Steps to Handling our Anger

Steps to Handling our Anger
from The Surprising Purpose of Anger
by Marshall B. Rosenberg

“When it comes to managing anger, NVC [Nonviolent Communication] shows us how to use anger as an alarm that tells us we are thinking in ways that are not likely to get our needs met, and more likely get us involved in interactions that are not going to be constructive for anyone. Our training stresses that it is dangerous to think of anger as something to be repressed, or as something bad. When we tend to identify anger as a result of something wrong with us, then our tendency is to want to repress it and not deal with anger. That use of anger, to repress and deny it, often leads us to express it in ways that can be very dangerous to ourselves and others.”

“The NVC approach involves several steps. I will go over these steps in part by using an example of a young man in a prison in Sweden. I was working with this man in a prisoner training session, showing the participants how NVC can be used to manage their anger.

The First and Second Steps

The first step in handling our anger using NVC [Nonviolent Communication] is to be conscious that the stimulus, or trigger, of our anger is not the cause of our anger. That is to say that it isn’t simply what people do that makes us angry, but it’s something within us that responds to what they do that is really the cause of the anger. This requires us to be able to separate the trigger from the cause. In the situation with the prisoner in Sweden, the very day that we were focusing on anger, it turned out that he had a lot of anger in relationship to the prison authorities. So he was very glad to have us there to help him deal with anger on that day. I asked him what it was that the prison authorities had done that was the stimulus of his anger. He answered, “I made a request of them three weeks ago, and they still haven’t responded.” Well, he had answered the question in the way that I wanted him to. He had simply told me what they had done. He hadn’t mixed in any evaluation, and that is the first step in managing anger in a nonviolent way: simply to be clear what the stimulus is but not to mix that up with judgements or evaluation. This alone is an important accomplishment. Frequently when I ask such a question I get a response such as, “they were inconsiderate” which is a moral judgement of what they are but doesn’t say what they actually did.

The second step involves our being conscious that the stimulus is never the cause of our anger. That is, it isn’t simply what people do that makes us angry. It is our evaluation of what has been done that is the cause of our anger. And it’s a particular kind of  evaluation.”

“In the case of the prisoner , when he told me that he was angry and that the trigger for his anger was that the prison officials hadn’t responded for three weeks to his request, I asked him to look inside and tell me what the cause of his anger was. He seemed confused, and he said to me: “I just told you the cause of my anger, I made a request three weeks ago and the prison officials still haven’t responded to it.”

I told him “Now, what you told me was the trigger for your anger. In our previous sessions I’ve tried to clarify for you that it’s never simply the trigger that creates our anger. The cause is what we’re looking for. So I’d like you to tell me how you are interpreting their behavior, how you are looking at it, that is causing you to be angry.”

He was very confused at this point. He was like many of us: He had not been trained to be conscious of what was going on within himself when he was angry. So I had to give him a little help to get an idea of what I meant by how to just stop and listen to the kind of thoughts that might be going on the inside of us that are always at the core of anger.

After a few moments he said to me: “OK, I see what you mean. I’m angry because I’m telling myself it isn’t fair, that isn’t a decent way to treat human beings. They are acting as though they are important, and I’m nothing.” And he had several other such judgements that were floating rapidly through his head. Notice he initially said it was simply their behavior that was making him angry. But it was really all of these thoughts that he had within himself that were making him angry, any one of which could have created his anger. But he was ready with a whole series of such judgements, “They’re not fair; they’re not treating me right.” All such judgements are the cause of anger.

Once he had identified this, he said to me, “Well, what’s wrong with thinking that way?” And I said: “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with thinking that way. I’d just like you to be conscious that it’s thinking that way which is the cause of your anger. And we don’t want to mix up what people do – the trigger – with the cause of anger.

Now, this is very hard for many of us to keep straight: to not mix up the trigger, or stimulus, of our anger with the cause of our anger. The reason that that’s not easy for us is that we may have been educated by people who use guilt as a primary form of trying to motivate us. When you want to use guilt as a way of manipulating people, you need to confuse them into thinking that the trigger is the cause of the feelings. In other words, if you want to use guilt with somebody, you need to communicate in a way that indicates that your pain is being caused simply by what they do. In other words, their behavior is not simply the stimulus of your feelings; it’s the cause of your feelings.”

“If we are to manage anger in ways that are in harmony with the principles of NVC, it’s important for us to be conscious of this key distinction: I feel as I do because I am telling myself thoughts about the other person’s actions that imply wrongness on their part. Such thoughts take the form of judgements such as, “I think the person is selfish, I think the person is rude, or lazy , or manipulating people, and they shouldn’t do that.” Such thoughts take either the form of direct judgement of others or indirect judgements expressed through such things as, “I’m judging this person as thinking only they have something worth saying”. In these latter expressions, it’s implicit that we think what they’re doing isn’t right.

Now, that’s important, because if I think this other person is making me feel this way, it’s going to be hard for me not to imagine punishing them.”

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The Third Step

“The third step involves looking for the need that is the root of our anger. This is built on the assumption that we get angry because our needs are not getting met. The problem is that we’re not in touch with our needs. Instead of being directly connected to our need, we go up to our head and start thinking of what’s wrong with other people for not meeting our needs. The judgements we make of other people – which cause our anger – are really alienated expressions of unmet needs.”

”Let’s go back to the case of the prisoner from Sweden. After we had identified the judgements he was making that were creating his anger, I asked him to look behind the judgements and tell me what needs of his were not getting met. These unmet needs were actually being expressed through the judgements he was making of the prison officials.

This wasn’t easy for him to do because when people are trained to think in terms of wrongness of others, they are often blind to what they themselves need. They often have very little vocabulary for describing their needs. It requires shifting attention away from judging outward, to looking inward and seeing what the need is. But with some help, he was finally able to get in touch with his need and he said: “Well, my need is to be able to take care of myself when I get out of prison by being able to get work. So the request that I was making of the prison officials was for training to meet that need. If I don’t get that training, I’m not going to be able to take care of myself economically when I get out of prison, and I’m going to end up back in here.”

Then I said to the prisoner, “Now that you’re in touch with your need, how are you feeling?” He said, “I’m scared.” So when we are directly connected to our need, we are never angry any more. The anger hasn’t been repressed; the anger has been transformed into need-serving feelings.”

“After I pointed out to the prisoner the difference between getting in touch with his needs and the feelings that he had, he was then aware of his fear. He could see that the anger was because of the thinking about the wrongness of others. I then asked the prisoner, “Do you think you’re more likely to get your needs met if, when you go in to talk to the prison officials, you are connected to your needs and the fear, or if you are up in your head judging them and angry?”

And he could see very clearly that he was much more likely to get his needs met if he were to be communicating from a position of connection to his needs, rather than separated from his needs and thinking of others in ways that implied wrongness. At the moment that he had this insight into what a different world he would be living in when he was in touch with his needs as opposed to judging others, he looked down at the floor and had about as sad a look on his face as I can recall any person ever having had. And I asked him, “What’s going on?”

He said, “I can’t talk about it right now.” Later that day, he helped me understand what was going on in him. He came to me and said: “Marshall, I wish you could have taught me two years ago about anger what you taught me this morning. I wouldn’t have had to kill my best friend.”

Tragically, two years before, his best friend had done some things and he felt great rage in response to his judgements about what his friend had done. But instead of being conscious of what his needs were behind of that, he really thought it was his friend that made him angry, and in a tragic interaction ended up killing his friend.”

“This is a very important step that I have just outlines: To be conscious of the thinking that is creating anger. And as I said, the prisoner at first was totally oblivious to all of the thoughts that were going on within him that made him angry. The reason for this is that our thoughts go on very rapidly. Many of our thoughts go so quickly through our heads that we are not even aware that they are there, and it really looks to  us as though it was the stimulus that was the cause of our anger.

I have outlined three steps in managing our anger using NVC:

  1. Identify the stimulus for our anger, without confusing it with the evaluation. 
  2. Identify the internal image of judgement that is making us angry. 
  3.  Transform this judgemental image into the need that it is expressing; in other words, bring our full attention to the need that is behind the judgement.”

The Fourth Step

“The fourth step includes saying to the other person four pieces of information. First, we reveal to them the stimulus: what they have done that is in conflict with our needs being fulfilled. Secondly, we express how we are feeling. Notice we are not repressing the anger.  The anger has been transformed into a feeling such as sad, hurt, scared, frustrated, or the like. And then we follow up our expression of our feelings with the needs of ours that are not being fulfilled.

And now we add to those three pieces of information a clear, present request of what we want from the other person in relationship to our feelings and unmet needs.

So in the situation with the prisoner, the fourth step on this part would be to go the prison officials and say something like this: “I made a request three weeks ago. I still haven’t heard from you, and I’m feeling scared because I have a need to be able to earn a living when I leave this prison, and I’m afraid that without the training I was requesting it would be very hard for me to make a living. So I’d like you to tell me what is preventing you from responding to my request.”

If we’re sufficiently trained in getting in touch with the need behind the judgements, we can take a deep breath and very rapidly go through the process that I led the prisoner through. In other words, as soon as we catch ourselves getting angry, we take a deep breath, stop, look inside, and ask ourselves quickly, “What am I telling myself that’s making me so angry?” We quickly get in touch with the need that is behind that judgement. When we’re in touch with the need we will feel in our body a shift away from anger to other kinds of feelings, and when we’re at that point we can open our mouths and say to the other person what we’re observing, feeling, needing and make our requests.”

These are some fragments from a short but valuable book (40 pages) that you can find online. Like here.

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