"Never put your 'but' in the face of an angry person", is a joke Marshall Rosenberg used to tell in his NVC trainings when he was trying to illustrate the point that before we object to the words of someone who is experiencing anger we would be better off first trying to empathically connect to the painful feelings (such as hurt, sadness, fear, anxiety, despair) and needs below their anger.
As a matter of fact in his book "Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life" Marshall recalls how this joke saved a life of one women. A week after attending Marshall's workshop this young women was on a night shift at the drug detox centre in Toronto, when close to midnight a young man who was showing signs of being under the influence of drugs entered the center and demanded to be given a room for a night. The woman had no more available rooms left so she told him so. He then demanded a room even more fiercely and she, again, repeated that they had no more free rooms left. She was just about to give the young man an address of another detox centre, when she found herself on the floor with the young man sitting across her chest holding a knife under her throat shouting at her not to lie to him because she had rooms.
The women was about to object to the young man by saying "BUT, I don't have a room!" when she recalled Marshall's joke "Never put your 'but' in the face of an angry person." With him still sitting across her chests she decided to empathise with the young man, reflecting back to him his feelings of anger and frustration and his need for respect. Once she started empathically connecting with the young man, the woman said, she was able to see his humaness and after about 35 minutes of empathising with him, he felt heard, he calmed down, he removed the knife from under her throat and was ready to let her get up. She was able then to help him find a room in another centre.
When asked by Marshall what she was doing in the second training given that she was able to apply NVC so skilfully in such a dire situation, the women replied that she now needed to learn to do the same in a much more difficult situation. You might wonder what was more difficult then empathising while literally having a knife under your throat. The more difficult thing for her was not to put her 'but' in the face of her upset mother. For many of us it is easier to empathise with a stranger than it is to do so with a loved one with whom we have a long standing history.
I hope that the next time you are about to enter into an argument with an angry person the above story, this Soulful Giraffe drawing and Marshall Rosenberg's words would remind you not to put your 'but' in their face. I hope that you will be able to stop for long enough to be able to choose to hear their feelings and needs, and empathically connect with them.