In my conflict resolution work around the world, I came soon to realize that for lasting change to be possible, finding an agreement around interests was not enough. Especially in the most seemingly intractable conflicts, fundamental shifts at a personal level had to happen.
That’s when I realized that NLP and Ericksonian Hypnosis were powerful tools that would help me to enter and understand the world of others, to create meaningful rapport, interrupt patterns whenever necessary, and help individuals and group to create an alternative vision.
The skills that NLP provides, are not useful only to resolve the high-stake conflicts I have been involved from the Middle East to Colombia, but also to interact daily with difficult people and in our personal relationships, as partners, parents and friends.
Thus, let me share a story of a conversation I had recently where I used my NLP skills to help someone reframe a difficult relationship.
Not long ago, I was on the thirty-sixth floor of the Mandarin Hotel in Manhattan attending a gala dinner, casually chatting with several people while enjoying a well-balanced red wine and the enchanting view of Central Park beyond the glass wall. The conversations that night moved along smoothly as we explored each other’s background to identify shared interests and experiences that nurture the networking dynamics that are sealed by the exchange of business cards.
That night, I ended up sitting next to Abdul, a man in late his thirties who was recently named CEO of a family business based in the Middle East. As the evening went on, he shared with me some of the challenges that the family board was facing. Abdul explained that he had a strained relationship with his father, who founded the business and who, as Abdul saw it, both resisted innovation and was reluctant to yield control. Abdul’s relationship with his younger brothers and cousins was equally difficult. Some resented that he had become the CEO of the company. Others just felt entitled to the wealth without putting in any effort. They were making his life difficult, as Abdul felt the pressure of the demands put on his shoulders and of his own ambition to demonstrate that he was leading the company not just because he was the first-born, but because he had the necessary skills.
In our pre-dinner chat I had shared with Abdul that for the past 25 years I had worked in conflict resolution around the world on some tough and seemingly intractable armed conflicts, like the one in Colombia, a country where I have been involved since 2001. Abdul was fascinated by the fact that I had sat down with members of insurgencies that are classified as terrorist groups, and was curious about how I had done it. At one point, he said to me, leaning towards my ear as to share a secret, “You know, every family board has a member who is a terrorist and we might just need high-end negotiators like you.” I smiled and responded, “Yes, your own version of a domestic terrorist.” We both laughed to lighten up our conversation.
“So what is it that you have learned from dealing with terrorists that I can use to deal with my own insurgents?” asked Abdul. I then shared with him a key NLP principle that has framed every one of my strategic interventions and guided my inquiry: behind an individual’s behavior, even when it is destructive, there is a positive intention. To elicit and understand that positive intention is one of the mediator’s tasks. NLP gives you the tools to do it effectively. That’s where change has a chance to begin. To focus on the positive intention is to understand the need and the interest others are trying to fulfill when carrying out a destructive behavior. Thus, the fundamental question that frames the inquiry is: what do they want?
The dynamics of a conflict often cause the parties to be entrenched in arguing about each other’s positions. And, as Roger Fisher and William Ury highlighted a long time ago in their classic Getting to Yes, it is interests and not positions that need to be reconciled:
Interests define the problem. The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fear.
I told Abdul about an experience I had that illuminates this principle. A few years back, I was invited to talk with the chief negotiator of an insurgent group at a moment when ceasefire talks with a government had reached a stalemate. As I was exploring with this guerrilla commander, a man in his late fifties, possible ways to move the negotiation further, I realized that he countered each of my suggestions by putting forward new excuses that made any progress seem impossible. Every excuse was a reiteration of the insurgency’s position about its counterpart, the government.
I was fascinated by his creativity in keeping the status quo and by how familiar and comfortable he and his organization had become with remaining stuck. The prospect of a successful negotiation, instead, introduced an uncertainty that provoked anxiety and was therefore uncomfortable. In other words, using the human need theory that I have learned from Tony Robbins and Cloe Madanes, I detected that beyond the excuses and positions, and an attitude that was perceived by many as stubborn, there was a need to feel secure, comfortable and congruent with a role and an identity that had been constructed over the decades.
That realization enhanced my curiosity (which is another fundamental predisposition of effective mediators) to wonder how else, beyond obsessively maintaining a stalemate, my interlocutor and his organization could fulfill their need for security and reassurance. More specifically, I asked myself how they could feel as secure and comfortable as possible while moving ahead with the negotiations and reaching a ceasefire agreement.
As our dialogue continued, I also saw how he had come to identify the meaning of his own life with that of the armed struggle he had joined in his early twenties, more than thirty years earlier. Being the commander of a guerrilla group defined almost entirely with who he was, his values and beliefs. Again, the meaning and the significance he derived from being involved in an armed struggle, from carrying a weapon and living in clandestinely was familiar to him. Behind his excuses and the reiteration of his group’s position, then, was the interest and the need to preserve the significance of who he was as an insurgent and as a commander. Unfamiliar with what a life after a peace agreement might look like, he was reaffirming the significance of his existence by reinforcing the reasons for a stalemate.
Moreover, the government negotiators’ apprehensiveness about the peace talks reflected a similar need to be significant and to feel certain. Paradoxically, war was the familiar and therefore the comfortable, while peace represented uncertainty and raised anxieties on both sides of the negotiation table. For both parties, digging their heels into the ground had the positive function of fulfilling their need for certainty and significance. Their resistance, objections and excuses emerged from an underling positive intention and purpose.
As I explained to Abdul, in many conflicts destructive and at times even self-sabotaging behaviors have a positive purpose. Behind fear there might be the purpose of safety. The positive purpose behind anger might be the need to maintain boundaries. Resistance to change, like the case of an insurgent group, might reflect a desire to acknowledge, honor or respect the past.
“I wonder what the positive intention is behind your father’s resistance to yield control or your siblings and cousins’ resentment towards you,” I said to Abdul. “I wonder myself,” he said after a few seconds of silence as he was absorbed in his thoughts.
When we are sucked into a conflict and are emotionally overwhelmed, as we learn in NLP, we tend to equate the behavior of the other with his individuality and identity. We turn the other into some form of an enemy, who not only has some bad behavior that hurts us, but is an evil person. In other words, we tend to reduce the others to their behaviors and thus, in our eyes, they become their behavior. Unconsciously and inadvertently, when we do so, we dehumanize the other.
This is the slippery slope we fall on when we argue and strenuously defend our positions; the conflict furtherly spirals down and the conflict becomes increasingly intractable. As Fisher and Ury wrote, at that point the “purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interests of both parties.”
To distinguish between position and interests, then, is also to separate people from the problems and to recognize that a behavior does not express the totality of another’s identity. Rather, that negative behavior reflects only a part of the other at that time and under these circumstances, and a strategy he or she has chosen to fulfill a deeper running interest and need. Inquiring about and eliciting that need and interest while at the same time separating one’s behavior from one’s “self” is a fundamental step in setting the condition to create lasting change and resolve a conflict. In fact, rather than just trying to change the surface behavior of the other, it is more effective to focus on the positive purpose underpinning the behavior and thus finding constructive and sustainable alternatives to satisfy them.
So, how can we implement this principle in our everyday life, whether we are dealing with family dynamics, as in the case of Abdul, or we are entangled in a conflict at work, or we are helping someone to make a change in life?
Here are some useful NLP inspired steps that everyone can easily implement:
- Assume that all behavior, including resistance and limiting beliefs, has a positive intention and purpose.
- Make a distinction between the negative behavior and the positive intention which it expresses.
- Identify and respond to the positive intention of the problematic behavior, instead of reacting to the behavior.
- Provide the person (or create together) alternative choices of behavior to achieve the same positive intention.
The gala dinner was almost over when Abdul turned to me, and with a smile, said: “I think I now understand why my father has been resisting change. Like that guerrilla commander, he wants to preserve his significance and honor all the sacrifices and achievements that are so much a part of who he is today. I never saw it like that before listening to you tonight.”
“I’m glad you have a new understanding,” I told Abdul and before we parted, using some Ericksonian language pattern, I added, “I wonder how these insights will allow you to find new ways to acknowledge and appreciate the significance of your father and at the same time introduce the changes so that your family business continues to thrive.”
I don’t know whether Abdul succeeded in his efforts. But I do know that discovering the positive intention behind a destructive behavior can lead to lasting change.