Transforming Enemy Images

Excerpted From Speak Peace in a World of Conflict

By Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

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, 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.