When I give trainings, one of the first exercises is asking people: “What are three actions that you can’t empathize with? Where even with all your understanding and love for humanity you say ‘I can’t understand how anybody does this!’?”.

They then usually say something like “beating my own children”, “being a Nazi”, “raping someone”, “murdering someone” etc. Heavy stuff.

I then ask them: “Give me your guesses. What positive human need that you have as well were they trying to meet with their actions?”

First, they are hesitant, then, bit by bit, they usually come up with needs like respect, wanting to be heard, wanting to be understood, connection, being part of a community of people that support each other – and other needs that are actually really beautiful.

They realise:

1) Everything humans ever do is an attempt to meet (or express) a positive, life-serving need (that I have as well).

And that totally changes the atmosphere.

Note: The fact that people (more or less consciously) try to meet a need has nothing to do with whether they’re successful in actually meeting it or not. Often, when people who do something violent (in the broadest sense) find out which needs they were trying to meet (very often, surprisingly it is simply about wanting to be heard), they go “What? And that’s what I was doing to meet it? There are SO many better ways to go and get what I need!”

Another way of putting this is:

2) Every act of violence is a tragic expression of an unmet human need.

This is no excuse for violence (and again, violence here is meant in all its forms, physical, emotional, spiritual, structural etc), but an explanation.

That’s the paradox: The person has full responsibility for his/her actions, while at the same time their actions are completely understandable and you can empathize with them. If they aren’t understandable you haven’t empathized enough – with either the person or yourself (sorry, but it’s true).

That’s how you deconstruct enemy images:

a) You connect with what needs of yours aren’t met with what the person does (the strategies she choses to meet her needs).

b) If your heart is open, you connect with / try to understand what needs the other person is TRYING to meet with her actions. If it involves any kind of violence she’s usually failing or sacrificing another really important need. For example: I’m tired, helpless and frustrated, I need some rest, some support and to be heard. That’s what (not consciously) leads me to beating my children. I may get rest, but I lose connection, I lose genuine support and get fear-based compliance.

Doesn’t exactly sound like fun. That’s the tragedy in violence. (And again, this is an explanation, no excuse. Understanding is not agreeing.)

If your heart isn’t open and you aren’t genuinely interested yet, you need some more of step a) – empathy for yourself (help from other people who are experienced in this is highly recommended then).

Those two steps are how you get the roadblocks for heart-to-heart-connection out of the way  - even in the direst of circumstances.

That’s how you transform relationships one by one – and thus, the world.

(This is the article of day 15 of the 30 day blog challenge. To be notified of new posts, subscribe to the mailinglist on the right.)

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar