More Than Our Mistakes

I am in the field of social work. I wear many hats in that field (teaching Nonviolent Communication being one of them), and in all of the work that I do, I am often coming back to the same thought. In fact, it has become one of the main values I have around my work. It is the belief that people are more than their greatest mistakes.

I realize this sounds lovely, but it is not always an easy value to stand by. It requires compassion to believe that, especially when someone’s greatest mistake has devastating or far-reaching consequences. But the thing is, everyone has a need to be seen – seen for who they are and not for the worst things they’ve done. So when one person can muster compassion for another person who has made a truly terrible mistake, that person has an experience of being seen, which really does go a long way in healing the community and ensuring a better likelihood that the mistake is not repeated.

I once had a client who was mourning this need of being seen for their child, who headlined the news after being shot in a drug transaction. This person was very upset that the world now saw his late daughter simply as an addict, or another casualty in drug-related violence. He wanted the world to know all the wonderful things about his daughter beyond her struggle with addiction – her immense generosity, the way she laughed, her love for her family and her community, the services and resources she donated to those in need. He wanted people to see her for who she was, not the worst thing that happened to her, or the mistakes she made. I believe that everyone wants to be seen and known for who they are over the “worst” things about them, or the things they might have regrets around.

I’ve been thinking on this a lot recently, and I’m guessing the NVC community especially might appreciate such musings. When I have an enemy image of someone due to a mistake they made, I try to think about all that they are beyond that mistake – a mother, a friend, a talented artist sharing their gifts with the world, a thoughtful confidant, etc. That doesn’t mean forgiveness or forgetting anything; just having compassion and an understanding that people are people and we all mess up sometimes, but we also are so much more than that. I think NVC has helped me adopt this belief because seeing people through the lens of needs automatically softens the enemy image.

As Marshall Rosenberg would so often and famously say, “all conflict is the tragic expression of an unmet need”. Every single person in this world is functioning in some way with the goal of getting their needs met. Sometimes, in those attempts, we do something that doesn’t meet the needs of someone else. Does that make us terrible human beings? No. It makes us human beings.