The Third Side in Every Culture

William Ury

Director of the Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: To hear you talk about it almost sounds like an evolutionary survival mechanism which has evolved into the species.

A: Well we wouldn't be around, we wouldn't be talking today, you wouldn't be interviewing me, if it hadn't been for the third side because human beings have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and we've always had lots of conflict, but what's kept us going is this ability to invoke the third side, and in fact, war is largely a product of the last five to ten thousand years of human history -- in the form of highly organized violence between groups -- not that violence didn't exist before.

And right now, in this particular moment, when the human family is actually coming together, when the human family is in touch with itself for maybe the first time in human evolution since the genetic Adam and Eve. And the question is whether this is a big family reunion going on, and like many family reunions it's not all peaceful and harmonious, and if we don't find ways to convene the third side, which is the council of the whole to hold all the differences, given our genius for devising weapons for destroying each other, we're not going to make it.

So it's the key evolutionary mechanism. And it's the oldest one. It exists in every single culture, every single culture has its third side forms. What's called upon us today is to reinvent it, to reawaken it. What's called upon us is to find new mechanisms like the Internet, for example, as a third side tool. To be the eyes and the ears of the third side. To be a place for the third side to discuss, to awaken. And every single human being is a third sider. And we are, if you think about it, as a family, and all those roles I talked about. If you're a parent, you play all those roles very naturally. In a healthy family system, you're playing the role of teaching your kids how to communicate, you're providing them with love, attention, food, sometimes you're peacekeeping, standing between them, sometimes you're refereeing, sometimes you're witnessing, sometimes you're healing, promoting apologizing and forgiveness, sometimes you're bridge-building, and it's those roles we need to play in situations that are deeply intractable.