Change Within Ourselves

Growth Through Self-Education

By Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD. excerpted from Speak Peace in a World of Conflict

When we look at how Nonviolent Communication can contribute to change, remember this: We want people to change because they see better ways of meeting their needs at less cost, not because of fear that we’re going to punish them, or “guilt” them if they don’t.

Think of a mistake you made recently, something you did that you wish you hadn’t done. Then think, How do I educate myself in such moments? Or, in other words, what do I tell myself at the moment I regret what I’ve done?

Not long ago, I was facilitating a training where we were exploring how NVC can be used to learn from our limitations without losing self-respect.

A woman told us she screamed at her child that morning before coming to the training. She said some things to the child that she wished she hadn’t said – and when she looked into her child’s eyes, she saw how hurt he was. I asked her this question: “How did you educate yourself at that moment? What did you say to yourself?”

And she said, “I said what a terrible mother I am. I told myself that I shouldn’t have talked that way to my child. I said, What’s wrong with me?”

Unfortunately, many people educate themselves in the same way authorities educated us when we did things they didn’t like. They blamed and punished us, and we internalized this judgment. As a result, we often educate ourselves through guilt, shame, and other forms of violent, coercive tactics.

How do we know that we are educating ourselves in a violent way? Three feelings will tell us: depression, guilt and shame. I think we feel depressed a good deal of the time, not because we’re ill or something is wrong with us, but because we have been taught to educate ourselves with moralistic judgments, to blame ourselves, and to think like this mother did.

She told herself that, because she had screamed at her child, there was something wrong with her, that she was a bad mother.

Incidentally, I often tell people, “If you want to know my definition of hell, it’s having children and thinking there is such a thing as a good parent.” You’ll spend a good deal of your life being depressed, because it’s a hard job. It’s an important job, and repeatedly we’re going to do things we wish we hadn’t done.

We need to learn, but without hating ourselves. Learning that occurs through guilt or shame is costly learning.

When you talk to yourself like that, NVC can help you slow down, bring those judgments into the light, and see what you’re telling yourself. In so doing, you realize calling yourself names, thinking about what’s wrong with you is your way of educating yourself. NVC also gives you tools to look behind these judgments to the need at the root of them. That is to say, what need of yours wasn’t met by the behavior?

And I asked this mother that very question: “What need of yours was not met by how you talked to the child?”

With a little help from me, she got in touch with the need. She said, “Marshall, I have a real need to respect people, especially my children. Talking to my child that way didn’t meet my need for respect.”

I said, “Now that your attention is on your needs, how do you feel?”

She said, “I’m sad.”

I said, “How does that sadness feel compared with what you were thinking a few moments ago – that you’re a terrible mother and the other judgments you were making of yourself?”

She said, “It’s almost like a sweet pain now.”

“Yes, because it’s a natural pain, you see.”

When we get in touch with needs of ours that weren’t met by our behavior, we begin to mourn our actions. But it’s mourning without blame, mourning without thinking there’s something wrong with us for doing what we did.

When I help people get to that connection, they often describe the pain in a similar way to how she did. It’s almost like a sweet pain compared with the depression, the guilt and the shame we feel when we are educating ourselves through blame and judgments. I then asked her to look at the good reasons she did what she did.

She said, “Huh?”

I repeated my request: “Let’s look at the good reasons you did what you did.”

“I don’t understand what you mean. You mean screaming at my child the way I did? What do you mean by good reason?”

I said, “It’s important for us to be conscious that we don’t do anything except for good reasons.” I don’t think any human being does anything except for good reasons. And what are those good reasons? To meet a need. Everything we do is in the service of needs.

So, I said, “What need were you trying to meet when you talked to your child that way?”

She said, “Are you saying it was right?”

“I’m not saying it was right to talk to the child that way. I’m suggesting that we learn to look at the needs we’re trying to meet with our action. We can learn best from it if we do two things. First, see the need that wasn’t met by the behavior. And next, be conscious of the need we were trying to meet by doing what we did. When we have our awareness focused on those two needs, I believe it heightens our ability to learn from our limitations without losing self-respect.”

“So, what need of yours were you trying to meet by saying what you did to the child at that time?”

She said, “Marshall, I really have a need for my child to be protected in life – and if this child doesn’t learn how to do things differently, I’m really scared of what could happen.”

“Yes. So you really have a need for your child’s well-being, and you were trying to contribute …”

She said, “That was a terrible way to do it – to scream like that.”

“Well, we’ve already looked at that part of yourself that doesn’t like what you did. It didn’t meet your need to respect other people. Now let’s be conscious of what need of yours was met by doing it. You care for the child; you wanted to protect the child’s well-being.”


“I believe we have a much better chance to learn how to handle other situations in the future if we ask ourselves how we could have met both needs. Now, when you have those two needs in mind, can you imagine how you might have expressed yourself differently?”

She said, “Yes, yes. Oh, yes. I can see that if I had been in touch with those needs, I would’ve expressed myself quite differently.”

This is how we show people how to use Nonviolent Communication within themselves. When we do something we don’t like, the first step is to mourn, to empathize with ourselves about the need of ours that wasn’t met. And very often we’ll have to do that by “hearing through” the judgments we have been programmed to make.

In this way we can actually make good use of our depression, guilt, and shame. We can use those feelings as an alarm clock to wake us up to the fact that at this moment we really are not connected to life – life defined as being in touch with our needs. We’re up in our head playing violent games with ourselves, calling ourselves names.

If we can learn how to empathically connect with the need of ours that wasn’t met, and then look at the part of our self that was trying to meet the need, we’re better prepared to see what’s alive in ourselves and others – and to take the steps necessary to make life more wonderful.

Often it’s not easy to empathically connect with that need. If we look inside and say what was going on in us when we did that, very often we say things to ourselves like “I had to do it; I had no choice.” That’s never true! We always have a choice. We don’t do anything we didn’t choose to do. We chose to behave that way to meet a need.

A very important part of Nonviolent Communication is this recognition of choice at every moment, that every moment we choose to do what we do, and we don’t do anything that isn’t coming out of choice. What’s more, every choice we make is in the service of a need. That’s how Nonviolent Communication works within us.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD. is the author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of LifeSpeak Peace in a World of ConflictLife-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.