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A Practical Guide to Communicating in an Angry, Isolated World

This is a highlighted quote from the blog post.


Photo by  Darius Bashar  on  Unsplash

 

I didn’t use to think I was an angry person.

I rarely raised my voice and often avoided conflict.

Yet, there was another side of me when I was with my family. I would often get triggered, emotions exploding inside of me, leading me to verbally lash out in annoyance and frustration.

I started realizing that I didn’t do this with people outside the family because I wanted them to see the “real” me. The real me wasn’t angry. Or so I thought.

I started getting mini reality checks every time my anger would begin to leak out at the friends I usually got along with. Although I tried to desperately avoid tension and conflict with them, my true feelings would eventually come out as passive-aggressiveness — a pointed joke, a roll of the eyes, a curt period at the end of a text.

“I’m not angry, I’m just annoyed…”

Just because I never appeared angry doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience anger like the average person. In fact, I probably experienced it more.

Instead of expressing it outright, I often held on to it out of desperation. I didn’t want to create tension in my relationships. But now, looking back, I see that it would have been easier for everyone if I had just said what I felt.

The problem is, I could never find a way to express myself in an effective way. Often, when I finally brought issues up, they had already gotten so bad that the conversations were emotionally charged… which led me to avoid confrontations later on — it was a vicious, reinforcing cycle.

A Language of Life

That’s where Nonviolent Communication (NVC) comes in, a process of communicating developed by the clinical psychologist Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg.

“Violent”, in his words, means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm. He suggests that the way we communicate can be a primary source of how we experience violence in our everyday lives.

“While studying the factors that affect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words. I have since identified a specific approach to communicating — both speaking and listening — that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)

This process of communication has revolutionized my life — the way I speak to others, express myself, and think about things. The process itself is straightforward — yet, the practice of it is much harder than it seems.

At its essence, NVC is a needs-based way of communicating. When we get what we need, we experience emotions like affection, comfort, relief, serenity, and hopefulness. On the other hand, when we don’t get our needs met, we may feel emotions like fear, aggravation, irritation, loneliness, detachment, etc.

NVC is about expressing and negotiating those needs in a way that allows us to have open and honest communication with the people in our lives.

“Nonviolent Communication shows us a way of being very honest, without any criticism, insults, or put-downs, and without any intellectual diagnosis implying wrongness.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD

It can be used effectively in settings from work, school, therapy, and relationships. In the book, Dr. Rosenberg even talks about the effectiveness of NVC in prisons, war-torn countries, and low-income schools.

Honestly, I just think NVC is dope.

I probably sound like a walking advertisement for NVC, but I have no personal or material stake in this. I’ve just found the process to be incredibly lifechanging, and want to share it with the world.

In this post, I won’t get into the specifics of the process. Instead, I’ll be touching on how communication plays an essential role in producing and maintaining anger in our lives. Instead of brushing anger under the rug or taking it out on others, we need to learn how to fully embrace and express it instead of letting it take over our lives and relationships.

“The process we are describing, however, does not encourage us to ignore, squash, or swallow anger, but rather to express the core of our anger fully and wholeheartedly.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)

Especially in a time like this, where we’re either physically isolated from each other or crowded with loved ones at home, learning to communicate our anger properly has become even more crucial. Furthermore, being physically isolated has actually highlighted the way we communicate because, in many ways, it’s all we have left.

You Don’t Have To Be Angry

In the book, Dr. Rosenberg states that anger is a superficial response to our deepest unmet needs:

“When we are connected to our need, whether it is for reassurance, purposefulness, or solitude, we are in touch with our life energy. We may have strong feelings, but we are never angry.”

Reading this, I felt doubtful. It didn’t seem realistic or possible to never be angry.

I thought about our world and it was hard to imagine it without anger. And when I say “anger”, I’m not just talking about the extreme forms of anger that can result in screaming matches or physical violence.

I’m talking about the insidious forms of anger that find their way into every aspect of our lives. Feeling pissed off when someone cuts us off in traffic. The flicker of annoyance when our friend is constantly running late. The dirty dishes in the sink. The cluttered drawer. The pay cut. Opening the door to find that the neighbor’s dog has taken a shit on the doormat.

The little things that chip away at our patience lead us to respond in unproductive ways, whether it’s sending passive-aggressive texts, incessantly nagging at our partners, or gossiping non-stop as an outlet for our frustrations.

And of course, you might feel justified in your anger about certain things. For example, the lack of leadership during a pandemic. The panicked individuals crowding grocery stores and making the situation worse. The con artists taking advantage of people’s fears to make money.

Maybe on some level, you’ve fully embraced the anger, walling yourself off from the world. Or maybe you’re just cynical and jaded because you’ve tried everything… and life didn’t turn out how you expected. Do you blame the economy and the terrible people who run this country? Do you believe this while ignoring that your anger has made a home inside of you?

No One “Makes” You Angry

“Whenever we are angry, we are finding fault — we are choosing to play God by judging or blaming the other person for being wrong or deserving punishment. Even if we are not initially conscious of it, the cause of anger is located in our own thinking.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)

On a day to day basis, we may have a million thoughts like:

I can’t believe that guy cut me off. What an inconsiderate jerk.”

“Wow. Why would she say that and humiliate me in front of the entire team? She’s obviously only out for herself.”

“If he really cared, he’d pick his socks up off the floor.”

The first step to fully expressing our anger and getting our needs met is by acknowledging that our anger isn’t caused by other people’s actions.

Rather, the cause of our anger is in our own perspective and thinking. It’s important to note that just because someone else triggered our anger, doesn’t mean that they are the cause of it.

In each of the thoughts above, the person is blaming and judging someone else. Judging others actually misdirects the attention away from one’s own needs, preventing them from addressing the true cause of their anger.

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Learning How to Meet Your Needs

“Anger is a result of life-alienating thinking that is disconnected from our needs. It indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on which of our needs are not getting met.” (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)

In order to concentrate on our needs, we have to flip our thinking from

I’m angry because they…”

TO

I’m angry because I am needing

With that in mind, let’s try flipping the situations above to focus on what the person’s need may be.

Go ahead, give it a shot. See what you come up with. It’s often harder than it seems.

When you’re ready, you can read on to see what I came up with:

“I’m angry that he cut me off because I have a need for physical safety. Beyond that, I have a lot of people depending on me, so I was honestly just scared. I have a need to provide for my family, and how can I do that if I’m badly injured or dead?”

“I was angry when she said that in the meeting because I have a need to be respected at work. When I feel humiliated, I feel incompetent. I have a need to belong and contribute to the team.”

“I’m angry he doesn’t pick up his socks because I’m needing to be cared for. I’m so tired when I get home and when I see his dirty socks laying on the floor, it pushes me over the edge. I feel overwhelmed and really need empathy and connection. ”

Figuring out the core need can sometimes be difficult! Not a lot of us are used to speaking in a needs-based way. I find it helpful to use this list of Universal Human Needs.

 



Universal Human Needs

 

Expressing Your Needs

When making a request to someone to meet our needs, there’s a huge difference between walking up to someone and saying “You’re an asshole for cutting me off. You probably shouldn’t do that in the future.” and saying, “Hey, I was really scared today because I have a need to provide for my family. I’d like to ask you to avoid behavior like that in the future”.

By starting with how you feel and addressing the need that isn’t being met, you’re getting straight to the core of your anger without prompting defensiveness in the other person. When we speak from our needs instead of using labels or judgment, people are more likely to respond positively.

Requesting and Not Demanding

When you make a request instead of a demand, we allow the option to not fulfill our request. At the end of the day, they are also a person with needs and emotions. To force someone to do something to satiate our anger is counterproductive. It doesn’t allow either person to see how their actions contribute to your needs.

For example, if someone thinks” Yeah, I have to do it this way or else she’ll get upset”, it means they don’t think they have a choice. Being forced to do something results in resentment and bitterness over time, and rejects the needs of that individual to make their own choices and have autonomy over their life.

Additionally, that mindset indicates that they actually believe they’re the cause of the other person’s anger, which doesn’t take the unmet need into account.

Instead of addressing the core issue, it becomes a superficial dance to keep the other person happy. At the end of it, neither person is wiser about how to identify and speak from their needs.

Making Specific Requests

To make an effective request, you have to be specific, which is harder than it sounds.

Actually knowing the behavior that will lead to your needs being met requires an acute level of self-awareness. And, more often than not, it requires experience. You may not know what you want the other person to do, and it may take a few tries. However, it’s important to recognize the responsibility you have in getting your needs met.

For example, let’s say that your need is for cleanliness, so you request your partner to do the laundry once a week. They agree with your request and fulfill their end of the bargain, but you find that your anger hasn’t gone away.

That should clue you in that the request you made wasn’t actually in line with your needs. Maybe your need wasn’t actually cleanliness. Or maybe it was cleanliness, but it wasn’t really about the laundry.

At that point, acknowledging your own failure in communication is more productive than flipping your anger back on your partner, saying “You should have known what I actually wanted”.

We must say what we mean, and be incredibly precise. We are all complex individuals with unique stories and experiences. Who can meet our needs in the exact way in which we need them unless we communicate it accurately?

Learning to Melt

For me, I could often feel this flipping from anger to expression inside of me. It felt like… deflating relief, a sense of gradual melting from hardness to softness. When you practice this way of thinking and speaking, you might also start to notice this internal sensation.

 


Spongebob GIF because… why not?

Spongebob GIF because… why not?

 

When we’re angry, there’s a stubborn hardness and edge to our thoughts and perspective. But when we flip to focus on our needs, there’s a deflating softness. There’s an acknowledgment of vulnerability that we’re really just scared, or hurt, or feeling alone.

When we embrace this sense of softness, we’re able to deeply connect with ourselves. We’re able to acknowledge our own pain and unmet needs. Only then can we move forward and express those needs to others. Bit by bit, we dismantle the walls that keep us feeling isolated.

“When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.

Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as to others — Nonviolent Communication (NVC) fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.”

In summary, anger usually results when there are needs inside of us that aren’t being met. In order to meet those needs, we need to take a step back and observe what actually happened, how we feel, and what the specific unmet needs are.

Then, we have to take the leap to show those emotions and needs to others. In negotiating for our needs, we’re careful to make requests and not demands.

Speaking and thinking in this way gives us the freedom to take responsibility for our own emotions and needs while living more compassionately in connection with ourselves and others.

To learn more about Nonviolent Communication, you can visit the website here.

 


Whoo-hoo, you made it to the end! Thanks for reading.

Here’s some of my other work you might enjoy:

Create Your Own “Emotional Home” for Valentine’s Day

A Comprehensive Guide: “Should I Quit Dating?”— 12 Surprising Lessons I Learned While Single

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