Peace Hero: He got into fights as a boy and tried to understand why we get nasty when we like to be nice
Marshall Rosenberg was a boy growing up in America in the middle of the last century. He liked sport and being outdoors.
He also spent time watching people. He tried to understand why they did things.
Two things puzzled him.
People are strange…
He had a granny who was very ill. Marshall’s uncle spent a lot of time helping her. It was tiring. But he didn’t complain. In fact, doing things for his mother, Marshall’s granny, seemed to make Uncle Julius really happy. So, Marshall noted, helping other people makes us happy.
But at his school things were a bit different. His little brother got bullied. Marshall learned to fight back to protect him. He fought a lot. But he also watched. And he noticed that beating up little boys seemed to make the bullies smile.
Why? How strange people are!
Born to be kind
He found people so interesting that when he grew up, Marshall became a psychologist – someone who studies how we think and feel. He wanted to understand people – and he wanted to find how we could stop fighting so much.
He came to realise two things.
First, he saw that no one is born wanting to fight or hurt people. We’re born wanting to help each other. Today, more scientists are showing how we all have a basic need to help other people. It makes us happy. But we can often forget that.
Different tastes, same needs
And second, Marshall showed that we all want the same things.
Of course, we don’t all want to eat spaghetti with custard. But we do all need to eat. We don’t all want to be friends with the same people. But we do all need to feel we have friends, to feel safe, to feel listened to.
So, we all have different tastes, different ways we try to meet our needs. We have different ways to stop feeling hungry or to feel safe. But our needs are the same.
Why do we fight?
Now, Marshall thought, if we all basically care about other people and we all want basically the same things in life, why are we all arguing and fighting all the time? And is there a solution?
It’s a good question, isn’t it?
Let’s imagine an experiment. Let’s say your sister wants you to play with her and you want to read a book by yourself.
“You’re no fun! You’re selfish!” your sister yells at you. “Leave me alone! You’re horrible!” you shout back.
Rows like that happen all the time. You love your sister. She loves you. And Marshall said we all have the same needs. Yet, bam! An argument.
… Marshall’s solution
Marshall’s solution was this…
Imagine your sister, instead of yelling what she thinks about you, she told you calmly how she felt inside herself when you refused to come and play.
What if she said: “I need to feel I’m with someone cares about me. That’s why I’d like you to play with me.”
Now, how would you feel if you heard that? Better than being told you’re boring and selfish! You could listen. And you know yourself how it feels to need to feel you have friend. So you might feel like helping your sister.
Now, that doesn’t mean you do what she wants right now. It’s your turn to tell her what you need today. Not tell her that she’s “horrible”. But that you need some peace and quiet on your own and you don’t want to play.
Your sister can listen and understand. She needs to be on her own sometimes, too.
Jackals and giraffes
Now, it’s not easy to listen like that when you’re angry. Marshall would use hand puppets to show that when we’re angry we’re like a jackal – a frightened little animal that snarls a lot and shows its teeth. And what we can try to be is a giraffe – kind and tall with big ears, able to listen calmly.
Apart from its ears and tall neck, do you know what else Marshall liked about us trying to be giraffes? Well, of all the animals that live on land, the giraffe has the biggest heart.
And so, he said, if you start listening to each other with your giraffe ears, and letting yourself feel with your giraffe heart, well, you might both talk about how you can help each other. How about doing a bit of what each of you wants?
Marshall called his way of talking and listening Non-Violent Communication, or NVC. People all over the world learn about it as a way of talking to others – in their family or at work or in the community.
And Marshall himself took his ideas to places where there were wars going on.
He would sit in a room with people from each side. And each would call the other “murderers” or “terrorists”.
But then Marshall would get them to say what it was that they each needed. Not the obvious thing that they were already fighting about, but what really, really deep down they needed. And often it was basically the same. Often it would be the need to “feel safe”.
And Marshall would show them that if they all basically wanted peace, then, well, they should make peace… !
People argue and fight. It makes us unhappy. But when each of us wants very different things, it’s hard not to get into an argument.
Marshall saw we all need the same basic things – and that we’re born to be kind. He found a way to help people talk and understand each other’s needs so they don’t fight.
Marshall Rosenberg died in 2015. You can find out more about him and his ideas from the organisation he founded, the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC)
This site offers an accessible description of NVC.
And this 5-minute animated video offers another way into the ideas.