Nonviolent Communication: How to Overcome Anger in 4 Steps

Dealing With Anger

Anger is an interesting emotion. When it comes to its management, the majority of us tend to fall into one of two categories. We either suppress it or we let it loose. Both categories are unhealthy and inappropriate ways to address anger.

Those who over-display their anger see little to no problem with angry outbursts. Those who assume anger as something to be avoided at all costs tend to repress it. These often have to deal with misplaced anger and health problems later in life.

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Marshall Rosenberg defended for many years that anger can be a gift. It’s an emotion that has the potential to help us connect with our unmet needs. His view was also that anger is never caused by anything else but our hidden thinking as we will see later.

Throughout his career, Rosenberg focused on violence and compassionate communication. As a result, he found three factors that tend to determine whether we turn to violence or compassion.

These are:

  • the language we grew up with
  • the way we were taught to think and communicate
  • the strategies we use to influence ourselves and others

We may say that anger is not the problem in itself. Anger is not bad. The problem with anger arises when we don’t understand what anger is trying to tell us. Most of us don’t have the appropriate language, thinking, and strategies to deal with it.

When Anger Becomes a Problem

According to the Mental Health Foundation, anger becomes a problem when there are: 

“any dysfunctional way of relating to and managing anger that persistently causes significant difficulties in a person’s life including their thinking, feeling, behaviour, and relationships”

As you might know, displaying or expressing anger alone is not an effective way to deal with it. Neither it is to ignore or cover it up with an ice packet.

Effective communication requires us to be aware of our emotions. Noticing how we deal with anger as well as how it affects our communication can boost our well-being.

Whether we display it in an overt (e.g. violent gestures) or covert way (e.g. passive-aggressiveness), anger reduces the quality of our relationships and our overall well-being.

So how can we navigate through anger and prevent it from becoming a problem?

Nonviolent Communication 

Marshall developed what we know as nonviolent or compassionate communication. This approach focuses on the type of language, thinking and communication that contributes to well-being.

According to this approach, we ought to see anger as an alarm. It’s a sign that we are embracing some thinking that is counterproductive and will not contribute to our needs.

When we let ourselves be driven by anger, whether it is our own or someone else’s, we create disconnection. We burn the bridge between us and the other person.

If we manage to perceive anger as an alarm, we can avoid that disconnection. Unlike tango, it only takes one person to prevent that. We can not control what other people do, but we can take responsibility for our part. We can choose to stay with the process, regardless of how the other person is choosing to interact.

Please remember and highlight these words: it takes awareness and practice. Now let’s dive into the steps of nonviolent communication.

Step 1: Being Aware of the Alarm

The first step is to acknowledge that we are either on the verge of or already experiencing anger. Being connected to our body is very useful in this stage.

Here are some physical cues to help you recognise anger:

  • increased heartbeat
  • chest tightness 
  • tense muscles
  • sweaty palms 
  • feeling hot
  • headache

From a psychological point of view, there are also some signs you can be aware of. You may find yourself overreactive and mentally stuck on details that wouldn’t otherwise trigger you. If you notice any of these, you can choose to step aside for a moment and then move on to Step 2 of this process.

Step 2: The Trigger is Never the Cause

We tend to think that other people or what happens to us are the cause or source of our anger. However, anger is something that already rests within us. The trick is to know what thinking and unmet need are waking up that anger in the present moment.

The other day I got angry. I thought my anger was the result of someone else’s rudeness and intolerance. When I dived deep into the nonviolent approach, I realised I was wrong. My anger came from an unmet need. The person was only a trigger.

Since I was neither aware of nor meeting my need, I internally cursed that person and blamed her for my anger. The anger was already there though, and it came with some very distorted thoughts. Here was my thinking:

I’m angry because that person is making me feel that way. I’m angry because that person was disrespectful and arrogant. It’s their wrongdoing.

My need was to make sure everyone’s contribution was listened to, respected, and cherished. I couldn’t see that at the time though. So today my thinking would be:

I feel this way because I’m telling myself that the other person is wrong and they are to blame. 

Realising my unmet need was to claim back my responsibility. I’m responsible for my emotions and only the way I interact with others. Not how others interact with me. That alone reduced the anger and it gave me perspective of what was going on.

Step 3: Connecting to Our Heart

Instead of focusing on others’ actions, it is more useful to connect to our hearts and discover our unmet needs. To make this possible, we need to mindfully let go of moral judgments and avoid blaming others.

At the end of the day, judging other people for their behaviour will not do anything for our unmet needs. It will only feed our anger even more. The goal is to look inward and find out what our needs are.

How do we do it? The more we practice being with our emotions, the more we can have access to our needs. So instead of reacting to our anger, we need to use it as a sign that it is time to move into the centre of our hearts.

When we move there, both our heart rate and thinking slow down. This helps us notice the thoughts that occurred very fast and propelled us into anger. I developed a 5-minute heart coherence practice that you can use to develop this skill here.

Once you do this exercise, you will have greater clarity about:

  • what triggered you 
  • the thinking behind your anger
  • the need behind your judgment

Step 4: Communicating Our Needs With Compassion

Once we understand that:

  • the trigger is not the cause of our anger
  • there is always some thinking going on behind our emotions
  • an unmet need behind our judgments

It is then time to communicate with compassion. That’s the fourth and final step of the nonviolent communication process. In this stage, the goal is to deliver four pieces of information to the other person. These include:

  • What behaviour triggered you
  • How you are feeling
  • What needs were not fulfilled 
  • What you would like the other person to do concerning your expressed feelings and unmet needs

The more you practice and stay with this process, the faster you will be able to respond in a nonviolent way. Never feel ashamed or uncomfortable for asking for some time to process your emotion on the side.

It is far more important to process anger in a healthily way than to provide quick answers. Those might be filled with anger and feed unhealthy conversations. Remember that anger, whether displayed overt or covertly always leads to disconnection.

Concluding thoughts

Communication is not always easy to manage. However, there are tools and skills we can develop to make it more effective. Nonviolent communication is something you can now add to your toolbox.

This type of communication is a process. You can practice and follow through to prevent the negative consequences of anger. The first step is to be aware and use anger as an alarm.

Every time we get angry, we need to remind ourselves that the trigger is never the cause. Moving into our heart space will allow us to get to the root cause of our anger and communicate better.

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