Reaching Into the Universe

Do other people “make” us angry?

Angry monkeySaw some confusion on anger recently...

A Facebook friend posted this zenhabits article, The Other Person is Never the Problem, with the following comment: "Intellectually I know this is true. No one else can make me angry or upset. I'm doing that to myself. But it's sure hard to realize this and stay calm all the time. Something I need to keep working on."

I was surprised to see someone else's comment responding that the idea was "bullshit," that people do indeed "make us angry and upset us." Apparently I've been living in a bubble because I don't expect to see that from people anymore.

But I remember what it was like to think that way—blaming other people for my feelings. And I also remember what it was like "in between"—understanding, on some level, the idea that I am responsible for my feelings... but not really knowing how to do anything useful with that knowledge.

Something called Non-Violent Communication (NVC) changed all that for me...

NVC to the rescue...

I had two responses to the conversation on anger from an NVC perspective:

  1. There's a difference between what someone does and my feelings about that thing they do.
    NVC's model of communication helps clarify that difference, as well as explains the connection between the two.
  2. "Staying calm all the time" is not really the goal.
    Feelings are important information, especially anger. Anger is a sign that our needs our not being met.

So, what's NVC?

The NVC communication model has four basic components:

  1. Observation
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Request

Observation is the stimulus, the thing that actually happened. For example: a friend is half an hour late in meeting us, a relative pushes our buttons at a family gathering, the roommate does that thing we don't like for the millionth time.

Feeling is the feeling that comes up in us in response to what happened. But while what happened may be the stimulus it is not the cause of our feelings. Our feelings arise out of the transaction between the stimulus and our thoughts about it. We can see this is the case when we ask questions like, "Would everyone in this situation feel the same way?" Different people would have different ways of interpreting and evaluating, different ways of thinking about, the exact same stimulus. Different thought, different feeling.

For example, I feel annoyance (feeling) when I see that my housemate has not taken out the compost and it's his turn on the chore's chart (stimulus). I feel that way because I have thoughts like: it's a big deal, I shouldn't have to take out the compost when it's not my turn, and other people should be more mindful. Whereas other people might feel differently (ambivalent, curious, or some other feeling) because they have different thoughts, like: it's not a big deal, I wonder what's going on in his life right now, etc.

Needs are at the root of feelings. In the example above, my needs for consideration and responsibility aren't going met. You might feel unhappy when someone shows up to a meeting late because it doesn't meet your need for respect. When your partner works late too much, perhaps your needs for connection and companionship don't go well met.

Our feelings represent information that tells us if our needs are being met or not. When our needs are being met we feel feelings that we usually call "positive". Conversely, when our needs are not being met we feel feelings that we usually call "negative". As information they are neither good nor bad, and both kinds are important.

Requests are clear, concrete requests for what we want that would meet our needs better. Requests are always made along with the observation, feelings, and needs that we notice.

All four pieces are critical in an effective communication. We include the observation so that the other person can know exactly what they did that we are referring to. We include the feelings and needs so that the other person can empathize with us. We include the request so that people know exactly what we would like from them—otherwise, people make assumptions about what we want.

The request is especially important. Since many of us are trained to take responsibility for other people's feelings and expect others to take responsibility for ours, if we don't include a request telling people what we want, people often assume that what we want is for them to be responsible for our feelings.

Less Zen, more communication

If we make a goal out of staying calm in the face of all stimuli, we misunderstand the important role feelings play. We risk ignoring the important information they represent. Rather than attempt to be calm instead of angry, equanimous instead of annoyed, we can allow our feelings to point us to which of our needs are or aren't going met. We can then use all of this information to invite empathy from others and make requests of them.

The zenhabits article suggests that we refrain from action when angry and "toss our expectations into the ocean". Of course this is appropriate in many cases—how would we begin to request to all motorists that they never cut us off in the future?—but as a rule, I see greater value in learning how to communicate my feelings, needs, and requests to others in ways that help them empathize with me and consider my requests, which can lead them to make different choices that enrich both our lives.

Further info

This is a basic overview; anyone interested in learning more about NVC should check out one or both of these books: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by the creator of NVC, and Don't Be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others.

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