Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer


by Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett.

An ordinary family situation: You as a parent want to have your evening meal together with the kids at 6pm. That happens to be the time the children's favourite TV programmes are on, so they complain. Who will win?

A common workplace challenge: You like to have relaxing music playing in the background as you work. Your colleague in the next room says it distracts her from thinking. Who wins?

As we'll show in this article, the answer to such questions can affect your motivation to acheive success in life, your feelings towards the people who are central in your life, your sense of self-esteem, and even your life expectancy.

Much of what we do in NLP assumes that we are working towards a model of conflict resolution where both people win. Bandler and Grinder (1982, p 147) say "When you use this format you assume that people want to communicate in such a way that they get what they want, and that they want to respect the integrity and the interests of the other people involved. That assumption may not be true, but its a very useful operating assumption, because it gives you something to do that can be very effective. If you make that assumption, its always possible to find another solution -not a compromise- that satisfies both parties." This is radically different, as they note, from compromise (where both lose a little so you can both win a little), or a permissive-submissive approach (giving in to the other person), or an authoritarian solution (making sure you win at any cost). Here, we want to be more explicit about those differences, and their wider consequences.

Our belief is that getting clear about the value of the win-win approach is essential to the future of NLP and of our planet. Virginia Satir, who was one of the original models for NLP, concludes her book Peoplemaking by emphasising "I think we may be seeing the beginning of the end of people relating to each other through force, dictatorship, obedience and stereotypes.... It is a question of whether the old attitudes will die and new ones be born or that civilisation dies out. I am working on the side of keeping civilisation going with new values about human beings. I hope that now you are, too." (Satir, 1972, p303-304).

Some Working Definitions

In order to discuss conflict resolution, we need some specific enough definitions of possible behaviours. Just getting clear what we mean is an important step to deciding which actions are likely to be successful. Words such as "conflict" and "power" are used in varying ways by different authors. Here, they will have the following meanings:

Power exists in all human relationships (there are always needs or outcomes of yours that I could help you with, and vice versa). The problem with power is not that it exists, but that people choose to use it as part of a Win-Lose or Lose-Lose method of resolving conflicts.

Use Of Power Intentionally using rewards or punishments to ensure that another person acts in the way desired by you (to ensure that they "obey"), even though they might prefer not to. The use of power is a necessary requirement for the enforcement of Win-Lose conflict resolution. The mutual and balanced use of power is the basis for Compromise.


Win-Win conflict resolution is often so elegant that the participants would not retrospectively call their situation a conflict. When two people both want the same orange, it's a conflict. When they get half each, that's compromise. When one gets the orange and the other doesn't, thats Win-Lose. When they discover that one of them wanted the orange peel to grate into a cake mix, and one wanted the juice, they both get what they want. That's Win-Win; but of course it might happen so easily that no conflict is noticed. In that sense, Win-Win is more than a method of conflict resolution; it is simply a method of living that maximises cooperation.

In the family situation at the start of this article, Win-Lose solutions could include insisting that the kids eat their meal and miss the TV program, or letting them watch TV and feeling resentful about it. Compromise might include having the kids watch half their program and then eat desert with the family. Win-Win solutions might include videoing the program to watch later, or eating the meal while watching TV, or changing meal time to suit. Check out the workplace situation from paragraph two above, to ensure you are clear on the differences between the types of solution.

An NLP model for creating Win-Win solutions is given in Reframing (1982, p162) and clarified by Terry Bragg (1995, p23) as:

Four Step Conflict Resolution;

  1. Identify Interests of Disputants
  2. Identify Higher Levels of Interest
  3. Create Agreement Frame
  4. Brainstorm For Solutions Together

In our book Transforming Communication we describe a sensory specific methodology for putting this into practice. Here, our intention is more to advocate the need for it. In every area of human interaction, from child rearing to corporate management, from the training room to the bedroom and on to the "halls of power", the research points clearly to the superior results of Win-Win thinking. For those of us in NLP who share Virginia Satir's dream, this article is a collection of evidence to back up what we know.


For a win-lose solution to be carried out, one person needs to be obedient. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of why obedience is a problem is given by Stanley Milgram's experiments at Yale University in the 1960s (Gordon, 1989, p96-97). In these experiments, a subject is told to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to a strapped in "learner" whenever he gives a wrong answer in the learning task. Unknown to the subject, the "learner" is an actor, who doesn't receive any shock, but convincingly acts as if he does; pleading to stop the experiment, screaming, and then finally collapsing as if dead. The real aim of the experiment is to find out how many people would obey the experimenter in his white coat, as he calmly tells the subject to torture and kill another human being. The experimenter never threatens the subject, but does offer more money if they are reluctant. The answer, for male and female subjects in many different cultures, was always that over 60% of subjects would kill the person. Subjects told the experimenter that they wanted to stop, they trembled, stuttered, laughed nervously, groaned and showed other signs of stress... and went right on obeying until the person was "dead".

Obedience is not a virtue. It is the death of all virtue. The cult of obedience explains a number of problems in society, including (Gordon 1989, p97) why children are unable to challenge sexual abuse. Theodore Marmot of Britain's Tavistock Institute has identified another serious result. He performed a study of health data from 10,000 British civil servants over 20 years. Over this time, mortality for clerical workers was 3.5 times that for senior administrators. The higher the person's status in their organisation, the less likely they were to die. Previous studies have postulated that this effect was due to income, but all those studied by Marmot were on good incomes. Professor David Aldridge comments on this and Marmot's other findings that "There is something correlated with hierarchy that influences health... In regard to heart disease, for example, people who are exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable demands, who are given little place for individual discretion in responding to those demands, and who are underutilised in terms of capacities and skills, show higher rates of disease and death" (Aldridge, 1997, p74). To extend Milgram's metaphor, obedience does not only kill the experimental "learner"... Longer term it also kills the subject.


The evidence about the results of Punishment is very clear. Consider the researched results of punishing children, for example. People who receive high levels of punishment as children are 4 times more likely to beat their spouse than those whose parents did not hit them (Gordon, 1989, p72). One study of boys showed that those whose parents gave them high levels of restrictiveness and punishment show strong tendencies towards self-punishment, suicide and accident proneness. In another study, children with lower self esteem were shown to have parents who used more punishment and less reasoning (Gordon, 1989, p90). Columbia psychologist Goodwin Cooper found that adults who had been subjected to more punishment as children showed poorer relationships with others (including those in authority as well as partners), higher anxiety, and higher levels of guilt and unhappiness (Gordon, 1989, p91). E. Maccoby and J. Martin found that children of more authoritarian parents show less evidence of "conscience", poor self control and more withdrawn responses (Gordon, 1989, p91).

B.F. Skinner demonstrated in his research back in the 1950s that these sort of results are found consistently in the punishment of both animals and people. John Platt summarises Skinner's findings that "punishment is ineffective unless applied immediately every time... and the punished behaviour always comes back, along with such additional behaviour as attempts to escape, or to evade punishment, or to retaliate. Skinner says this is why windows are broken in schools and not in drugstores. There are also general behavioural effects. The punished animal or child cowers and loses confidence and creativity, or else he becomes defiant; and the punished child aquires long lasting anxiety and guilt feelings." (Platt, 1973, p29)

The damage to the person who controls and punishes is also significant. Marilyn French notes "The dominators of the world never have a day off... To keep a slave in a ditch, one must stay there oneself, or appoint an overseer to guarantee the slaves obedience... The urge to control others backfires; it cannot be satisfied and it entraps the controller." (French, 1985). Thomas Gordon quotes the president of a large company saying "When I was using power to resolve conflicts, I prided myself on being a person who could make decisions quickly. The trouble was, it often took ten times as long to overcome all the resistance to my decisions as it did to make them." (Gordon, 1989, p75).


The danger of punishment is fairly commonly understood. Interestingly, many people believe in response that rewards must work better. Such an idea makes sense to a B.F. Skinner, rewarding his research pigeons with food and punishing them with electric shocks. But in real life, the difference between rewards and punishments is non-existent. Ask any child who has been threatened with missing out on the movies if they don't behave. Research reveals that parents who use more punishments use more rewards, and vice versa. The same is true of teachers (Kohn, 1993, p51). Rewards and punishments are just two sides of the coin of power.

Alfie Kohn has amassed a volume of evidence that rewards are resented by the subjects, and that they damage relationships, discourage risk taking and reduce results. A study of children's interest in maths games is typical. (Kohn, 1993, p39) Experimenters rewarded children for playing with a randomly chosen set of maths games, and ignored their playing with the other maths games. Of course, the children opted for the rewards. At the end of 12 days, the rewards were stopped and the children became less interested in the games they had been rewarded for than they had been before the experiment. Numerous studies (Kohn, 1993, p42-43) show that children who are rewarded for correct answers will become less able to find the answers, and will enjoy the task less (their focus shifts from the task to the rewards).

In studies of problem solving by adults, those who are rewarded take twice as long to solve problems as those who are simply asked to do the task.Weight loss programs and smoking cessation programs have found that after an initial boost, the result of rewarding participants for their success is a collapse of the program, with smokers smoking more than they did previously and lying about their results (Kohn, 1993, p39-40). Richard Guzzo's meta analysis of 98 studies of workplace incentive schemes indicates that there is no correlation with overall productivity, or with staff retention and absenteeism.


The whole win-lose approach to conflict resolution is based on the belief that for one person to succeed, another must fail. This notion is actually enshrined in the popular western admiration for Competition. In his book No Contest, Alfie Kohn sets out to answer the question, "Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working with them?" He reports David and Roger Johnson's 1981 meta-analysis of over 100 studies of this question. They found 65 studies showing that co-operation worked better than competition, 8 which suggested that competition was better, and 36 which showed no difference (Kohn, 1986, p48). In general, then, people succeed better when they are not competing (as any athlete who has ever looked over their shoulder to check the competition can tell you).

Even the personal trait of competitiveness (the metaprogram behind win-lose thinking) is damaging to success. Robert Helmreich studied large groups of PhD. scientists, businesspeople, students, and airline pilots showing that competitiveness was negatively related to achievement in every case. He was particularly shocked by the business results which he points out "dramatically refute the contention that competitiveness is vital to a successful business career." (Kohn, 1986, p 52-53).

The Advantages Of Win-Win

The other side of all this is that cooperation and win-win thinking is highly successful. Pehr Gyllenhammar, president of the Volvo corporation, reported that the use of win-win conflict resolution by managers in their Swedish plant resulted in absenteeism dropping by 50%, employee turnover being cut to 25% of previous levels and quality of product improving. (Gordon, 1978, p 1-4). Charles Manz and Henry Sims study the use of power-free self-managing teams in industry, reporting "productivity gains and cost savings that typically range from 30 to 70 percent when compared with traditional systems." (Manz and Sims, 1995, p17).

Robert Cedar of Boston University reviewed 26 separate research studies on win-win conflict resolution in parenting showing that it is significantly more successful than all other models of parenting studied, especially for increasing childrens self esteem and co-operativeness.(Cedar, 1985). Six months after training in win-win conflict resolution, parents continued to show greater understanding, positive feelings and respect for their children, and their children had higher self esteem and considered their parents to be more accepting of them. Other studies show that children whose parents use win-win methods have increased IQ results, while the results for children whose parents give in to them remain static, and the results for children whose parents are autocratic actually drop (Baldwin, Kalhoun and Breese, 1945).

In each area of human relationship, the results are similar. Psychologists Marc Kessler and George Albee reviewed all the existing literature (381 studies) on what causes emotional disturbances, and concluded "Everywhere we looked, every social research study we examined, suggested that major sources of human stress and distress generally involve some form of excessive power... -it is enough to suggest the hypothesis that a dramatic reduction and control of power might improve the mental health of people." (Gordon, 1989, p230).

How far can you go with the win-win method? Would it work in whole communities? Could it one day replace much of what we now call government? Amory Lovins (reported in Robbins, 1986, p 400) is director of research at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Snowmass, Colorado. His particular political interest is promoting environmentally safe energy projects. He achieves this with the use of, what he calls, 'Aikido politics'. He finds out the basic goals of the electricity companies and the public and works to prove to them that things such as nuclear power aren't very good ways to meet any of their needs. In one case he spoke at a hearing where a local council was planning a huge nuclear power plant. The company had already spent US$300 million (twice that in NZ dollars) on this plant, but Lovins convinced them that smaller, alternative energy sources would work better for them and the public. The company accepted its $300 million loss and took up his suggestions. Since then he has been hired as a consultant by other electricity companies. In another case, a local council decided to start a drive for fuel conservation and weather-proofing houses. This cut their use of electricity drastically, so they paid off their debts and made three rate cuts over the next two years. Meanwhile customers saved $1.6 million in fuel costs each year.


Is a win-win approach always the "best" solution? Of course not. There are situations where the negative results of win-lose decisions will be outweighed by another value of yours. For example, if I was crossing the street and didn't see a car approaching me, you might grab me and pull me back "against my will." I hope you would, in fact. This in no way contradicts the evidence above. It reminds us that even the most successful guides to behaviour do not explain everything. However, a simple story helps to demonstrate that such cases are rarer than we think.

When the two authors (Margot and Richard) were first friends, and lived in separate houses, each of us was a single parent. One night, Richard was visiting Margot, and it was later than the bedtime his 6 year old son Francis had arranged (they'd arranged this using the win-win method. Francis liked to be read a short story to help him relax at bedtime; Richard didn't want to be reading or entertaining him after 8 o'clock. Having a regular 8 o'clock bedtime suited them both). On this occasion, Richard had chosen to visit Margot, and planned to talk with her. Richard figured he'd be willing for Francis to stay up later this one night, so he suggested Francis watch TV while Margot and Richard talked.

Unfortunately, Francis seemed to want to climb over Richard as the two talked (being climbed on is an occupational hazard of early parenthood). Richard explained "You can go and sleep in Margot's spare bed, or you can watch TV, but I'm trying to listen here and I can't do it when you climb over me." "'Well," Francis said "I'd really like to sort this out so we both get what we want."

Now, Richard had been all set to order him out of the room (after all, there are some times when maybe you have to use power, he figured). But this statement of Francis' really hooked him. This was a bit embarrassing, in front of Margot, but Richard knew there weren't any other solutions so he told Francis, "Yeah, I like to sort things out that way too, usually, but there isn't any other way this time."

"Well, I'd like us each to say what the problem is", he suggested.
"Okay", Richard agreed thinking he'd quickly prove to Francis that the win-win method couldn't work, and get back to talking with Margot. "My problem is I want to be able to talk with Margot, and yours is you want to play with me. Right?"
"No," he replied, "I'm really tired. I'd like to go to sleep but I don't want to sleep in the spare bed because it's a strange room and it scares me. But I don't want to watch TV."
This was a surprise to Richard. "Fair enough," he countered, "but even so, we still can't solve it. Either you watch TV or sleep in there."
"Do you have any other ideas for solutions?" Francis asked. "No", Richard replied, annoyed at such a silly question.
"Well, I have a few", he offered, and then listed five possible solutions, each of which would solve both their concerns. Richard was more than a little surprised.
"Okay, do any of those", Richard agreed.
"Well, I think we should check which one will work best", Francis suggested.

So they did. The solution they chose was for Francis to wrap up in a blanket and lie down on the floor by Richard's feet. In five minutes he was asleep, safe and rested; therefore, perfectly meeting his need and Richard's. Naturally, the next day Richard checked how the arrangement went. "Well I guess I solved that problem last night pretty well, eh Francis?" There was an amused smile.

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz