Allison Shapira is the coordinator of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program based at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, MA. She can be reached at: 

Last month at the Harvard Kennedy School, former Ecuadorian president Jamil Mahuad spoke in Professor Brian Mandell’s advanced negotiation workshop.

With humor and humility, President Mahuad explained how he once negotiated a peace treaty with Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori over a small plot of disputed land.

How did peace begin? With a simple relationship. Mere days after assuming the presidency of Ecuador, President Mahuad went to great lengths to meet with President Fujimori – not to negotiate, not to make demands, but simply to meet him. No maps, just conversation. That move created a relationship of trust between the two men that eventually allowed them to bring out their maps and negotiate an historic peace treaty for which they were both nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (ironically, President Fujimori is currently on trial for human rights abuses).

While we all recognize the importance of personal relationships, we often let others decide those relationships for us. We sit next to a stranger on a plane and wait for them to say hello. We pass by someone on the street and wait for that person to smile first. We don’t take advantage of the empowering ability to take the first step; sometimes we are frozen by our own assumptions about the other person and what they will think. 

When I was young and indecisive about what to wear to school, my mother used to say to me, “You set the dress code,” meaning I could decide how to dress, how to act, in any given situation. We can adopt that philosophy to our networks and decide “You determine the relationship” – by taking that first step to say hello, to smile, and to introduce yourself.

President Mahuad convinced us that with the right relationship, you can overcome almost any challenge. You start with a simple meeting, with no agenda, in order to separate the person from the problem. He urged us to find the spark of divinity that lies within each person and try to connect with it. 

A similar story involves the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late King Hussein of Jordan. The two leaders were able to form a personal bond through a simple shared experience – enjoying a cigarette together outside the “no-smoking” Clinton White House. 

Whether they are simple or strategic, such experiences help us find shared interests with the most unlikely individuals, and the result can be as small as a new friendship with a stranger or as broad as a peace treaty between warring nations.