Aug 11 / Simcha

Learning from the N. Ireland Peace Negotiator

Harri Holkeri, a former Finnish prime minister (1937-2011) who helped shepherd talks that led to the historic 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland, died this week in Helsinki.  In a speech in 2008, Mr. Holkeri cited several reasons he and his colleagues were able to guide the long-divided parties to a deal. I wondered, as I read the NYTimes obituary, whether these might be helpful in navigating our own everyday disagreements and conflicts.

Holkeri spoke of:

  • Establishing small steps in order to build trust;
  • Not requiring parties to speak directly to each other;
  • Not asking who shot first; and
  • Infinite patience.

Mark Durkan, a politician from Northern Ireland who helped negotiate the deal, said that Mr. Holkeri, “perhaps even more than George Mitchell,  encouraged the parties to think more, listen better and talk further with each other.”

Mr. Holkeri also used wit as part of his negotiating approach, as when he explained what is really meant when a negotiating partner asks his counterpart to “walk a mile in the other man’s shoes.” “This is great,” the counterpart thinks. “Not only do I get new shoes out of this deal, but I’ll be a mile a way before the other guy figures out what happened.”

So there we have it in a nutshell:  Avoiding the assigning of blame; exercising vast amounts of patience; placing ourselves in the other party’s shoes and thereby trying to better understand his/her position; and using as much wit and light-heartedness as we can manage to muster up. Certainly worth a try….