is not about finding the truth or the one correct framework. As Fisher also frequently said, “There is no one right way to organize ideas. But some frameworks are more persuasive than others, and some are more useful than others, depending on what you are trying to do. We are looking for frameworks that are useful and that hold up to the toughest scrutiny.”

The three founders also believed, consistent with the scientific method, that one could not build theory for practice without basing and testing it in practice. The measure of your understanding of a system is the ability to change it reliably in predictable ways — to create reproducible results.

With colleagues such as Howard Raiffa, Lawrence Susskind, Thomas Schelling, and Jeff Rubin, they evolved a process for building theory for practice iteratively. It begins by tackling real problems, seeking to offer useful advice in brainstorming sessions of senior academics and practitioners, known as “devising seminars.” If ideas emerge in such a session that most or all think have merit, the task turns to trying to articulate the principle or theory behind the idea or approach, to “reverse engineer” it so the idea can be applied in other situations. As an insight and tool come into focus, they are then tested in other situations and refined as needed.

Once a tool becomes a reliable part of the toolbox, the next step is to attempt to teach it. Working with bright Harvard law students, we have typically found that our initial attempts to share a tool are unevenly successful. As we try to figure out why and how to produce more reliable results, we inevitably realize that there are aspects of what we are doing with the tool that we have not yet adequately captured in its conceptualization. So we refine it.

When we finally have an ability to explain the tool in ways that reliably enable others to use it effectively, we then begin to share the tool with a broader audience through our writings. This in turn leads readers to pose new challenges for us to think about.

[*]Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information.” Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.


Teaching proto-professionals is, of course, a way to spread the impact of ideas, as well as a means to test their clarity. A key goal of the Negotiation Project has always been to develop materials and pedagogy to foster high-quality negotiation thinking and skills in students, and if possible, to do so in group sizes comparable to ordinary knowledge courses. The Project pioneered the wildly successful Negotiation Workshop at Harvard Law School, rapidly scaling it to the standard class size of 144 students.

Using pairs of student TAs with no grading responsibility to facilitate working groups of 24 helped develop a cadre of advanced “super-students” (the TAs), many of which have gone on to become full-time negotiation academics and/or practitioners. But it also developed the reflective capacity of the regular students, who were challenged to make sense of their experience without worrying about what answer the professor was looking for. Teaching the course while also training TAs is incredibly time-consuming, however, so more recent iterations of the course incorporate more core faculty along with TAs.

Since its inception, the Negotiation Workshop has been one of the highest rated courses at Harvard Law School, and is consistently ranked by alumni as among their most valuable experiences at the school. Many of its pedagogical innovations are widely emulated, and its teaching materials are used worldwide

Learning Hospital

As part of an educational institution, the Negotiation Project not only became an integral part of the Harvard Law School teaching program with its pioneering Negotiation Workshops, but the founders also envisioned its conflict intervention work as providing opportunities for “hands on” student learning akin to the experience of medical students in hospitals. We called this the “learning hospital” experience. Sometimes as many as 40 students have been working alongside faculty and research staff at the Project on real-world interventions.

Early Projects

At times, it has seemed that the Project was working on most of the major conflicts in the world. Among the most notable (for which greater detail is offered elsewhere on this web site):

  • Iranian Hostage Conflict. From 1979-81 a major focus was the Iranian hostage conflict. Analytic work began on the day the hostages were taken, resulting in a prediction that day to Anthony Lewis of the New York Times that the situation would likely not be resolved until at least the U.S. presidential election in the following year. Lewis, who had originally asked how many hours it would continue, was incredulous. Over the coming months op-eds were written, off-the-record discussions pursued, and advice given to representatives of both sides. Eventually asked officially by both Iran and the United States to facilitate a resolution, the Project’s work resulted in a “one-text” of principles and options each side was asked to critique (“What would be wrong with something like this?”), based on the core premise that neither side would ask for nor receive more than that to which they were entitled, a principle we had suggested and to which both sides had agreed. Instead of offering a critique, the Ayatollah Khomeini made a public statement consistent with the draft listing four requirements for a settlement and notably dropping a previous demand for an apology. On the basis of that statement, the Algerian government offered to mediate a final resolution, and did so consistent with the HNP one-text.
  • U.S.–Soviet Relationship. A major ongoing focus of work for many years was the U.S.–Soviet relationship. As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock closer and closer to midnight, Fisher asked whether a good relationship was really the same thing as substantive agreement, noting that if so, the prognosis for the world was frightening. Working with various groups and supported by Associate Director Scott Brown, Fisher sought and eventually succeeded in engaging Soviet counterparts in a dialogue on this question. The result was a joint paper with Vadim Sobakin that was eventually adopted as official policy by the Soviet Politburo and informed important U.S. policies during and after the Reagan administration. The gist of the joint paper is that the quality of a working relationship is determined by how parties treat each other and seek to resolve their differences, not by the degree of their agreement on substantive issues.
  • Central American Peace. Introduced by former students, Fisher and Patton met with President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica a few weeks before the Central American peace conference that Arias had arranged, and for which he later won the Nobel Peace Prize. They noted that because of Arias’s efforts, the leaders who gathered would surely sign the agreement, but that history suggested the odds of adherence and implementation were slim. They suggested making the agreement “self-executing” by including a provision establishing a neutral body to recommend how to extend and adapt the agreement and apply its principles to whatever evolving circumstances and new developments occurred after its signing. Arias adopted this suggestion to exemplary effect. Fisher and team continued to meet and brainstorm with virtually all parties in the region for most of the next ten years, and Fisher was officially thanked by the government of El Salvador when its civil war ended by agreement.
  • South Africa. Fisher, Patton, and many others from the Project worked at length in South Africa, in 1980, 1985, and 1990-92. In 1985 they suggested to key members of the business community that its relative lack of political power was largely self-imposed, out of line with what precedents elsewhere suggested was possible, and no longer served its interests. In the early 90s they worked with and trained all parties (including two days with the Afrikaaner cabinet, a week with Inkatha, a week in the bush with PAC, Azapo, and other smaller parties, and much longer with the ANC, its negotiating committee, and Cyril Ramaphosa, its chief negotiator) as they prepared for negotiations to end the armed struggle and eventually for a new constitution. They promoted the importance of good facilitation for the constitutional talks, and, when Nelson Mandela objected that the talks should be limited to South Africans, suggested the use as facilitators of a sufficiently trusted cadre from the business community, who were not neutral, but whose overriding interest was a successful outcome that avoided civil war. Mandela agreed, and a team from HNP and its sister nonprofit, Conflict Management Group, including Fisher and Patton, trained the facilitators who were chosen. Though the constitutional talks had their political ups and downs on a few key issues, they were remarkably efficient at producing convergence from disparate beginnings on a wide range of important institutional issues (for example, whether to have a parliamentary or presidential system). Certainly agreement was reached much sooner than many expected and probably some supporting the old regime had hoped.
  • Ecuador–Peru. When Jamil Mahuad, the Mayor of Quito, Ecuador left office in 1998, he came to Harvard for a fellowship, and promptly asked to take the Negotiation Workshop. While here he introduced HNP to the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere, a border dispute between Ecuador and Peru that dated from pre-colonial times. Numerous efforts to mediate a solution by the King of Spain, President Franklin Roosevelt, and even President Bill Clinton had failed. Voters in both countries had overwhelmingly backed war over any deal that gave away disputed territory. While the abandoned village of Twintza at the heart of the disputed territory was held by Ecuador and the site of Ecuador’s only military victory against Peru, Ecuador was anticipating an imminent military attack from Peru’s vastly larger and better equipped armed forces. HNP soon invited a group of influential officials, military, and citizens from both Ecuador and Peru to Cambridge for a week-long session entirely in their unofficial individual capacity and with no authority to commit to anything. HNP used the session for what we call “facilitated joint brainstorming.” While no single plan emerged, the options generated excited the participants about the possibilities for a peaceful resolution. Soon after, Mahuad returned to Ecuador and was elected president in a close and contentious election. Almost immediately he was invited by the President of Brazil to a summit to discuss the border dispute with President Fujimori of Peru. Fisher’s advice was to frame the situation as a joint problem to work on, and to ensure a picture was published to promote that frame by showing the two leaders side by side facing a pad of paper. Such a picture appeared the next day in newspapers in both countries, leading President Fujimori to say to Mahuad, “You know, given that picture, now we are expected to solve this problem.”

    Building on the brainstorming work at HNP, talks were productive, and a creative agreement was reached based on an idea invented by Fisher and suggested by the Brazilian president. The disputed area became the sovereign territory of Peru, consistent with international legal precedents, but the people of Ecuador gained ownership in perpetuity of 1 square kilometer at the heart of Twintza, and the entire area was designated a conservation preserve with no development absent joint agreement.
  • Middle East. Fisher had been working on the Middle East conflict since at least the 1960s, when he spent a year of effort working in the region that he captured in the book Dear Israelis, Dear Arabs: A Working Approach to Peace. He followed that with a 7-part award-winning PBS television series Arabs and Israelis. In 1978, he suggested to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance a process idea from the just completed International Mediation: A Working Guide that Vance later credited as a significant help in reaching peace between Israel and Egypt at the Camp David summit a few weeks later. At HNP, the Middle East was and is a subject of constant and ongoing effort. Countless young officials, teachers, journalists, and others have been trained by HNP, and while the overall conflict remains challenging, there are numerous examples where this work has contributed to good outcomes, creative solutions, and saved lives in particular situations.


Just before the official creation of HNP, Fisher, Ury, and Patton created a handbook for international mediators at the behest of the International Peace Academy.[†] It posited that the difficulties of dealing with conflict could be grouped into people problems, inventing problems, and deciding (or process) problems, and offered a compelling list of common difficulties and useful suggestions for dealing with them.

While they were very happy with the product, there are not a lot of international mediators. But it occurred to them that the power of the ideas were mostly just as applicable to negotiators and to ordinary conflicts, which is an audience that includes everyone. So they set out to offer advice for everyday negotiators. The result in 1981 was Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Now in its third edition, Getting to YES became and remains a bestseller, in fact, one of the bestselling nonfiction works of all time. In part, its continuing relevance may come from the fact that while the ideas seem fairly simple, their skillful execution is not.

Subsequent notable publications from HNP authors include:

  • David Lax and James Sebenius, The Manager as Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain (1986)
  • Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate (1988)
  • William Ury, Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (1991)
  • Roger Fisher, Elizabeth Kopelman, and Andrea Kupfer Schneider, Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict (1994)
  • Roger Fisher and Danny Ertel, Getting Ready To Negotiate: The Getting To YESTM Workbook (1995)
  • William Ury, Beyond the Hotline: How We Can Prevent the Crisis that Might Bring on Nuclear War (1995)
  • Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp with John Richardson, Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge (1998)
  • Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (1999; 2nd Ed. 2010)
  • William Ury, The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop (2000)
  • Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as We Negotiate (2005)
  • Bruce Patton, “Negotiation” in Michael L. Moffitt and Robert C. Bordone, The Handbook of Dispute Resolution (2005)
  • David Lax and James Sebenius, 3D Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals (2006)
  • Danny Ertel and Mark Gordon, The Point of the Deal: How to Negotiate When YES is Not Enough (2007)
  • William Ury, The Power of a Positive No: Save The Deal, Save The Relationship — and Still Say No (2007)
  • Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (2014)
  • William Ury, Getting to YES with Yourself — And Other Worthy Opponents (2015)
  • Daniel Shapiro, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (2016)

[†]Roger Fisher with William Ury, International Mediation: A Working Guide (April 1978 Draft Edition).

New Leadership and New Projects for a New Century

In the fall of 2008 Roger Fisher ended his tenure as Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project for health reasons and was succeeded by his long-time colleague Professor James Sebenius from Harvard Business School. In addition to being a foremost scholar and practitioner of negotiation, Sebenius shares HNP’s founding commitment to building theory of use to practitioners and to testing and applying such theory in practice. In 2010, having presided over a successful transition, Bruce Patton ended his long administrative tenure as Deputy Director, becoming Co-Founder and Distinguished Fellow of HNP.

In 1983, HNP spearheaded the creation of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (PON) as an inter-university umbrella organization to service and foster community among the network of negotiation research activities that had sprung up around Harvard, MIT, and Tufts University in the wake of HNP, Getting to YES, and the Devising Seminar series. Over time, many of those efforts came to be housed at PON.

In taking on the leadership of HNP, Sebenius saw the opportunity to broaden HNP’s reach and provide better support to and coordination among those intervention-focused projects at PON by incorporating those that were interested into HNP. The response was enthusiastic. Dan Shapiro’s International Negotiation Program was already co-housed at HNP and the Harvard Medical School. But now HNP also sponsors the Abraham Path Initiative, the China Negotiation Project, and many other exciting new initiatives that are featured on this HNP website.

In addition, freed from administrative duty and other commitments, Bruce Patton and colleagues created in 2018 the Rebuild Congress Initiative (RCI) (co-sponsored by HNP and Issue One, a leading bipartisan government reform organization) to take on the task of creating a strong and functional U.S. Congress. While Congressional dysfunction and abdication of its power is the source of much that is wrong with our current politics, the best alternative by far is not to abandon but to revitalize Congress.

In 2018 RCI helped facilitate the creation of a “Dear Colleague” letter in the House of Representatives calling for rules reforms to empower members and the creation of select committee to propose broader reforms. The letter was signed by 26 members ranging from Mark Meadows of the House Freedom Caucus to Hakeem Jeffries, now head of the Democratic Caucus, an eye-popping list that got immediate attention from leadership. The proposals were accepted, and the fully bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was created by a vote of 418-12 on the second day of the 116th Congress. Two years later, the Committee has issued 97 unanimous recommendations, enacted the first half of them, produced a superb report, and offered a remarkable model of how Congress could work.

Today RCI is setting the foundation for the next stage of reform within the ecosystem of Washington think tanks and influencers from across the political spectrum, as well as fostering the development of a narrative to capture public support for needed changes. This work also offers an extraordinary context to think about the negotiation of systemic change in organizations, in cultures, and in norms that will result in new theory and tools of general use.

As there are still important problems to tackle, the Harvard Negotiation “Project” continues on!

Additional Information

For more information on Roger Fisher and Howard Raiffa please visit the following pages: