Practice Profile

Even as an intern at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, Daniel Shapiro was talking about resolving geopolitical conflicts.

“When you hear something like that from someone so junior, you think, ‘What a wonderful fantasy’ and ‘When he grows up, he’ll realize that’s too much to accomplish,’” says Philip G. Levendusky, PhD, director of McLean’s psychology department and psychology training.

Shapiro’s passion has driven him to become an internationally renowned expert on negotiation. Today, he hobnobs with Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and other leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And his goal is just as ambitious as ever: world peace.

As founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, Shapiro travels the world spreading the ideas he and co-author Roger Fisher laid out in their book “Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate” (Viking, 2005). His message? Emotional needs should be addressed — not suppressed — when it comes to negotiating.

“People often try to leave their emotions at the door and walk in like a super-rational robot,” says Shapiro. “But we’re human beings. The question is, how can you bring helpful, positive emotions into the negotiating process?”

Whether he’s working with heads of state, business leaders or warring factions in the Middle East, Shapiro’s approach is the same: to address the emotional and identity-based factors behind conflict.

A lifelong interest

A Hungarian exchange student who lived with Shapiro’s family in the mid-1980s first sparked his interest in international relations. While still in high school, Shapiro visited his friend’s family in Hungary and traveled with them in an Eastern Europe still under communism.

“When the Wall fell, I asked myself what I could do to help the region as it made its transition from a closed to an open society,” he remembers.

The answer was to develop some 450 pages of a curriculum on conflict management for youth in the region, which he began as a psychology major at Johns Hopkins University. Initially funded by the Soros Foundation, the program now reaches a million people in 30 countries.

Shapiro’s next stop was graduate school in clinical psychology. “I’ve always been interested in psychology,” he says. “Even back in sixth grade, I was developing a questionnaire trying to assess who in our class was left-brained and who was right-brained.” By the late 1990s, he had earned a PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

During his internship, he realized that his dream was to co-author a book on emotions and negotiation with “Getting to Yes” co-author Roger Fisher, then director of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard’s law school. When Fisher expressed interest, says Shapiro, “I marched right out of his office to the Harvard Coop to buy a book called ‘How to Write a Book Proposal,’ read the book and stayed up all night writing a proposal.”

A week later, Fisher invited him to join the Harvard Negotiation Project — where he is now associate director — and to begin working on the book together.

The book’s main message is that if you meet people’s emotional needs, your negotiations will be less adversarial and more productive. But as the two men grappled with their topic, they realized how complex it was.

“It’s tough enough for me to figure out with my wife where to go to dinner on a Friday night,” says Shapiro. “Then you think about how to deal with the emotional dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the multiple parties, multiple interests and constantly changing emotional dynamics.”

Instead of trying to address every emotion that arises during negotiations, Shapiro argues, negotiators should focus on a handful of core concerns:

  • Appreciation: acknowledging that each other’s thoughts, feelings and actions have merit.

  • Affiliation: treating each other as colleagues rather than as adversaries to be kept at a distance.

  • Autonomy: respecting each other’s freedom to make important decisions.

  • Status: recognizing each other’s standing instead of viewing the other person as inferior.

  • Role: defining your roles and activities in a fulfilling way.

That approach can be extremely effective, says Steve Nisenbaum, PhD, JD, an instructor in the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School and a past president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.

“Most negotiation training, especially in law school, is about strategies for bargaining, and the assumptions are pretty competitive,” says Nisenbaum. “But if the parties can get into a mode of communicating with each other and develop a certain level of trust, many of the defenses start to fall away and they start to focus more seriously on the real underlying issues.”

What’s more, he says, the approach can work at any level — from the family to the local, national and international levels.

A global player

Shapiro’s main focus is on the international stage, where he believes he can make the biggest impact.

“A recent study showed that the cost of conflict in the past 20 years in the Middle East alone has been $12 trillion — not to speak of the countless human lives that have been lost and all those who have suffered,” he says, citing a 2009 report sponsored by the Swiss government. “Imagine what the Middle East could look like with a surplus of $12 trillion!”

Contemporary conflicts are heavily intrastate and identity-based, says Shapiro. “These factors make it much harder to end things with a political handshake,” he says. “The data on conflict recidivism is very clear, and emotions undoubtedly play a role in that process.”

Shapiro points to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example. Negotiations haven’t succeeded because people are too focused on rational solutions, he believes. “Rationality is important, but it’s not enough,” he emphasizes. That’s because at the core of the conflict are deep-seated identities and emotions such as fear and humiliation.

Finding ways to ease such conflicts is the goal of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, based in the psychology department at Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital and affiliated with the Harvard Negotiation Project. The program’s 15 faculty members devote most of their time to research and education.

One of Shapiro’s top priorities is to create what he calls the world’s first global curriculum on conflict management for senior decision-makers in government, business and civil society.

“The vision is that 10 years down the road, we’ll have leaders from around the world speaking a common language for dealing with their differences,” he says. “The idea is that we will reduce the likelihood of violence because leaders will have a common understanding about how to deal with conflict.”

Helping to develop the curriculum are members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, which Shapiro chairs. The group includes former heads of state, security experts and academics. Their ultimate goal is prevention — not of conflict itself but of unnecessarily destructive conflict.

Shapiro’s work keeps him on the go at all times. On any given day, he might be teaching, writing or consulting. Last year, he made five trips to the United Arab Emirates to offer workshops at the Dubai School of Government to groups such as the prime minister’s staff. This year, he chaired sessions at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. When he’s at home, he eats dinner with his family, but later heads out to a cafe with his laptop to squeeze in more work.

“My day starts very early, with my 2-year-old and 4-year-old jumping on my bed much sooner than I would like them to,” he says.

Does he use his negotiating skills with his children? “Very ineffectively,” he laughs.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.