A Book That Showed Me How to Transform Anger into Understanding
Remove violence from your words and learn to communicate with compassion
I’m in the middle of an angry argument with my partner Aloha. We’re on holiday in a foreign country and she’s accusing me of not being proactive enough. She claims I never make suggestions about what places to visit next.
Red, frowning eyebrows, clenched teeth, self-defensive, counterattacking — this is me right now. This is me every time I think I’m being unfairly, unjustifiably, unreasonably criticised.
I want to raise my voice but I can’t.
We’re in a restaurant. The place is almost empty and the music in the background is not loud enough. Everyone would be staring at me if I shouted like I would love to. This makes me even angrier.
There’s nothing worse than having to keep your rage under control for the sake of social decorum.
Aloha starts crying.
“I don’t wanna talk any more. You sound like you’re about to explode,” she says weeping.
I’ve made her cry twice in ten years, so I guess I’m not that horrible. But her tears made me feel guilty and heartbroken, so I promised myself I’d never hurt my partner again with my anger.
But how can I do that when nobody has ever taught me how to deal with criticism?
How can I do that when no one has ever shown me how to communicate my thoughts while I’m being held hostage by an overwhelming wave of anger?
I want to learn. And when there’s something I want to learn, I turn to books. Always.
The day after I made Aloha cry, I discovered and bought Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
If you asked me to recommend only one book to humanity, I’d no doubt recommend Nonviolent Communication.
This is a book that helped me discover 3 important things:
- Where anger comes from.
- How I can communicate with compassion — even when I’m fuming.
- Why there’s hope for our species.
I lost count of how many times I got angry with Aloha. This is not surprising given she’s the person I’ve been sharing my life with for the past decade.
Aloha is the woman who’s got the power to piss me off in the most creative ways and the only woman on this planet who can read my mind better than I can.
Here’s a typical argument I have with her.
Me: “I’ve seen a fascinating TED Talk about why we should stop managing time.”
Aloha: “What does it say?”
Me: “It says that…[blah blah blah].”
Me: “Would you like to watch it?”
Aloha: “Hmm, not really.”
Me: “Why not?! I’m telling you, it’s amazing! You’ll find it useful!”
Aloha: “No, I’m not that interested! Definitely not now as I have a billion things to do.”
Me: “Not now uh? When then? [Big sigh] I can never share anything I like with you. Why can’t you just make me happy and watch this video?!”
Why do I get upset? And why do I express my anger by blaming her? Nonviolent Communication helped me understand.
One of the principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is that our feelings are closely tied to whether our basic human needs are met or not.
Aloha doesn’t want to watch my videos → My needs for consideration and closeness are not being fulfilled → I get frustrated and angry.
But here’s what’s interesting: when Aloha (or anyone else) says or does something I don’t like, I always have the option to choose how to respond to those unwanted words and actions.
“Our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say an do, as well from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.” — Nonviolent Communication, P.49
Back in that restaurant, I chose to turn my irritation into self-defence and counterattacks against my partner. In the example above, I chose to turn my frustration into blame.
This is violent communication.
What’s the opposite of that? How could I make better choices?
2. Communicating Compassionately
Instead of blaming Aloha for not wanting to watch a TED Talk, I could have chosen to focus on and openly express my needs and feelings.
So I could have said, “When you refuse to watch this clip, I feel frustrated because I was just hoping to share something that can help you in life. I care a lot about you, y’know.”
Notice how this is way more vulnerable, compassionate and transparent than “I can never share anything with you!”.
“Most of us have never been taught to think in terms of needs. We are accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled.” — Nonviolent Communication, P. 53
Inside that restaurant, instead of responding to Aloha’s criticism with counter-criticism, I could have asked her, “Are you feeling disappointed because you need to be reassured I’m enjoying this trip with you? Is this why you’d like me to be more participative in the planning of our holiday?”
Aloha didn’t want to hurt me.
She just wanted to feel heard and her criticism was nothing more than a way to express her dissatisfaction with my behaviour. But instead of paying attention to her pain, I decided to put up a wall and go on the offensive.
What good does this do?
Had I focused on what troubled her, I could’ve opened a dialogue that would’ve brought us closer because I, too, have the same basic human need for reassurance. I, too, get a troubled mind when that need isn’t met.
We all share the same human feelings and needs. We all want to feel heard.
“When we hear another person’s feelings and needs, we recognise our common humanity.” — Nonviolent Communication, P. 151
3. Hope for Humanity
Reading this book made me more hopeful about our species than I’ve ever been in my life.
I came to realise that most conflicts are not caused by some innate evilness that’s been planted into our souls. Rather, we’re still killing each other because we don’t know how to communicate with compassion and empathy what we need and how we feel.
Religions tell us to be kind. How exactly are we supposed to do that though? NVC gives you the practical tools to do it.
In the book I read stories and transcribed dialogues that show how NVC works in practice. It’s so beautiful it makes you cry.
Look what John, a prisoner, told Marshall, the author of NVC.
“Marshall, I wish you had taught me two years ago what you taught me this morning. I wouldn’t have had to kill my best friend.” — Nonviolent Communication, P.147
I sometimes believe the world is f*ucked. But I’m glad I read this book as I discovered that we can all turn our innate ability to give and receive from the heart into words that bring us closer.
Please read Nonviolent Communication too.
Final Thought on NVC
As I write this, another war between Israelis and Palestinians has just begun. I did some research and learned that NVC was adopted in the past as an approach to resolving conflicts in the region.
During an NVC training session, something unbelievable happened.
“In this training, dramatic moments occurred when Israelis and Palestinians played their own or each other’s role in an effort to transcend the pain preventing them from hearing each other with an open heart. A Palestinian man took the Israeli person’s side and expressed his fears and worries as if he were Israeli. Similarly, Israelis took the Palestinian side. All were moved to express hidden fears, wishes, and hopes and be understood. This resulted in a sense of partnership, friendship, and closeness.” — Beacon for Peace in the Promised Land.
Imagine dropping Marshall’s book instead of bombs on those countries. Imagine teaching NVC to every child on this planet. Imagine if we all applied NVC.
Would this change the world? I suspect it would.
But this is just me dreaming.
For now, I can only do my best to never make Aloha cry ever again.