“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy
I have spent much of my life focusing on and talking about how the world will be a better place when other people change. This act of blaming others contributes nothing to the world and in fact it disempowers me. By taking responsibility for and focusing my energy on first changing how I act, I take the first and most important step to change the world. You and I can start contributing to the world in revolutionary ways by changing how we think of, hear, and speak to others.
7 Ways to Change the World by Changing Ourselves*
1. Acknowledge that every action is an attempt to meet needs that are universally shared by all humans.
We all want love, belonging, safety, autonomy, self-expression, to be seen and heard, support, community, and a number of other needs (click link to see more needs). The reason why we have conflict is because we don’t recognize that other people’s actions are an attempt to meet the same needs that we too are also attempting to meet. All of our actions are different strategies to meet needs. The significance of this is that our conflicts often focus on just the strategies. If we focus on the shared needs, we will find common ground.
For example, if someone says, “You are selfish,” what they may be really saying is that, “I really want to know that you value and care for me.” Their strategy of blame is probably not very effective at getting what they want – your appreciation of them. But haven’t we all said things we didn’t mean? We use criticism because we haven’t been taught how to ask for what we really want. Using a language of needs transforms how we connect with other people. “What you say next will change your world.” – Dr. Marshall Rosenberg
2. Create an awareness that feelings are a result of our needs being met or not met.
Consider the example from above. If someone says, “you are selfish,” they are probably feeling hurt, perhaps because they are wanting to know that their needs are valued. Think of a time you have said or thought someone was “selfish.” Were you in pain when you said that? Were you just wanting to hear that that person valued you? By being aware of where feelings come from, it helps create understanding of what needs are or are not being met. This empowers us to better meet our needs and create the life we want.
3. Understand that no one ever makes you feel the way you do.
Have you ever seen someone respond with anger and rage to something that, to you, seemed negligible? This is because feelings are not attached to outside stimuli, they are an expression of our individual needs, that we alone are responsible for meeting. Consider that when you are in a mindset of empathy, you may not hear criticism from another person, you instead hear someone in pain crying out for support. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s okay if you are feeling sad in response to what someone says. The key is not to blame the other and instead offer yourself empathy for what need is not being met. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi
4. Offer yourself continual empathy.
You will have many times where you are tired and frustrated and can’t stand to be around certain people. That’s perfectly okay. Your feelings are an indication that you may have a need for rest, quiet, time alone, or self-connection. If you don’t offer yourself sufficient empathy, you won’t be able to offer it to others. Self empathy is a process of connecting with what you are feeling and needing in any given moment. Connect with the beauty of your longings and needs (what makes you come alive). Remember a time when those needs were met or imagine how wonderful it would be if those needs were met in the moment.
5. Transform judging and labeling into empathic understanding.
If I label someone as “bad,” “stupid,” “mean,” or “selfish,” I create a world of disconnection as opposed to one of understanding. There is a beautiful and compelling reason for every person’s actions, even if it’s difficult to immediately understand or appreciate those actions. When we label people, we are not connected to the beautiful need that we share in common with them. Instead of labeling someone as “selfish,” recognize that the person’s actions may have simply been an attempt to meet needs of safety, security, and self-care. “Once you label me, you negate me.” – Soren Kierkegaard
6. Differentiate between your “story” of what happened and what really happened.
Think of this situation: you are sharing a situation with a friend that you consider important and the person interrupts to pickup their phone. What “story” do you tell yourself about the situation? Do you tell yourself that this person doesn’t care about you? Do you tell yourself that this person is inconsiderate? Do you tell yourself that what you are saying must not be valuable? Or maybe believe that you are not a valuable person? These are all stories that we have in our head and though we can think of reasons why they may be true, we don’t know that they are in fact true. When you create a story or believe a thought you have about a person or situation, you become disconnected from the needs.
7. Authentically request what you would like from others.
Take the phone example above. Do you want to know that you matter to this person in conversation? Ask. Share with the person that you would really like to know if your presence is important to them. Would you like your conversation to remain uninterrupted by further phone calls? Make a request. It is our responsibility to meet our needs and we cannot expect other people to magically know what we want. In this case the person may not agree to your request, in which case, you have the choice to continue the conversation with the possibility of being interrupted again or to just leave. Give it a try and you will most likely be pleasantly surprised by people’s appreciation of your requests. “If you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and then make the change.” – Michael Jackson
What are you working on changing about your life to better the world?
*Many of these ideas are inspired by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s writings about Nonviolent Communication