What do negotiators, facilitators, and mediators have in common with camels?

camelI’ve always been a big fan of the Harvard’s Negotiation Programme. It’s their material that got me hooked on negotiation more than 10 years ago now. William Ury, Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University, explains better than anyone else what negotiators, facilitators and mediators do / help their clients to do.

Here is his delighful story in my humble words:

An old Arab man died and left behind 17 camels. His will stated that the oldest son would get half (1/2) of the camels, his second son a third (1/3) of the camels and his third son a ninth (1/9) of the camels. The sons talked and argued for a long while but couldn’t decide what to do, since 17 is not divisible by 2, 3 or 9.

Out of options, the sons went to see a wise woman in the village and explained their dilemma. The woman listened attentively. When she had heard the boys out, she said: “I’m not sure I can help you, but I have one camel and you can have it”.

The boys thanked her and took her camel. Now they had 18 camels: the first son took 9 camels, the second took 6 camels (1/3) and the youngest son 2 camels (1/9). In total, that was 17 camels. They had one camel left over – so they gave it back to the wise woman.

“My job”, says William Ury, “is finding the 18th camel”.

Mia Forbes Pirie
Accredited Mediator