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
“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
When we are sucked into a conflict and are emotionally overwhelmed, 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
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 particular negative behavior reflects only a part
of the other at that particular time and under thse particular
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 steps that everyone can easily implement:
1 Assume that all behavior, including resistance
and limiting beliefs, has a positive intention and
2 Make a distinction between the negative
behavior and the positive intention which it
3 Identify and respond to the positive intention of
the problematic behavior, instead of reacting
to the behavior.
4 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, 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 intro-
duce the changes so that your family business continues to
I don’t know whether Abdul succeeded in his efforts. But I do
know that discovering the positive intention behind a destruc-
tive behavior can lead to lasting change.