Opinion: The eighteenth camel

POSTED: 11/26/12 2:06 PM

William Ury is a senior fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project. He co-founded the university’s program on negotiation and wrote several books about the subject with titles like Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People. He co-authored an 8-million copy bestseller entitled Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. In other words, Ury knows a thing or two about closing a deal.

We happened upon Ury zipping through videos the non-profit organization TED makes available on the internet. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. The organization, established in 1984 originally wanted to bring together people from these three worlds; nowadays, Ted is involved in what it simply calls “ideas worth spreading.”

Why did Ury stand out? Because of the following story he told – a story that reminded us of the quagmire the St. Maarten Medical Center, the health inspectorate, the Minister of Public Health and the initiators of the American Clinic find themselves in. There seems to be no way out, but Ury shows that it is actually simple to make the seemingly impossible not only feasible, but a reality.

His story is a fable about a man in the Middle East who leaves his three sons seventeen camels. The eldest son will get half of the herd; the second son will get a third, and the youngest son stands to receive a ninth.

The heirs soon find out that it is impossible to divide seventeen by two; it is not divisible by three either and also not by nine. Instead of going to war with each other, the three brothers decided to consult a wise old woman. The lady listened to their problem and promised to get back to them. She thinks long and hard about the situation and when she finally returns to the brothers she says: “Well, I am not able to help you. The only thing I am willing to do is give you my camel.”

So now the brothers have eighteen camels. The eldest brother takes half of the herd, which is 9; the second brother takes a third which is 6; the youngest brother takes a ninth which is 2.

This way, they have divided the seventeen camels according to their father’s wishes. They give the eighteenth camel back to the wise old woman.

What the hospital, the inspectorate, the minister and the American Clinic have to do to solve their differences and to enable everyone to move forward in a positive direction is simple: find the eighteenth camel – and if that does not work, read the books by William Ury. If that does not help either, ask the guy to come to the negotiation table to straighten everything out.

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