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The Surprising Purpose of Anger
Beyond Anger Management: Finding the Gift
By Marshall B. Rosenberg, Graham Van Dixhorn
PuddleDancer PressCopyright © 2005 PuddleDancer Press
All rights reserved.
Steps to Handling Our Anger
The First and Second Steps
The first step in handling our anger using NVC 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 judgments 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 judgment 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.
NVC is built on the premise that anger is the result of life-alienated ways of evaluating what is happening to us, in the sense that it isn't directly connected to what we need or what the people around us need. Instead, it is based on ways of thinking that imply wrongness or badness on the part of others for what they have done.
Evaluating Triggers That Lead to Anger
There are four ways that we can evaluate any anger triggers that occur in our lives. In the case of the prison officials not responding for three weeks to his request, he could have looked at the situation and taken it personally, as a rejection. Had he done that, he would not have been angry. He might have felt hurt, he might have felt discouraged, but he wouldn't have felt angry.
As a second possibility, he could have looked within himself and seen what his needs were. Focusing directly on our needs is a way of thinking that is most likely to get them met, when we are on them. Had he been focused directly on his needs, as we will see later, he would not have been angry. He might have felt scared, which it turned out he was when he got in touch with his needs.
Or another possibility: We could look at things in terms of what needs the other party was experiencing that led them to behave as they did. This kind of understanding of the needs of others does not leave us feeling angry. In fact, when we are really directly connected with the needs of others — at the point at which we understand their needs — we are not really in touch with any feelings within ourselves, because our full attention is on the other person.
The fourth way that we can look at things, which we will find always at the base of anger, is to think in terms of the wrongness of other people for behaving as they did. In NVC, whenever we feel angry, we recommend saying to ourselves, "I'm feeling angry because I am telling myself__________," and then to look for the kind of life-alienated thinking going on inside our head that is the cause of our anger.
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 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 judgments 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 judgments, "They're not fair; they're not treating me right." All such judgments are the cause of anger.
Once we 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."
Trigger Versus Cause
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 feeling. 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 you are a guilt-inducing parent, you might say to a child, "It really hurts me when you don't clean up you room." Or if you are a guilt-inducing partner in an intimate relationship, you might say to your partner, "It makes me angry when you go out every night of the week." Notice in both of those examples, the speaker is implying that the stimulus is the cause of the feelings. You make me feel. That makes me feel. I'm feeling_______ because you_______.
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 judgments 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 judgment of others or indirect judgments 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. We show people it's never what the other person does; it's how you see it; how you interpret it. And if people would follow me around in my work, they would get some very significant learning in this area.
I worked a lot in Rwanda. I often worked with people who had members of their family killed, and some are so angry all they can do is wait for vengeance. They're furious. Other people in the same room had the same family members killed, maybe had even more killed, but they are not angry. They have strong feelings, but not anger. They have feelings that lead them to want to prevent this from ever happening to others again, but not to punish the other side. We want people to see that it's how we look at the situation that creates our anger, not the stimulus itself.
We try to get people to see that when you're angry, it's because your consciousness is under the influence of the kind of language we all learned: That the other side is evil or bad in some way. It's that thinking that is the cause of anger. When that thinking is going on, we show people not how to push it down and deny the anger or deny the thinking, but to transform it into a language of life, into a language in which you are much more likely to create peace between yourself and whoever acted in the way that stimulated your anger.
We talk first about how to get conscious of this internalized thinking that's making you angry and how to transform that into what needs of yours have not been met by what the other person has done, and then how to proceed from that consciousness to create peace again between you and that person.
The first step in expressing our anger, managing it in harmony with NVC, is to identify the stimulus for our anger without confusing it with our evaluation. The second step is to be conscious that it is our evaluation of people — in the form of judgments that imply wrongness — that causes our anger.
An Illustration of Stimulus Versus Cause of Anger
I was working one time in a correctional school for delinquents, and I had an experience that really helped me learn the lesson that it is never the stimulus that causes the anger. There is always, between the trigger and the anger, some thought process that is going on.
On two successive days, I had remarkably similar experiences, but each day I had quite different feelings in reaction to the experience. The experience in both situations involved my being hit in the nose, because on two successive days, I was involved in breaking up a fight between two different students, and in both cases as I was breaking up the fight, I caught an elbow in the nose.
On day one, I was furious. On day two, even though the nose was even sorer than it was on the first day, I wasn't angry. Now, what was the reason I would be angry in response to the stimulus on day one, but not on day two?
First of all, in the first situation if you had asked me right after I had been hit in the nose why I was angry, I would have had trouble finding the thought that was making me angry. I probably would have said, "Well I'm obviously angry because the child hit me in the nose." But that wasn't the cause. As I looked at the situation later, it was very clear to me that the child whose elbow hit me in the nose on day one was a child that I was thinking of before this incident in very judgmental terms. I had in my head a judgment of this child as a spoiled brat. So as soon as his elbow hit my nose, I'm angry — it seemed that just as the elbow hit I was angry — but between that stimulus and the anger this image flashed within me of this child being a spoiled brat. Now, that all happens very fast, but it was the image of "spoiled brat" that made me angry.
On the second day, I carried quite a different image into the situation of that child. That child I saw more as a pathetic creature than a spoiled brat, and so when the elbow caught my nose, I wasn't angry. I certainly felt physical pain, but I wasn't angry, because a different image of a child in great need of support flashed through my mind rather than the judgmental image "spoiled brat" which caused the anger.
These images happen very quickly and they can easily trick us into thinking that the stimulus is the cause of our anger.
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 judgments we make of other people — which cause of our anger — are really alienated expressions of unmet needs.
Over the years, I have come to see that these kinds of judgments of others that make us angry are not only alienated expressions of our needs, but at times they look to me like they are suicidal, tragic expressions of our needs. Instead of going to our heart to get connected to what we need and are not getting, we direct our attention to judging what is wrong with other people for not meeting our needs. When we do this, a couple of things are likely to happen.
First, our needs are not likely to get met, because when we verbally judge other people as wrong in some way, these judgments usually create more defensiveness than learning or connection. At the very least, they don't create much cooperation. Even if people do things we would like them to do after we have judged them as wrong or lazy or irresponsible, they will take these actions with an energy that we will pay for. We will pay for it because when we are angry as a result of judging people — and we express these judgments to them either verbally or through our nonverbal behavior — they pick up that we are judging them as wrong in some way. Even if people then do what we would like them to do, they are likely to be motivated more out of fear of being punished, fear of being judged, out of their guilt or shame, than out of compassion in relation to our needs.
When we are using NVC, we remain conscious at all times that it's as important why people do what we would like them to do, as it is that they do it. So we are conscious that we only want people to do things willingly, and not do things because they think they're going to be punished, blamed, "guilted," or shamed if they don't.
Developing a Literacy of Needs
This practice requires that we develop a literacy and a consciousness of our needs. With a greater vocabulary of needs, we are able to more easily get in touch with the needs behind the judgments that are making us angry. For it's when we can clearly express our needs that others have a much greater likelihood of responding compassionately to whatever it is we would like.
Let's go back to the case of the prisoner from Sweden. After we had identified the judgments he was making that were creating his anger, I asked him to look behind the judgments and tell me what needs of his were not getting met. These unmet needs were actually being expressed through the judgments 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.
The basic function of feelings is to serve our needs. The word emotion basically means to move us out, to mobilize us to meet our needs. So when we have a need for some nourishment, we have a feeling that we label as hunger, and that sensation stimulates us to move about to get our need for food taken care of. If we just felt comfortable each time we had a need for nourishment, we could starve, because we wouldn't be mobilized to get our need met.
This is the natural function of emotions, to stimulate us to get our needs met. But anger is stimulated by a diversion. We are not in touch with the needs that would naturally motivate us to want to get our needs met. The anger is created, as I've said, by thinking about the wrongness of others, which transfers this energy away from seeking to get the need met, into an energy designed to blame and punish other people.
Excerpted from The Surprising Purpose of Anger by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Graham Van Dixhorn. Copyright © 2005 PuddleDancer Press. Excerpted by permission of PuddleDancer Press.
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