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There Are Three Sides To Every Argument

We can all play a role in helping defuse even the most bitter conflicts. Veteran negotiator William Ury shares his hard-won insights.

My passion in life is helping people and societies to move from no to yes. As a negotiator, mediator, and co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, I’ve spent more than four decades traveling the world and getting involved in some of the most difficult conflicts of our time, from the Cold War to the Middle East.

One of my favorite negotiation stories is about a man who leaves his herd of 17 camels to his three sons as their inheritance. To the first son, he leaves half the camels; to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels. The three sons get into an intense negotiation over who should get how many, because 17 doesn’t divide by two, or by three, or by nine. Tempers become strained, so in desperation, they consult a wise, old woman. She listens to their problem and says, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, at least you can have my camel.” Now they have 18 camels, so the first son takes half of them or nine camels; the middle son takes his third, or six camels; the youngest son takes his ninth, or two camels. Nine plus six plus two adds up to a total of 17 camels. There is one camel left over, so the brothers give it back to the woman.

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