I’m reading a book by Marshall B Rosenberg, titled Nonviolent Communication. This has been one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read and I wish I’d found it earlier in my life. With chapter titles like “Observing Without Evaluating” and “Taking Responsibility for Our Own Feelings”, I believe everyone could benefit from reading this book, but for this discussion, I’d like to refer to Chapter 10, “Expressing Anger Fully.”
When I first began reading this chapter, I honestly couldn’t acknowledge that I have any anger issues. Don’t get me wrong, I’m human and far from perfect. I do get angry from time to time and have lashed out verbally at other people in my life, but for the most part, it takes a lot to make me mad. What surprised me though is what Rosenberg said at the beginning of Chapter 10, “We are never angry because of what others say or do.”
Wait! What does that mean? Of course other people make me mad. That’s usually the whole problem. Idiots that cut me off in traffic, real estate agents that don’t bother to do their job correctly, and people that waste my time in general, are all perfect examples of how other people make me mad.
In the book, Rosenberg says, “The first step to fully expressing anger using nonviolent communication is to divorce the other person from any responsibility for our anger. We rid ourselves of such thoughts such as ‘He (or she or they) made me angry when they did that. Such thinking leads us to express anger superficially by blaming or punishing the other person.” Let me give you a very basic example that he uses in the book and one that I think most of us can relate to.
When someone cuts you off in traffic, you immediately say to your self (or out loud) “You idiot!” In a flash, your blood boils and your whole demeanor changes. Some of you may actually be cursing at the driver or speed up and cut them off just to get even.
The next time this happens, I want you to ask yourself, “Why am I so mad at someone I don’t even know?” They are a complete stranger and here you are cursing and yelling at them. They’ve completely ruined your morning drive to work.
Could it be that you’re mad because you could have been hurt in an accident? Let’s be honest, driving is dangerous. This is true whether we have been doing it for days, years, or decades. Even if we are so used to it that we don’t notice it anymore, we still feel some tension when we drive. So when some idiot pulls out in front of us, we all assume it’s our God-given right to be completely furious at that other driver.
Now consider this, what if after this same person cut you off in traffic, you were to pull up next to their car at a stoplight and see that the driver is your sweet elderly grandmother? How does that change your emotions? Would you still be as mad at your grandmother? Is it possible that the other person didn’t really MAKE you mad at all? Do you really believe they intended to cut you off or was it just an accident and they didn’t see your car?
Rosenberg says the cause of anger lies in our thinking – in thoughts of blame and judgment. At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Anger can be valuable if we use it to realize we have a need that’s not being met. Let me give you another example.
Just to be quite blunt about it, many other REALTORS® drive me crazy. Before reading this book, I would have said, “REALTORS®, in general, make me mad.” But now I’ve come to realize that at the core of my frustration and anger with other real estate agents is this inherent need to feel like I work in an industry that is taken seriously. I want REALTORS® to be elevated to a high level of respect in the public eye. As an industry though, I’ve seen public opinion polls that rank real estate agents just a few places higher than members of Congress when it comes to trust. When other REALTORS® make huge mistakes that cost their clients money, I can feel that volcano boiling and rising up within me.
Several years ago, it occurred to me that much of the problem with the real estate industry is that we are all “independent contractors.” As such, no one can force us to get training and unfortunately, too many real estate agents don’t bother to take classes and learn anything. They bumble their way through the process, many times learning as they practice on live clients.
Last year I changed my thinking about REALTORS®. As I began hiring more agents to work on my real estate team, it occurred to me that one of the reasons agents want to join my team is because of the higher level of training I provide them. As I started hiring, I found that many agents are simply not getting enough training on their own. It happened almost by accident, but as I began talking to more agents, my mindset (and anger) about them began to change as well. I realized they simply need more training.
All this time I’ve been making them the villain in my mind, but now I was beginning to see them as human beings that just needed my help. Still the same agents making the same dumb mistakes, but now I’m not getting mad at them anymore. What changed? They didn’t change; I changed. This is what Rosenberg is saying in his book that other people can’t make you mad.
I know what you’re thinking, “OK Ron, I guess I can acknowledge that sometimes it’s my own thinking and not truly the other person’s fault. They’re not actually forcing me to be angry on purpose, but Ron I can tell you with 100% certainty that my husband/wife/family makes me mad.” Do they? Are you absolutely sure about that?
Rosenburg states that family and friends who know us intimately are sometimes the hardest people to communicate with. We carry all this emotional baggage from past experiences, and unfortunately, we sometimes use that to hurt the ones we love the most. The key problem is we are not trained to express our true needs. You’ll notice I said “needs” and not “feelings”.
In my marriage, my wife has a “need” to feel loved. She wants more of my attention and needs to believe that I still love her as I used to when we were first married (her words). If I don’t spend enough time with her, she can get frustrated and even begin to think I don’t love her anymore. She may even lash out at me in anger for something else that is completely unrelated. In my wife’s mind, “I’m making her angry.” Honestly, was I “making” her angry or was she just not able to verbally express her true needs about feeling loved? I’m just a big dumb husband so you have to tell me what’s going on. I’m not a mind reader. (Sound familiar?)
Several years ago I began to realize that sometimes Elaine just wants me to sit with her on the couch and hold her hand. In the past, I would come home and have a lot on my mind, usually things about work, so sitting down wasn’t what I wanted to do. Now I realize this is a “need” she has and it’s her way of feeling loved and connected in our marriage.
Today when Elaine says, “Sit with me on the couch,” that’s a trigger for me to know she wants to spend a few minutes with me and feel loved. Trust me, I love my wife more than anything and I want to share my love with her, so I sit down on the couch next to her for a while and everything’s all better. What changed? I wasn’t “making her mad” anymore because she was able to tell me, “Sometimes I don’t feel loved. I just want you to sit next to me and hold my hand. You don’t have to stay here all night, but I would like to sit next to you for a while and feel like you care enough to spend some time with me.”
Let me repeat what I mentioned earlier, “The cause of anger lies in our thinking – in thoughts of blame and judgment. At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.”
The next time you feel anger coming on, try this.
- Stop. Breathe.
- Identify your judgmental thoughts about the other person or the situation around you.
- Connect with what need is not being met inside you.
- Express your feelings and unmet needs verbally or on paper.
I’m not saying this is easy, because it’s VERY hard to do, but if you train yourself to consider what need is not being met, I think you’ll find the anger will quickly dissipate.