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Network building in the Middle East
March 30, 2020 Featured Article

A lack of effective communication has worsened ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In 2014, regional stakeholders created the Negotiation Strategies Institute (NSI) to promote communication across disputing governments and other groups affected by the conflict. With the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) as its academic sponsor, NSI holds an intensive 10-month executive program each year for government and other leaders from across the Middle East, as well as diplomats from other nations posted to the region, to learn and practice cutting-edge negotiation strategies. Negotiation Briefings spoke to Jane Sherburne, chair of NSI’s board of directors, about how the program works and what it aims to achieve.

Negotiation Briefings: Please tell us more about the NSI executive program.

Jane Sherburne: Leaders across the Middle East are facing some of the world’s most pressing and complex problems. Made possible through our invaluable partnership with HNP, under the direction of Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius, NSI is sharing the most effective and innovative negotiation knowledge with leaders and decision makers—knowledge they can use to make sound decisions for the future. We also provide leaders with unique opportunities to break through the highly divisive public discourse in the region by creating space for meaningful, ongoing conversations. Thanks to these opportunities, leaders from across the Middle East have been able to communicate with their adversaries and negotiating counterparts, often for the first time. Rather than conducting problem-solving exercises, NSI invites participants to learn, ask questions, and be curious. We see the impact of this transformative aspect of our work on all levels. Participants frequently tell us, “I’ve been negotiating with the other side for years, but this is the first time I felt we actually heard each other.”

NB: The executive program includes participants from governments outside the Middle East, including from Europe, Russia, and the United States. What role do these diplomats play? 

JS: They play a critical role. Their governments are highly active in the Middle East, directly shaping it and the broader world. While major powers such as the United States, Russia, and Europe tend to view themselves as mediators or facilitators in the region, they have important interests there and can exert substantial influence. Diplomats posted to the Middle East tend to remain involved in the region. Through our program, they become part of a powerful network with important connections and the capacity to bring others together.

NB: What is your ultimate goal in building a network of program participants?

JS: Each year, NSI executive program graduates join a network of what is now more than 100 people who continue to meet and learn from experienced negotiators worldwide. We believe it is critical for NSI to continue to provide opportunities for participants to encounter each other. Our ultimate goal is to equip network members with the skills and relationships needed to shape a better future for those living in their region. We see this goal being met every day, in meeting after meeting, as leaders adopt more productive approaches to decision making, conflict resolution, relationships, and power.

NB: What negotiation techniques have participants put to good use as they get to know one another?

JS: With support from the HNP, NSI has put together a talented faculty that provides high-impact “aha” moments as well as skills that leaders benefit from immediately. For example, through a range of techniques, participants learn the importance and power of shaping negotiations “away from the table” and planning “negotiation campaigns,” rather than focusing episodically on one specific exchange or interaction. We also provide focused training on how emotion and identity affect negotiations, and teach strategies for managing those dynamics in highly charged settings.

NB: Does the institute have a political agenda or affiliation?

JS: No. Our aim is to support those who are facing the most difficult decisions in today’s Middle East, without aligning with any particular group or course of action. NSI participants learn about the experiences of others who have gone through complex and difficult negotiations, have opportunities to assess their own thinking and behavior, and build informal channels of communication among groups in ways that can make them more effective in managing conflict.

NB: Is there a breakthrough you can tell us about that has resulted from NSI’s work?

JS: There have been many interesting results on different levels, several of them of great significance to the region. However, to respect the privacy of our participants, we cannot be more specific now. We hope that as this work progresses, we will be able to share more with Negotiation Briefings over time.

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