The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Fourth Position

"Fourth position" is a perceptual position which involves being associated in the whole system or 'field' relating to a particular interaction. It involves experiencing a situation with the best interest of the entire system in mind. Fourth position is a "we" position, and is characterized by the use of 1st person plural language - "We are," "Us," etc. Fourth position is an essential component of wisdom and ecology.

Although it was not included in the original group of perceptual positions (first position - self, second position - other, third position - observer), fourth position is just as fundamental. It is essential for effective leadership, team building and the development of group spirit. As the term implies, fourth position presupposes and encompasses the other three perceptual positions. People who are not able to achieve fourth position have difficulty experiencing themselves as a member of a group or community.

The experience of fourth position comes from finding the deeper common factors and characteristics which unite and connect all of the members of a group or system. It is the foundation of what is known as "groupmind". Fourth position should be distinguished, however, from simple consensus. Consensus is essentially agreement among individuals. Fourth position comes from a felt sense of "sameness" and identification with all members of a system. It also presupposes that one has already taken the other three perceptual positions.

The relationship of fourth position to the others can be most easily envisioned as the tip of a pyramid. The foundation of the pyramid is made up of the three primary perceptual positions -- self, other and observer. The fourth position, or system position, is the crest of the pyramid, which encompasses and adds depth to the other three.

Perceptual Position Pyramid

In functional systems, all the members of the system are able to assume and experience fourth position to some degree. The ability to reach a fourth position perspective greatly facilitates group management and is a key characteristic of visionary leadership. Effective leaders are able to identify with the whole system they are influencing.

Fourth position is also a key perspective for modeling. Fourth position, for example, can be especially important when exploring and understanding other cultures in which individuality, or the sense of a personal "I" is not emphasized, or the notion of the community or the "we" is the rule. In Bali, for example, particular social castes have only four names for all of the people within that group. The names essentially stand for "first born," "second born," "third born" and "fourth born." If a family has more than four children, the name of the fifth child starts again with the name for "first born." Thus, the names reflect the group or the caste, not the individual. Theirs is organized more around the experience of the community than the individual.

The first explicit use of a "fourth perceptual position" in an NLP technique was in the Meta Mirror process (Dilts, 1988, 1990, 1992), developed by Robert Dilts as a result of the Syntax of Behavior series he did with John Grinder in 1988. The process was based on getting a position that both encompassed and reflected upon first, second and third positions, in order to help resolve problems resulting from judgments made from third position.

In 1989, the concept of 'fourth position' was expanded to be a "system position", or what was often referred to as a "company position" in the Meta Map for Leadership (Dilts, 1989, 1998), as a result of Dilts' modeling of the skills and strategies of effective leaders. This position was characterized by the word "we" and involved the "identification" with the team, group or system which one was leading, creating "a thinking vision of the system," and "considering the best interests of the entire system." It was at this time that fourth position began to become referred to also as a "We" position.

Webster's Dictionary defines the use of the term "we" as referring to "a group that is consciously felt as such by its members." In his classic work on group dynamics, Kurt Lewin (1939) referred to the sense of cohesiveness (the feeling of "we-ness") as one of the basic properties of any group. When cohesiveness is high, members are motivated to participate in the group's activities and to help the group attain its goals and objectives. Such an experience provides group members a sense of security and identity, and a feeling of personal worth or in Lewin's words, "the ground on which the person stands." The degree of cohesiveness experienced by a group is generally a function of the degree of overlap of the interests and values of group members, and the degree of communication and 'rapport' that they are able to achieve with one another.

The NLP concept of rapport stems back to 1976. Creating rapport is generally defined as the establishment of trust, harmony and cooperation in a relationship. "Harmonious mutual understanding," "agreement," being "in tune" and "in accord," are some of the words used to describe the process or state of being in rapport with another. The process of body mirroring to create rapport is one of the earliest and most well known NLP techniques (although mirroring is not a guarantee of the creation of the state of rapport because a person can still easily stay in his or her own "first position" and not necessarily enter the "we" experience.)

The NLP notion of rapport was derived from the work of Milton Erickson. As a hypnotherapist, Erickson created and entered into a special state of rapport called the "therapeutic trance." In 1978, a student noticed that, as Erickson was in the process of leading a client into a trance state, Erickson himself exhibited the characteristics of trance, including pupil dilation, change of muscle tonus and breathing. When asked if he was entering trance when he hypnotized his clients, Erickson's response was "invariably." To this reply the student asked, "Who is hypnotizing who in that case?" Again Erickson replied "invariably," suggesting that the state of rapport is a loop of mutual influence and interaction in which each element is influencing, and influenced by, the other elements.

The first use of the term "we" as an explicit part of an NLP technique was in the Composition Strategy (Dilts & Grinder, 1982) format for creative writing. "We" is the fourth of the narrative positions used to generate "prompts" for stimulating ideas while writing; along with "I," "You," "She," He," and "They."

The advent of the notion of spatial sorting and psychogeography (the psychological effects of physical location) in NLP (Dilts, 1987, 1990), along with perceptual positions, brought new developments to the NLP notions of perceptual positions, rapport and the experience of "we". It could be easily demonstrated that shifting one's 'psychogeography' while communicating with another would dramatically alter the perception of the relationship. Standing or sitting face-to-face, for example, tends to focus attention strongly on the perception of "I" and "you." Standing side-by-side promotes the experience of operating as partners in a framework of "we."

The Influence of 'Psychogeography' on the Experience of Interpersonal Relationships

The use of psychogeography to create the experience of being aligned with another person, sharing the perception of partners and operating as a "we" unit, is an explicit step of both the Meta Mirror and Meta Map for Leadership processes.

The Logical Level Co-Alignment process (Dilts, 1992), was designed to create a sense of "we-ness" between individuals in a group by finding commonalities as multiple levels of experience. The process primarily emphasizes overlaps with respect to beliefs, values, a sense of identity and "spiritual" perceptions (defined as "the experience of being part of a larger system that reaches beyond ourselves as individuals to our family, community and global systems; the sense of something that goes beyond our own image of ourselves, our values, beliefs, thoughts, actions or sensations i.e., who and what else is in the larger systems of which we are a part.")

The Spiritual Healing process, developed by Dilts and McDonald for the Tools of the Spirit program (first conducted in 1992), incorporated a state of "spiritual wholeness" as an additional element of the "fourth position." "Spiritual wholeness" was defined as "the sense of being part of something larger than oneself" (Dilts & McDonald, 1997). This fourth position was used to create 'spiritually extended' 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions. Bringing the influence of this fourth position back into first position creates a sense that others are an "extension of" oneself. Taking it into second position creates the experience of being "one with" the other. Linking this fourth position to third position creates the realization that the interaction taking place between the first and second positions is "part of" a much vaster system.

The experience of the fourth position sense of "we" has also been enhanced by the development of Somatic Syntax (Dilts and DeLozier, 1993, 1996).

Stephen Gilligan's notion of the relational field, introduced into NLP through the series of workshops Love in the Face of Violence (conducted with Robert Dilts) has added further emphasis to the experience of "we."

Other perspectives with respect to the NLP notion of fourth position include those suggested by Peter Wrycza and Jan Ardui (1994) who link it with a "witnessing awareness encompassing and behind all positions," and Robert McDonald (1998) who associates perceptual positions with different "levels of awareness," arguing that fourth position is not actually a "position" at all, but the emergent result of an interaction between the other positions.

Of course, the crucial point, from the NLP perspective, is not merely the definition or description of fourth position or a "we-position" (the map is not the territory after all), but rather the process by which people can be lead to have the experience to which we are referring.


Field Theory in Social Science; Lewin, K., 1951.
Steps to an Ecology of Mind; Bateson, G., 1972.
Applications of NLP; Dilts, R., 1992.
Turtles All the Way Down; DeLozier, J. and Grinder, J., 1987.
Changing Belief Systems With NLP; Dilts, R., 1990.
Cognitive Patterns of Jesus of Nazareth; Dilts, R., 1992.
Perceptual Positions Revisited; Wrycza, P. and Ardui, J., NLP World, Vol. 1, No.2, 1994.
Tools of the Spirit; Dilts, R. and McDonald, R., 1997.
Courage to Love; Gilligan, S., 1997.
An Interview With Robert McDonald; Anchor Point, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1998.

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