The key to overcoming conflict

Marshall Rosenburg (1934–2015) was as American psychologist who believed that it is in our nature to enjoy giving and receiving compassionately.

Given that belief, he attempted to answer two questions:

What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?

And, conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature, even under the most trying of circumstances.

What a great pair of questions!

I feel that his work is now more relevant than ever, given the increasing polarisation we are seeing and how that involves dehumanising each other as stupid, insane or evil for having a different perspective to our own — whether that’s on politics, vaccines, alternative medicine or anything else.

When I did a training course on non-violent communication (NVC), one of the principles that the teacher gave us went off like a lightbulb in my heart and mind.

‘People are never in conflict on the level of needs. They are only ever in conflict on the strategies to meet their needs.’

In those words, I believe, are the seeds of world peace. I felt a wave of excitement and possibility.

If you’re new to NVC, you might not know what I mean by ‘needs’ in this context. They include things like food and shelter, safety, freedom, belonging, purpose, and feeling appreciated and understood. Here is a full list.

In our culture, one of the most embarrassing things to be accused of is being ‘needy’. This is incredibly damaging, because it contributes to a sense that we shouldn’t feel or express the needs that we all have. We live in a culture of need suppression.

Going back to world peace: I might think I hate you, because you’re a racist Trump supporter, and you might think you hate me, because I’m a socialist Biden supporter.

As a Trump supporter, maybe you’re in touch with your needs for freedom, hope and belonging, and you believe that Trump will help you meet those needs by being tough on crime, growing the economy, cutting taxes, protecting your local community from immigrants, and outsourcing to China.

As a Biden supporter, you also have a need for safety, hope and belonging. There is no conflict there. You are only in conflict over the idea that voting for Trump is the best strategy for meeting those needs.

At the level of public health, I might not want to have the covid vaccine and you might think that makes me an imbecile, ignorant about science and a threat to public health.

I might think you’re an imbecile for blindly following what big pharma and the government are telling you, and it’s the vaccine that’s a threat to public health.

Both of us have needs for safety, health and trust, but we have different strategies for meeting those needs.

On a personal level, my friend was furious with her housemate for having a shower at midnight in the bathroom next to her room, which woke her up. She had to get up at 6am and had a need for rest.

The housemate was furious when she angrily confronted him about it, because he had a need to feel relaxed, refreshed and clean before bed.

How dare you wake me up? What are you doing having a shower this late?!

How dare you tell me when I can have a shower!

In terms of needs, they are not in conflict. She is pro him feeling refreshed, relaxed and clean. It’s mutually beneficial. He is pro her feeling rested, for the same reason. They are in conflict over how to meet those needs.

We waste so much time and energy clashing at strategy level. If our starting point was to recognise the needs that we are all trying to meet — effectively the end goal — we would make a lot more progress towards everyone getting what they want.

It’s very challenging when you are in a conflict with someone, and you feel angry with them, to remember the truth of this: that you are both compassionate human beings trying to get your needs met. But when you can remember that, it becomes much easier to find a way to reconnect.