“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
~ Jalal ad-Din Rumi
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by CCC partner trainer and CNVC Certified Trainer François Beausoleil
Enemy images are fixed ideas we create about others that come from a judgment of them, which often lead to blocks in our ability to empathize or connect with that person.
Often the ones we care about most can inspire us the most judgment and disconnection.
Here is an exercise from Francois Beausoleil, CNVC Certified Trainer and life coach, and how to help you translate some of your fiercest judgments of others into understanding and connection. Try this exercise either in your mind, or writing down the answers on a piece of paper or in your journal.
– Precise observation on an action taken by the person of which you have an enemy image (example: the person with whom you do ride-sharing arrived at least 10 minutes after the agreed time three times last week)
– Your feelings related to the observation(s) (example: I felt frustrated and stressed)
– Your needs related to these feelings (example: I’m mourning not having the peace of mind and efficiency I wanted)
– Feelings possibly present for the person (example: maybe he was stressed and overwhelmed)
– Needs related to the person’s possible feelings (example: something around wanting ease)
– Could there be a misunderstanding (example: maybe he thinks I’m flexible)
– Are you giving any meaning to the observations (example: it might mean that I will lose my job if I continue to arrive late)
– If so, is this (or these) meaning(s) necessarily true?
– Imagine a scenario that would lead you to have as close to no blame at all for the person (example: his wife just left him and he’s struggling to adapt his schedule since he’s taking care of their 2 kids one every other week)
Nonviolent Communication trainer, Francois Beausoleil, translates ahimsa as “the state of the heart that is free of enemies.”
More irreverent NVC cartoons: http://anvc.svenhartenstein.de
Transforming Enemy Images
Excerpted From “Speak Peace in a World of Conflict”
By Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
In our Nonviolent Communication training and books, we want people not only to come out with awareness of how NVC can be used to transform their inner world, but also to see how it can be used to create the world outside that they want to live in.
To create the world that exemplifies our values, we need to liberate ourselves from enemy images — the thinking that says there is something wrong with the people whose actions or values we don’t agree with. Whether our enemy images are with politicians, individuals with religions convictions different from our own, leaders of the corporate world, or our neighbors next door, lasting social change isn’t possible until we learn how to transform these enemy images.
Now, that’s not easy to do. Why? Because it’s hard to believe that those who are doing things far outside of our value system are human beings like the rest of us. It’s very challenging.
Let me give you an example. I was visiting Fargo, North Dakota, to do some training in the schools. I wasn’t there to facilitate a mediation. Somebody who had helped us get into the schools asked me a personal favor.
She said, “You know, Marshall, in my family we’re having a big conflict about my father’s retirement. He wants to retire, but there’s tremendous conflict in the family between my two brothers about how my father wants to divide up our large farm. We’ve even been in the courts trying to solve this. It’s horrible. I could arrange your schedule so you could have a long lunch of two and a half hours. Would you be willing to mediate?”
I said, “You say it’s been going on for months?” She said, “Actually years, and I know it’s over lunchtime, Marshall, but whatever you could do to help, I would really appreciate it.”
So I went into the room that day with the father and the brothers. Incidentally, the father lived in the middle of the farm, and each son lived on one end. The brothers hadn’t spoken to each other in eight years! I asked the usual question to the brothers: “Could you tell me what your needs are?”
The younger brother suddenly screamed at his older brother, “You know, you’ve never been fair to me. You and Dad only care about each other. You’ve never cared about me.”
Then the older brother said, “Well, you never did the work.”
And so they were yelling at each other for about two minutes. I didn’t need to hear more about the background. In that short amount of time, I could guess what each side’s needs were that weren’t being addressed or understood.
Because I was pressed for time, I said to the older brother, “Excuse me. Could I play your role for a moment?” He looked a little puzzled, but he shrugged and said, “Go ahead.”
So I played his role as though he had Nonviolent Communication skills. I was able to hear behind the younger brother’s judgmental way of expressing himself what his needs were that weren’t met. And I’d heard enough of the older brother’s needs by then to express his needs in a different way. And we made a lot of progress in helping the brothers see each other’s needs. However, the two and a half hours were up, and I had to go back and do my workshop.
The next morning, the father — who, as I noted, had been sitting in on the session — came to where I was working with the teachers. He was waiting for me out in the hall. He had tears in his eyes, and he said, “Thank you so much for what you did yesterday. We all went out to dinner last night for the first time in eight years, and we resolved the conflict over dinner.”
See? Once both sides get over the enemy image and recognize each other’s needs, it’s amazing how the next part, which is looking for strategies to meet everyone’s needs, becomes pretty easy by comparison. It’s getting past the enemy images; that’s the hard work.
It’s getting people to see that you can’t benefit at other people’s expense. Once you have that clear even complicated things like family squabbles aren’t horrible to resolve because you’ve got people connecting at a human level.
The same thing applies to any situation where you have seemingly opposing values. The most common elements I’ve found in the conflicts I’ve been asked to mediate are that people — instead of knowing how to say clearly what their needs and requests are — are quite eloquent in diagnosing other people’s pathology: what’s wrong with them for behaving as they do.
Whether it’s two individuals, two groups, or two countries that have conflicts, they begin the discussion with enemy images, telling the other person what’s wrong with them. The divorce courts — and the bombs — are never far away.
Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. is the author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, Life-Enriching Education, and dozens of booklets, videos and audiotape series. He is the founder and educational director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and spends over 200 days each year teaching NVC throughout the world.
A frequent belief that people have is that if we only had enough skill or the “right” attitude, we would never end any relationship. Indeed, I have had plenty of opportunities to hear people triumphantly present, as “proof” that Nonviolent Communication doesn’t work, the fact that “even” people with extensive NVC experience end relationships and go through breakups. In my view, learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is no guarantee for positive relationships. Moreover, I don’t consider ending a relationship to be a “failure” as some do. More important to me than whether people maintain relationships or bring them to closure is the question of how they reach those decisions and how they relate to each other while making them.
Why Getting along Is Tricky
One of the essential insights that NVC presents is the distinction between our core needs and the strategies we employ for attending to our needs. Needs are finite and tend to be universal. I like to group them into four basic categories: subsistence and security, freedom, connection, and meaning. The current list that I like to use is slightly longer than a hundred. Strategies, on the other hand, are just about infinite. There are so many ways in which any of us can go about attempting to meet our need for meaning, for example; so many ways, varying by factors such as culture and location, that we recognize something as meeting our need for respect. Human variability, cultural norms, and getting along are all about strategies, not about needs.
Getting along is about ease in aligning strategies, it’s not about needs. If I look at myself as an example, I happen to often have strategies for getting my needs met that are different from most people around me, even though I have the exact same set of needs that others have. My preferred strategies are unlikely to change just because I am learning a different way of thinking and speaking. I can use my NVC skills to resolve conflicts but it doesn’t mean that conflicts won’t be there.
What the NVC lens does provide, however, is a way to make sense of what’s happening in a relationship, why we may or may not get along, and what we might want to do about it. To be clear, I am not referring only, or even primarily, to intimate relationships; I mean human relationships of all kinds, with co-workers, friends, housemates, clients, vendors, or neighbors. In each human relationship that we have, we get along with people easily when our strategies align, and run into conflict when they don’t. If we take to heart this deep insight about the distinction between the two, then we can embrace the conclusion that conflict is also about strategies, not about needs.
Embracing Conflict in Relationships
Since I started sharing the insights of NVC with others in 1996, I have been wondering what it is that makes it so challenging for people to choose to welcome conflict. I can think of at least three reasons. One is that we have, in general, so few skills for handling it, and so little experience of conflict serving its fundamental purpose: supporting both parties in learning how to make better solutions that work for everyone. A related second is that we have largely been trained to address conflict as a mini-war in which there are winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. We tend to polarize and see one or the other of us as being at fault. On a deeper level, I have a sense that one of the pieces that comes into play is not about who the individuals are but about the social context in which we live. Fundamentally, we all live in society where human needs are more often not met than met, especially in our early years. We grow up, most of us, deprived around the fundamental longing to have our needs met, at least attended to and taken seriously. That makes most of us very non-resilient, in that having an experience of unmet needs can be very distressing for us. We all bring this lack of resilience with us to all our relationships, which makes it harder to get along because it’s harder to navigate differences in strategies, an essential feature of conflict.
If we are to have relationships that work, I see it as crucial for us to learn how to be in conflict productively. Absolutely core to this capacity is learning to change our relationship with the experience of unmet needs, so that we can remain present, pliable, and resilient when someone we are in relationship with wants us to do something we don’t want to do, says “no” to what we ask of them, or more generally does things we don’t like. I learned early on that our nonviolence is tested when our needs are not met. We can all be peaceful and loving when everything works exactly the way we want. In that sense, our capacity to engage in conflict largely depends on doing inner work, not on learning so many interpersonal skills.
Why and How Would We End a Relationship?
If conflicts can be beneficial, if our needs are fundamentally not at odds with each other, if we can grow stronger in our capacity to handle differences in strategies, why would we ever choose to end a relationship? I can see the appeal of this question, and why so many of us still somewhere believe that ending a relationship is a kind of failure except in situations such as domestic violence or workplace harassment.
Nonetheless, I still want us to have complete choice in the matter, and see a path to making that choice that is fully consistent with care for self and other. We are finite creatures, with finite resources, and I want to have choice about what I do with my resources. Just because I happen to be in a relationship of any kind with someone, doesn’t mean that I have to continue to do so regardless of the investment of resources in it. Because of the kind of work I do, I meet and form relationships with many more people than most. I am continually challenged to choose and re-choose which of them I can sustain. When any of these relationships becomes challenging, all the more so. Given that I operate in ways that are often different from many other people, I find myself in challenging relationships more often than I would ever want anyone to experience. The question arises for me frequently.
It is especially demanding for me, in part, because I do have the capacity to engage in conflict, and because I do know that conflict and challenge are opportunities for learning and for the possibility of greater closeness. I remember a time, years before either one of us knew about NVC, that I asked one of my sisters for support when I was agonizing about an intimate relationship that was full of strife. She comforted me and made it possible for me to leave at peace by reminding me that even though I was still learning, there would be other learning in other relationships.
I now know that I can choose how much challenge I want to have in my life or in any one relationship, and what kind of learning is most suited for where I am in life.
What about the Other Person?
By habit, when we talk about why we are ending a relationship of any kind, we are likely to explain it in terms of who and what the other person is: they are too demanding, too manipulative, impossible to work things out with, narcissistic, or any other favorite characterization that we might pick. I no longer do that. I believe I have fully integrated the belief that it’s never about the other person; it’s always about my own skill, capacity, and preference. This, to me, is key to ending relationships with care and integrity.
Just as much as I want to take responsibility, to the best of my inner ability, for tending the relationship, I want to take responsibility when ending it. I want to be able to tell the other person, and mean it, that I have reached my own limit rather than that there is anything wrong with them. Recently, for example, I have chosen to end interactions with someone on a temporary basis, and I knew it was all and only because I didn’t know how I could recover fast enough from my own reactions to this person’s behavior to be able to respond in the way I would most want. Was this person able to hear the absence of blame in that way of framing it? I don’t know, and I doubt it. What I do know is that I did my own inner work with great discipline to where I know there is no blame there. What remains to be seen is whether I can extend that inner discipline so that moment by moment I can transcend the experience of getting lost in helplessness and overwhelm in response to the anger and hostility I interpret as being directed at me. I want to be able to open my heart wide enough that I can literally hear the needs and pain behind the particular form of speech that I experience, and I am not quite there yet.
Could the other person work on changing how they interact with me? Absolutely. However, if this is not something they choose to do, it still remains my responsibility to choose how I want to respond, and I know I want to choose open-heartedness and not blame. What I am still evaluating is precisely that question about what there is for me to learn, still, and how much challenge I want to have in my life. The full, vibrant humanity of this other person is not in question.
This, to me, is the challenge of ending relationships well. It’s about finding a way to do it such that I hold complete tenderness in my heart for the other person, an understanding, based on a core NVC principle I practice, that their actions are invariably an expression of their own needs, however unskillfully or unconsciously their choice might be done. I also want to hold equal or more tenderness for me, so that I can accept my own choice without blaming myself for not being strong enough, resilient enough, or anything enough to make it work. I want to remember, for both of us, that sometimes more needs can be met when two people are apart than together.
See more: The Fearless Heart
See also: Self-Responsibility
Many years ago I had a dramatic experience when I offered someone extremely difficult feedback, the most difficult I believe I have ever given to anyone, and he demonstrated a way of receiving it that inspired me. As I was almost in panic about what I had said to this person, and yet knew that I couldn’t relate to him without saying it, he looked me in the eye and told me that his practice was that whenever anyone said anything to him about himself, he stretched to imagine it being true, and then attempt to digest it from that perspective. What I had shared with him was that I experienced him as having unusual powers, like a magician, and that I didn’t trust that the power he had was all benign. Having said that and gotten the response I got, all the tension about speaking that I had been feeling drained out of me, and was replaced by admiration and appreciation for this man. It’s hard to describe the oddity of sitting with him, still not trusting his power, and nonetheless appreciating him so much. We then proceeded to explore, together, what could possibly be the source of the “darkness” that I had experienced about his power. The details of that exploration have evaporated from my memory; it’s only the flavor of the interaction, and the intensity of his willingness to explore with me that stayed as a model.
I have often wondered about what made it possible for this man to have such extraordinary and exquisite openness. What did he do with his own need to be seen and accepted? Sadly, I have no answer. At the time I lacked the vocabulary to ask about this, as this conversation predated my involvement with Nonviolent Communication and the awareness of needs that comes with it. Subsequently, life took him to other countries and our collaboration ended.
Regardless of what was true for him, the question remains. I have never met anyone else who could take in such difficult comments with such grace. What makes it so difficult, and what can we do about it?
A Conjecture about What Makes Judgments so Challenging
Many of us react to criticism, judgment, or rejection as if they amount to a threat to our survival. I am grateful to my sister Arnina in Israel who has supported my own clarity about why this is so.
There are two parts to it. One is that, as babies, we depend on adults for our basic survival even when they are unable to meet our needs, which makes vulnerability, helplessness, and disappointment inextricably linked to our physical survival.
As toddlers, our attempts to fully experience choice, freedom, and autonomy often appear rebellious to adults. In their desire to protect us and equip us with what they see as crucial skills for life, they often react with anger or criticism. Instead of experiencing the gift of protection, we feel alone in our vulnerability. At such an early age, being alone is still a threat to our very existence. Lack of acceptance, then, registers deeply as the possibility of being left alone and helpless, which at some point was a real threat and persists emotionally even if it is no longer physically accurate.
Even as adults, our nervous system still equates emotional safety with physical safely, even if conceptually we understand the difference. In particular, if we have experienced significant trauma (which unfortunately is true for so many), interpretations of threat are soft-wired into our nervous system, so we experience sensations of not being safe that arise before any thought is conscious.
In other words: unless we engage in specific practices and methods for healing from early trauma, we are likely to be walking around with big wounds around our acceptability, and therefore with fear of being left alone and unable to fend for ourselves. I doubt that any of us consciously carry this fear, and still I believe that we have it, unconsciously, present at every interaction.
It’s the very same thing I have written about before in the context of making requests and hearing “no” – that we walk around wondering if we matter, if we are acceptable, lovable human beings.
If we can do the work of healing, then we can, over time, develop sufficient tenderness towards ourselves that we can open up to learning from what others say, true or false. Without that kind of tenderness towards how we are, exactly, we are not very likely to be able to become who we want to be. Instead, we then respond to judgments with defensiveness, shame, or detachment instead of the kind of openness displayed by the man I spoke of earlier.
Four Ways of Responding to Judgments or Dissatisfaction
Anything other than full openness leaves something to be desired, for one or both people in the interaction. The following stories may illustrate the contrast between that magical openness and how we ordinarily respond when others judge us or express dissatisfaction.
This is by far the most common response in these difficult human interactions. I used to be very prone to responding defensively, and it still is a challenge for me, as I wrote about just last week, because I so want to be seen in the way that I see myself. Nowadays I am able to do the work internally so that I don’t defend myself in the interaction, especially if I can understand what the person is saying about me and see some truth to it. My level of self-acceptance is high enough that I can relax into it fast enough to remain present. The only challenge I have is when what the person is saying doesn’t resonate as true. Those are the moments I can still get caught, inside, in the desire to “prove” my innocence. I am well aware that this can be detrimental to healing and reconciliation, and still my work is incomplete. I remember, in particular, a time when I inadvertently fell right into the trap of wanting to be seen for my intentions and anguish when someone else experienced my actions as racist. It was a tough moment which was pivotal in my path of learning about structural power and privilege. I learned, in particular, how much those with privilege want to be seen for their intentions, while those who are affected by their actions want the effect to be known.
When we act in defense, we are neither open to ourselves nor to the other person, only consumed with the intensity of wanting to be seen, including internally, as the well-meaning people that we believe ourselves to be. Much work is often required to transcend defensiveness. The core antidote, to this as well as shame, is to cultivate deep self-acceptance, a topic about which I have written long ago, and to which I would like to return more fully another day.
Some years ago, I was in a relationship that included a high degree of ongoing conflict, despite immense mutual affection. In particular, we had extreme difficulties connecting whenever she did anything that was in any way challenging for me. She oscillated between defensiveness and shame, both of which were not moving us forward. When she was defensive, I had a sense of just not being heard at all, and was deeply frustrated. Then, sooner or later, or some other time, she would calm down, take in what I was saying, and for a moment I was lulled into thinking that I was being heard and taken seriously. In some way, that was true. The cost, however, was simply too high: she would hear me through the lens of making herself wrong, and as a result being heard meant losing her presence in some significant way.
Years later, totally out of the blue, I received a note from her in which she was able to express true and clean regret for a certain set of actions that were particularly painful for me when we were together. This time, unlike our earlier interactions, she was speaking with tenderness towards herself. She was able to both hear my experience and acknowledge it, more fully than I remember from before, while at the same time showing immense compassion for herself and what was going on for her that led to this action. That she was able to step out of shame and into self-acceptance was exactly what, finally, cleared the remaining mistrust between us about the original incident.
It was only after I managed to cultivate enough self-acceptance to enable me to overcome defensiveness that I discovered one more pitfall on the path to openness. I learned that I could be truly open to myself in a way that was at cost to the other person; as if I were accepting myself at the expense of openness to the effect on the other person. As I was reflecting on this further, I realized that it’s easier for me to receive difficult feedback when I myself am regretting my actions than when I am, despite the outcome, still standing behind my original choice.
An example will probably make it clearer. In 2007, when my sister Inbal was first diagnosed with cancer, and I was just beginning to adjust to the enormity of changes in life that this signified, my performance as a trainer in the BayNVC Leadership Program shortly after the diagnosis was deeply affected. One person in particular was very angry about how it affected him, seeing it as a breach in contract. Our interactions about this did not go well, and it took more than a year for me to grasp that because I had so much tenderness and compassion towards myself and the situation I was challenged in finding compassion for the effect this had on him. Somewhere in me I had an unconscious expectation that he would let go of his upset because of understanding the situation that gave rise to my not providing him the kind of leadership he was looking for. Once I was able to let go of this expectation, I could see, with surprising ease, just how deeply disturbing the entire situation (which included other factors I am leaving out for simplicity) was for him. I called him up all that time later, and we had a satisfying resolution in which he was finally heard by me, because I shifted from tuning out his pain in order to sustain my self-acceptance into complete openness to both of us.
If only we could do it, I am sure all of us would want, at all times, to have our hearts open to ourselves and to the other person at the same time. When we can do that, resolving conflicts and recovering from loss of trust happen almost by magic. I have a few relationships in my life which exemplify this kind of openness in both directions, and I feel blessed to know this possibility as a reality.
Although I know this possibility, it is still rare in my life, and I believe is the exception for most of us. What do we do when we want to reach the open state and are not able to do so in the moment?
No simple answer exists. When someone comes to us with a judgment or an expression of some dissatisfaction, and we are reacting internally, finding it difficult to stay present or loving towards self or other, it is next to impossible to do the meticulous work internally that would support us in opening our hearts again. Most likely, what is needed is being apart from the person who is expressing the judgment, finding people to support us who can help us maintain perspective and nurture care for ourselves. Still, in the moment, we need to respond in some fashion. What can we do then?
My own aim is to be able to remember to let the other person in on the very fact that I am not feeling open. I start by seeing if I can open my heart to the fact that I can’t open my heart. One way that helps at times is to tell the other that my heart is now closed, and that I want to open it – and ask to come back after I do my work when my heart is open. As soon as we are able to do that, the magic can begin, because we have bridged the gap of separation, brought us together, to see, in partnership, the fallibility of one of us. Then, over time, we can find a way to see both of us as human and restore our connection once again. Magic happens.