When people speak of responsibility within a domination system they often use the term to mean blameworthy or praiseworthy, deserving to be punished or rewarded for what they have done. Although NVC acknowledges a place for the protective use of force, it is incompatible with the ideas of blameworthiness, deserve, and punishment, and seeks to replace a system of retributive justice with one of restorative justice that can better meet the needs of all concerned, those who have injured others as well as those who have been injured.
This requires looking at responsibility in a way that differs from the one many of us were taught.
At its simplest, to say that someone is responsible for having committed some act is simply to say that they did it or caused it to be done. One part of “accepting responsibility” is acknowledging that we did what we did. In many cases, of course, what I did was only part of the causal conditions for what happened; but I want to “own” my share of that.
During the 1960’s and 1970s, the Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls popularized the notion of responsibility as response-ability, which I think can help us have a better understanding of what it means to be responsible for what we do, as well as for what we have done. Response-ability suggests that we have a choice as to how we act, that we have the ability to choose how we respond to circumstances—both what’s happening “out there” and also how we feel and what we think. Just because someone says something insulting to me, or because I feel angry, doesn’t mean I have to act in any particular way. I always have a choice about what I do. On many occasions, people may act as though they “have to” do something or “can’t” do something, in an apparent attempt to deny their responsibility. But this attempt is always a failure. (Marshall Rosenberg emphasized that point when he spoke about Amtssprache and when the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about our being “condemned to be free.”)
In NVC we suggest that people have always done what they have done to meet their own needs and have done so as best they knew how at the time. Looking back, and with the additional knowledge we’ve gained since then, we can almost always see a better way we could have met those needs than the strategy we adopted. Part of accepting responsibility is acknowledging that and mourning the role our own ignorance (or limited view) played in our past choices.
Although we cannot change the past we can learn from it and we can choose now to respond to the situation we face in a way that more reliably meets the needs of all the relevant parties; that includes those who have been injured by our actions, as well as ourselves. We all need healing. Part of what will enable me to heal is to make amends for the harm I have caused, to the extent that is possible. Making amends might include offering empathy to those I have harmed and/or making restitution in one form or another. Although mourning my previous poor choices is helpful (because it contributes to my healing), beating myself up (perpetuating guilt and shame and the suffering associated with those jackal based emotions) does not meet anyone’s needs for healing.
We also have a need for self understanding, so part of taking responsibility for what I did is to do what I can to understand why I acted as I did—and to learn from my mistakes without losing self respect. NVC provides a powerful set of tools for gaining that self understanding by enabling me to connect with the needs I was trying to meet by doing what I did (that I now regret), as well as opening the possibility of finding better (less costly) ways of meeting those needs in the present and future.
In the process of gaining such self understanding one will likely become aware of some of the antecedents to one’s own poor choices—to see that before we engaged in hurtful activity toward others we were ourselves hurt, and to appreciate the role that our own unhealed hurt played in the choices we made subsequently. Although this does not excuse what we have done it can help us to leave behind any notion we may have acquired that we are somehow inherently evil and to replace that with a compassionate understanding that we carry unhealed wounds. And as we gain this kind of understanding of ourselves, we are going to be in a better and better position to extend that kind of compassionate understanding to others.