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Feel a Fight Coming On? Clues to Transform Anger
By Wayland Myers, Ph.D.

The most common emotion I've seen couples struggle with is anger. This is what often happens: Someone gets angry (usually because they are hurting or afraid). The couple comes together to try to resolve the anger. So far so good. But then the trouble starts -- their dialogue is filled with ways of speaking and thinking that tend to make matters worse, like blaming, shaming, accusation, criticism, name-calling, defensiveness, and even silence. Keep reading this article >>

Mediating Between Warring Tribes
By Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.

I once was asked to help mediate a conflict between two tribes in northern Nigeria -- between Christian chiefs and Muslim chiefs. These tribes had a lot of violence going on between them because of a conflict over how many locations in the marketplace each tribe would have to display its wares. One hundred of the four hundred people in this community had been killed the year I arrived. Keep reading this article >>  

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"When we hear the other person's feelings and needs, we recognize our common humanity."

Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.

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An Inspiring Video
You'll Never Forget

World-renowned author, peacemaker, and conflict resolution expert, Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. talks about the keys to prevent all forms of conflict and violence in this 10-minute video.


Feel a Fight Coming On, continued

Stop the Cycle
When caught in that spiral of pain, some couples break off all communication, leaving the initial issue unresolved. Remaining unresolved, the issue can become an irritant that continues to show up in future conversations. As unresolved issues pile up, it becomes even harder to resolve new ones. Nonviolent Communication can help us stop this cycle from beginning in the first place.

Marshall Rosenberg has an insight into anger that I love. He believes that when we are angry, three things are true:

  1. We are experiencing a strong need and feel an urgent desire to have it met. (We may want to feel safe, valued, or connected to others; we may want to make our own choices, to believe we matter, to be heard, etc.).
  2. Because our need is so important, we don't want others to have a choice about meeting it, so when we talk about our need we apply moralistic rules that we hope will compel others to meet our need. (These rules sound like: "I deserve... You should... The right way is... That's not fair, You’re supposed to... ").
  3. Because we believe our rules are correct, we feel justified in treating others in unpleasant ways that will almost guarantee that they won't care about meeting our needs. Oops.

This is a sorry cycle, but it does reveal how we can convert anger into understanding and connection. First, we can recognize that the moralistic rules our partner has about how we should or shouldn’t act are just their attempt to compel others to meet their needs. The rules themselves don’t really matter. What does matter is to identify the unmet needs that are embedded within these rules.

How I do this? Look Beyond the Rules
The first thing I do, is set aside my reaction to what the person has said, if I can. Then, I begin my search to identify their unmet needs by saying something like this, "When I hear that you are upset about this, it tells me there was a way you wanted to be treated that didn’t happen. Am I right?"

This usually brings an affirmation and another round of venting. Then, I deepen my search for their unmet needs by asking a question something like this, "If you could have been treated in a way that was perfect for you, what would that look like? What would have happened?”

Connect to the “Dream”
This gets them thinking about a positive, the dream they have for how they would like to be treated. I often have to help people develop the details of this dream because most people are more used to knowing what they don’t want, rather than what they do.

I then try this question, "If your dream happened, if you were treated exactly as you would like to be, how would that be better for you? What would make that way of being treated a lot more satisfying, valuable or comfortable for you?" These questions usually evoke responses like, "Then I would know that my feelings mattered," “I wouldn’t be yelled at,” "Then I would feel respected," "Then I wouldn't be so scared.” Now their needs are beginning to show.

Use the Clues to Find the Need
Luckily, their answers are really clues — I can use them to begin guessing what their unmet needs might be. Like presenting a person with different clothes to try on, I present my guesses and let them decide what fits. We keep trying different possibilities, narrowing the search, until we have a sense that, yeah, that’s it.

Here's an example: They say, "I want my feelings to matter too." I respond, "So it's important that you are listened to?" "Yeah, why does everybody else get to have their say and I don’t?" I respond, "I think you’re telling me that you too want to have a say in choosing what we do." "Yeah." "OK, I can understand you’d like the power to influence our decision just as much as anyone else" "Yeah, what am I, chopped liver?" "You certainly aren't, and I very much regret that you got that impression." "OK, thanks."

See the Potential Beyond the Fight
In this dialogue, you can see that I start with what they say they want, and then burrow my way down until we are talking about some basic need – like the need to be heard, to be valued. I know when we've gotten to the heart of their anger when we both feel a deep sense of relief and relaxation. This is the deepest form of empathy I know and it transforms the alienation of anger into the joy of connection. While it took me a while to learn how to do this, I not only have less fear of anger, I have a sense of eagerness about what needs our search will reveal, and the sense of closeness that search will create.

Wayland Myers, Ph.D. Nonviolent Communication: The Basics As I Know and Use Them is Dr. Myers’ first book and has sold over 27,000 copies in English, French, German, and Spanish. Dr. Myers is a psychologist living in the Northern part of San Diego County who writes books and articles on Nonviolent Communication and other applications of compassion. He was introduced to the Nonviolent Communication process in 1986 by its creator Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, and has since used it extensively in his personal and professional lives with profound and deeply valued results. Submit your comments to Dr. Myers by email now

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Mediating Between Warring Tribes, continued

A colleague of mine who lives in Nigeria, seeing all this violence, worked very hard to meet the chiefs on both sides and get them to agree to meet and see if we could resolve this conflict. It took him six months, but he finally was successful, and that’s how I came to be working with the chiefs of these tribes.

As we were walking into the session, my colleague whispered to me, “Be prepared for some tension, Marshall.

Three of the people who are going to be in the meeting know that someone who killed their child is in the room.”

Well, it was very tense at first. There had been so much violence between these two groups, and this was the first time they had sat down together. Now there were twelve chiefs on one side of the table, twelve on the other. I started as I usually do in mediation. I said, “I’m confident that if anybody’s needs get expressed and understood, we’ll find a way to get everybody’s needs met. So who would like to begin, please? I’d like to hear what needs of yours are not being met.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t know how to express needs. They only knew how to express criticism and judgments. Instead of responding to my question, a chief from the Christian tribe yelled loudly and angrily across the table at the Muslims, “You people are murderers!”

(Notice I did not say, “What do you think of the other side?”)

So I asked, “What needs of yours are not getting met?”

Right away, there was the enemy image. Then, immediately, the other side came back: “You’ve been trying to dominate us.” There’s another diagnosis. With those kinds of enemy images, I could see why thirty percent of the population had been killed over the question of how many places in the marketplace each side will get.

They were screaming at each other, and it wasn’t easy to restore order. But our training shows that all criticisms, judgments, and enemy images are tragic, even suicidal, expressions of unmet needs. So in the world of mediation I loan them my Nonviolent Communication skills by translating their enemy image into a need. With the gentleman who said, “You’re murderers,” it wasn’t too hard.

I asked, “Chief, are you expressing a need for safety that isn’t being met? You have a need for safety. You would hope that no matter what’s going on, things could be resolved with nonviolence, correct?”

He said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Well, that wasn’t quite what he was saying. He said, “You’re murderers.” But it’s closer to the truth to hear the needs than the enemy image. With Nonviolent Communication skills, I was able to hear the needs behind the judgment.

But that wasn’t enough. I had to be sure his needs were heard by the other side. So I asked if a member of the other tribe would be willing to repeat what the chief from the first tribe had said. I looked over across the table to the Muslim chiefs and said, “Would somebody from this side of the table please tell me back what the chief said his needs were?”

And one of them screams over, “Why did you kill my son?”

And I said to the chief from the second side, “Chief, we’ll deal with that issue soon. For the moment, would you be willing to tell me what the first chief ’s feelings and needs are?”

Well, of course, he couldn’t do it. He was so involved in making judgments of the other side that he wasn’t able to hear the feelings and needs that I had helped articulate.

So I said to this chief, “Chief, what I hear the other chief feeling is anger, strong anger, because he says he has a need for conflicts, whatever they are, to be resolved in some way -- other than with violence -- so everybody can be safe.

Could you just say that back, Chief, so I’m sure we’re communicating?”

He wasn’t able to do it yet. I had to repeat the message at least two more times before he heard what the other chief was feeling and needing. Finally, he was able to tell me.

Then I helped the other chiefs express their needs. I asked, “Now that you hear what the needs are of the other side, I’d like you to tell me your needs.”

And one of the chiefs repeated the judgment he had made earlier by saying, “They have been trying to dominate us for a long time, and we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”

Once again I translated this judgment of the wrongness of the other side into the needs I sensed to be at the root of this judgment by asking, “Are you upset because you have a strong need for equality in this community?”

He said, “Yes.”

I turned to a member of the other tribe and said, “Could you repeat that so I’m sure that we’re communicating?”

They were not able to at first. I had to repeat that at least another two times before they were able to see that the other side had anger related to a need for equality that wasn’t being met.

All took about an hour just to get each side clear about their needs and to get the other side to hear them, because there was a lot of yelling and on in between. However, at that point, when I got both sides just to hear one need from each other, one of the chiefs jumped up to his feet and said to me, “Marshall, we can’t learn this in one day. And if we know how to talk to each other this way, we don’t have to kill each other.”

You see? He understood in one hour or so that if we can just say what our needs are without putting it in an enemy image, we can resolve conflicts peacefully.

And I said, “Chief, I’m glad you could see that so quickly. We were going to suggest at the end of the day that we would be glad to train people from both tribes to use this in case other conflicts come up. However, today I’m here to mediate the conflicts; I wasn’t here to teach you. And yes, you’re right. It can’t be learned in one day.”

He said, “I want to be one of those trained to do this.”

Several others in the room also were eager to volunteer to get the training. They could see that you don’t need weapons to resolve conflicts when you know how to connect clearly with each other’s needs.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. is the author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, Life-Enriching Education, and dozens of booklets, videos and audiotape series. He is the founder and educational director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and spends over 200 days each year teaching NVC throughout the world.

Keep learning these vital communication skills with these books and training resources:



"If we can just say
our needs without putting
it in an enemy image,
we can resolve conflicts peacefully."

- Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.






















"It’s closer to the truth
to hear needs than
the enemy image."

- Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.