Angry? Identify your unmet needs

Last week I finished reading “Nonviolent Communication – A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg and I can’t get it out of my head.

This book has actionable advice that just plain works. I’m going to share a few quotes from the book and explain how I used these tips in my life to transform anger into understanding.

Here’s the quote that stood out the most to me:

“To fully express anger, request full consciousness of your need. In addition, energy is required to get the need met. Anger, however, co-opts our energy by directing it toward punishing people rather than meeting our needs.” – Rosenberg

Last week I was walking back from Campus Center. I was in a great mood. The sun was shining and I had just gotten paid.

As I walked back to work, two men approached me walking in the opposite direction. The thin sidewalk could only fit two people side by side. The two men approached deep in conversation. One of them pointed to the left with his finger and kept it held out. It must have been part of something he was talking about.

“We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.” – Rosenberg

As they got closer I started to get angry. There wasn’t enough room on the path for them and me. His finger was still pointing in the air. If he kept this up, he’d hit me with it. As they passed they didn’t form a single line. He kept his finger up. I stumbled to the right and had to walk off the path on the grass so I wouldn’t be hit by his finger.

I felt disrespected and angry that I had had to get off the path just so they could continue talking. Then I thought about the book. This was an opportunity to see if it worked.

I started to think about how I could reframe this anger as an unmet need. I felt foolish but I stuck with it. I stayed with the thoughts and searched for the unmet need. What unmet need was I feeling?

I discovered the stupid, silly, embarrassing fact that I needed to feel safe, seen, and respected.

By leaving his finger in the air and forcing me off the path, this man made me feel unsafe because I might get a finger stuck in my face. I felt disrespected by the thought that his conversation was more important than clearing the way for me to safely pass.

“If we find ourselves reacting reproachfully to something we did, we can quickly stop and ask ourselves, what unmet need of mine is being expressed through this moralistic judgment? When we do connect to the need, and there may be several layers of needs, we will notice a remarkable shift in our bodies. Instead of the shame guilt or depression we likely feel when criticizing ourselves for having messed up again, we will experience any number of other feelings.” – Rosenberg

As soon as I thought about it in terms of my needs the anger vanished. The need for blame evaporated.

The goal of this post was to encourage you to reframe the anger you feel into an internal search for your unmet needs.

Next time you start to feel anger, ask yourself what needs are not being met. You might feel foolish for having those needs. But you may also find that the anger goes away when you start thinking in terms of your needs.

Bonus points if you start using this technique on other people. When someone else is angry with you, try to think about it in terms of what unmet needs they have.

Did this post raise some new questions for you. Did you put it into practice? Contact me, I’d love the hear about it.

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Author: David Neely

Professional Software Developer. Technology and Web Coordinator at the University of Hawaii's Manoa Career Center.