Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

How Can We Solve This?

by Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett

How Do You Build Co-operation?

When Richard's son Francis was four years old, the two of them lived in a large house with others groups of people. One day, Francis found out that another group which held meetings at the house was a group of worshippers from a particular religion. Although Richard had not discussed this with Francis, Francis had gathered that, as a Taoist, Richard did not hold a belief in a personal "god". Francis said to Richard, "Does that man believe in God?" "Sure does," Richard replied. Indignantly, Francis announced "Then he shouldn't live here!"

Richard was shocked, and realised that here was an important time for Francis to learn about prejudice, intergroup relations and so on. He shared his views about it with Francis. But problems continued. Later that week, "that man" complained to Richard that Francis had been annoying him by climbing in and out of the window to his room, while the group was meeting and meditating. A sort of conflict resolution meeting was set up to see if something could be done to solve the problem.

When we (Margot and Richard) ran NLP training in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we came up against the same situation on a grand scale. In Pal(?), headquarters of the Serb Republic, we met a man who was delighted to hear that we came from Christchurch, New Zealand. "That's good," he smiled, "because there'll be no Moslems in a town with a name like that."

What is different in the internal representations of this man, compared to his friends who told us later that day that the war benefited no-one, and affirmed their belief that everyone could live together in peace, as they had for the previous forty years? Whatever it is, we can see it changing in the minds of many living in Northern Ireland right now. If NLP can shed new light on this question, perhaps it can assist us to make real changes in our relationships at home, at work, and globally. That's what this article is about.

Models For Understanding Co-operation

In Anchor Point, March-April 1998, we expressed our concern that the NLP community does not share a methodology enabling the resolving of conflicts, despite having many of the ingredients for such a methodology. We presented the groundbreaking conflict resolution model developed by Dr Thomas Gordon; a model which involves clarifying problem ownership, and using listening and assertive skills, conflict clarification skills and a six step conflict resolution process. We also cautioned that the Gordon method lacked a positive focus and had an impoverished notion of helping someone change.

In this article we present another aspect of conflict resolution; the creation of co-operation. We will present two examples of methodologies for creating co-operation, and then consider the structure of co-operation from two NLP perspectives. Finally we'll summarise specific suggestions to incorporate these understandings about co-operation into a conflict resolution methodology such as the Gordon model. Put together, this article and our previous article on the Gordon model give what we consider the essentials for an NLP based methodology to resolve conflicts and create co-operation.

Future Search

SearchNet (Weisbord, 1994) is an organisation that supports and runs 2 1/2 day "Future Search" conferences, where 60-70 representatives from whole organisations, or whole communities meet together to reach agreement and plan co-operative futures. Its methods were first developed from a British industrial crisis in 1960. Two large British aircraft firms (Armstrong-Siddeley and Bristol Aero) were forced to combine by law. The two former competitors had incompatible organisational structures and were contemptuous of each other. Yet over the 2 1/2 days of the Search Conference, they developed a totally unexpected co-operative plan for the new company. Management had anticipated this would need two separate, parallel structures. On top of this, they even initiated the design of a new and highly successful aircraft, the BA 146.

SearchNet has worked with such diverse organisations as Alcan Smelters, AT&T, the School District of Philadelphia, the Inuit homeland Nunavut which runs 1/5 the land in Canada, The National Conservation Strategy of Pakistan, Australian Government Health agencies, and with hospitals, universities and government agencies around the globe.

The Future Search approach to conflict parallels the Solution Focused approach to individual problems (see Te Ruru, 1988). While a Future Search encourages people to state their differences and problems, that is not the focus. The aim is to see those differences as part of a wider picture, and work on the "common ground" that both parties share. Weisbord and Janoff (1995, p151) say "So pervasive is the culture of conflict management, so widely known the therapeutic value of "putting it all on the table," that many people have come to believe they can't do anything without getting into all their conflicts. While the impulse is admirable, indulging it is fatal to a future search. For one thing, it's based on a false assumption. If we couldn't do anything until we delved into our deepest disagreements, people would hardly get through a day with their families, co-workers, fellow drivers on the highway, or shoppers at the supermarket... We do not mean to avoid, bury or deny conflict. We mean only to contain it, to invite people to put on the back-burner what they have not been able to resolve until now in favour of what is already resolved; that which they could not act on before because they never had access to each other."

Common Ground

In a future search, these areas of shared ground that have been suppressed by the conflict are revealed by values elicitation. The Future Search model is a step by step methodology for guiding a group to the discovery of a shared, co-operative future. Rita Schweitz, for example, was the co-ordinator of a 1991 search conference on the use and quality of water from the upper Colorado river basin (Weisbord, 1992, p 215-228). This issue concerned local, municipal, state and national government organisations, water provider companies, agricultural and industrial water user companies, conservationists, first nations and recreational user groups. Decades of bitter argument lay behind the issue. State agencies were involved in taking private firms to court over their use of water at the time. Now all these warring parties were together in one room. Enormous care needed to be taken to build rapport safely and set ground-rules on the first day of the conference, when several members arrived with their lawyers in tow!

Rita Schweitz and the other organisers were very careful to structure the process so that arguments didn't erupt and get out of hand at the meeting of 48 people. On the second day, when each "stakeholder group" presented its own perspective and the others listened, only reflective listening and clarifying questions were permitted. The atmosphere in the first part of the conference process was described by the organisers as one of pessimism and challenge, but all that changed when peoples values in the area under discussion were listed. A dramatic collection of shared values emerged, including an attraction to the mountains, the outdoors and enjoyment of the quality of life in Colorado. Talking about these values, one participant made a heartfelt plea that it was "time to change our ways", and the whole conference seemed to nod together. The rapport built by this apparently irrelevant personal sharing inspired major changes in attitude. On the morning of the third day, as participants breakfasted together, one remarked to Schweitz, "This must be the paradigm shift people talk about." A collaborative decisionmaking structure was set up for future planning, progress was made towards legislative reform proposals, and a second conference was set for a year later.

This is the same process demonstrated by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in Reframing (1982, p 156-157) with a two person situation. A father has just told his daughter "If you don't listen to me and don't come home by 10 o'clock, I'll ground you for a week" ... After checking that this message doesn't get a very good response from the daughter, the therapist asks the father what the value is behind his command. He replies "Well, I care. I don't want her hanging out with hoods. I don't want her out in the street. There's dope out there. I want her to be in the house, safe and sound. She's my girl, and I want to make sure that she has the kind of experiences that she needs to grow up like I want her to grow up." The daughter explains her values: "But it's my life!"

The therapist then points out a value that both of these people share. "OK, Sam. Is part of that image that you have of your daughter growing up for her to be independent? Do you want her to be a woman who knows her own mind, who can stand on her own two feet and make decisions for herself based on the realities of the world? Or do you want her to be pushed around by other people's opinions?" Once these two people realise that they share the value of "independence", they will probably find more useful ways to behave. In a sense, they want the same thing, only their methods differ. The father may now be willing to alter his way of discussing the matter, the daughter may be willing to alter her evening pattern. They can then resolve the problem using the win-win conflict resolution method (Bolstad & Hamblett, 1988A).

The Conflict Partnership Model

In my training with former Peace Corps worker Dr Dudley Weeks, I (Margot) was introduced to a second methodology for creating "shared ground". Weeks calls this "Conflict Partnership". He explains (1992, p10) "Even the more progressive negotiation books that focus on what is called a win-win solution to a particular conflict put little, if any, emphasis on improving the overall relationship for the future. The conflict partnership approach focuses on both the immediate conflict and the overall relationship, of which a particular conflict is but one part, providing skills that are not only conflict resolution skills but also relationship-building skills."

In his work in Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and other places, Weeks starts from the assumption that the existence of conflict signals the existence of a wider relationship (that people live in the same area, for example). He encourages people to state that relationship at the beginning, eg (1992, p 82) "Maybe we can use this disagreement to make our relationship better. I can learn from you and you can learn from me. Just because we disagree on this problem doesn't mean we have to let it make us forget the other things we share in our relationship."

Shared Needs and "Doables"

In a conflict, Weeks says that (1992, p144) "Shared needs are the connecting points holding together a relationship...Each partner has individual needs, but the partners also have needs they share." In clarifying what each party's needs are, (using listening skills and "I messages" see Bolstad and Hamblett, 1988A) Weeks also asks them to identify these shared needs. In one example, he worked with a labour-management conflict which had reached a two week impasse. Weeks met with each party separately, and asked them to identify their basic individual needs. Each group was able to identify 5 or 6 primary needs they had in the workplace situation. He then asked them (Weeks, 1992, p143-144) "At what points do you think your needs and their needs intersect; how do you need each other in order for you and your relationship to be strengthened and improved?" As a result they created two very similar lists of shared needs, for things like realistic production plans, better communication systems, clearer expectations etc. To their surprise, each group then noticed that at least one of their individual "needs" obstructed the shared needs that were also important to them!

A joint meeting followed. Looking at the lists of shared needs, one of the labour representatives said "This is really encouraging. We had no idea you saw these things as being important." And the management representative replied, "There's no way either of us could have realised these common goals by looking at the demands we've been throwing at each other. Maybe we should take these relationship needs and try to build some agreements on them, not the demands." Two hours later the full agreement was reached.

Weeks emphasises that the end result of a negotiation process does not have to be a "final solution". As in Northern Ireland, the result may be a "next step" which all can agree on, or simply, as in the case of the Colorado water management future search, a joint project of some sort. This kind of agreed next step is what Weeks calls a "doable" (do-able). Sometimes, he suggests, doables work better than grand plans to solve everything. Such grand plans may come up against large unforseen obstacles, while small doables allow the partners to test out solutions one step at a time. This is similar to the "first small step" idea in Solution Focused therapy (Te Ruru, 1988, p 28).

The Fourth Perceptual Position

In NLP, experiencing the world from my own sensory apparatus is called first position. Experiencing the world as if from your eyes/ears etc is called second position, and experiencing the world as an outside observer is called third position. Several trainers (see Ardui & Wrycza, 1994, and Dotz, 1998) have also come up with the idea of a fourth perceptual position: using the linguistic markers "We" and "Us". Jan Ardui and Peter Wrycza perceptively note that it is essential to consulting with an organisation (precisely the situation in which both Future Search and the Conflict Partnership model evolved). "By extension, as consultants, we found with larger organisations and systems, we tended to ask ourselves: "What do I experience if I imagine having this system as a whole, as part of me?"... This space often has knowledge or wisdom that is needed to heal a relationship." (Ardui and Wrycza, 1994, p 16-17). To experience this position, they recommend both sitting quietly and allowing your sense of we to expand; and involving yourself in activities such as group singing or large rallies. They also caution that this "we" position is not intrinsically good, as Fascist rallies evidence.

William Ury (1991, p 138-143) gives a clear example of using this perceptual position in a hostage drama. On the morning of October 14, 1982, convicted armed robber Larry Van Dyke, on the run from the state prison, had five hostages at gun point in a basement locker room of Kings County Hospital, New York. He demanded to be let free or he would start killing hostages. Police negotiator Robert Louden began a long and dangerous negotiation by saying "How ya doin'? My name's Bob and I'm here to see what's going on. I'm here to help sort this out and help us get out of this mess. What's your name?" Notice that he has already begun building an "us". Lounden did a lot of reflective listening to Van Dyke, and he stated his own concerns in clear I messages. But around midnight, Van Dyke pointed his gun at an old man's head and told Lounden, "This ain't going quick enough. I'm going to kill these people and it will be your fault." Lounden replied "Bullshit, Larry. We're here to help. We're all in this together. But if you do that it's not us. It's you. Now let's see if we can work this out." Lounden was emphasising the value of the "we" position against the lonely "I" position. Finally after 47 hours, all hostages were released and Van Dyke went to a Federal instead of a State prison. He said of the police response "They shot straight with me."

Insights From The Social Panorama

Lucas Derks (1998) developer of the Social Panorama model, explores the submodality distinctions we make when thinking of people (the way we see people "in our mind's eye" and hear and feel people in our mind's ears and body). He is interested in the submodality distinctions behind peaceful co-existence. He calls groups with which we have a "we" perceptual position "kinesthetic groups" because they generate actual feelings of belonging. He reports that frequently a person will describe seeing physical links connecting them to the others in such kinesthetic groups, and the groups will be positioned close to the person. One powerful example is often the person's concept of their "family". On the other hand, groups of people that we "have no connection with" will tend to be further away, and have no connecting threads. The person has thus little ability to go into second position with these people and build a "we" feeling, or even build a sense that these others are feeling human beings. Unconnected people become de-personalised, Derks says. They may also be coded in markedly different colours, and placed lower.

People who have successfully moved beyond polarised "us versus them" thinking tend to experience humanity-at-large as a kinesthetic group, saying for example that they "feel part of all humanity", or that "we are all God's children." They meet other individuals as separate persons, rather than as members of a "them" group, and see others in varying shades and colours, rather than in "black and white" terms. They see humanity as connected with light or other metaphorical threads. Derks gives several examples of working with people to change their social panorama towards this pattern. He has people experiment with changing the coding of an "outside" group so that it resembles the coding of a closer group; he has them mix the groups together in their mind's eye until they no longer recognise any difference. He discusses these changes metaphorically with people so that in following a story of someone else shifting their social panorama, the listeners have the opportunity to shift their own social panorama. Even re-reading this paragraph could do that for you, I suppose.

Derks points out that messengers of peace are producing these submodality shifts continuously. Consider the following quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "I believe in the absolute oneness of God and therefore also of humanity. What though we have many bodies? We have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source." (in Duncan, 1972, p 275)

Implications For Conflict Resolution

Peace is clearly more than the absence of conflict, and peacemaking is clearly more than merely resolving disputes. This understanding can permeate the use of a conflict resolution methodology such as Dr Thomas Gordon's. Gordon lists the following steps in his model:

  1. Set the stage by inviting the other person to help find a win-win solution.
  2. Define the problem in terms of the needs each person has, rather than their "demands" (ie chunk up beyond each person's proposed solution to the intentions of that solution; what it would do for them). To do this use I messages ("My concern is...") and reflective listening ("So for you the concern is...")
  3. Brainstorm solutions which could meet both sets of needs.
  4. Evaluate the solutions against the needs.
  5. Choose the solutions to apply.
  6. Act on the agreed solutions.
  7. Assess whether the solutions have worked.

The building of co-operation, as we have considered it in this article, suggests several shifts in focus during this process. In the following examples, co-operative linguistic markers are placed in italics.

  1. At the time of Setting the Stage, the fourth perceptual position can be introduced, with preframes that suggest the existence of a partnership (kinesthetic group) including the two groups or people involved eg: "There are lots of ways in which I value our connections, and we have some issues to sort out here. Probably we'll all feel a lot more comfortable together if we discuss this in a way that respects all our needs. And finding some better ways of doing this will support our relationship. Perhaps it may be useful to start by acknowledging what things are working in this relationship, to make sure we preserve those things too."
  2. At the time of Defining Needs, also identify shared needs and values eg: "Now that we know what your needs are and what my needs are separately, what needs does our relationship have? Which things are important to all of us here?"
  3. At the stages of Brainstorming, Evaluating and Choosing solutions, check for solutions which may be first steps, as well as total solutions eg: "What things can we think up that will either meet all three sets of needs here, or else move us closer to a solution where we can meet all our needs?"


At the meeting between Richard, Francis and "the man who believed in God", an extraordinary thing happened. Richard explained his concern that people in the house were able to live together co-operatively. And he asked Francis what was happening when Francis climbed in to the meditation room. Francis looked very sad. "I really like those people," he explained, "and I just wanted to play with them. And I wanted to know what they were doing."

Suddenly, in Richard's social panorama, Francis shifted from being one of those "prejudiced people" who needed to be educated, back into being his son and a loving and loveable human being. The house was a "we" again. "We" just needed to find a way to enable Francis to play with the people that didn't interrupt their meditation. The six step win-win process can be easy. Peace can be easy. And the attitude that makes it easy begins inside at least one person who can see the light that weaves all of us together as one. Like you, for example. Like now.

Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett are NLP trainers who train Practitioners as instructors of their international seminar for co-operative relationships: Transforming Communication.