How to fight well
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How to fight well

ANA soldier firing a rocket launcher designed to dismember and kill humans beings - only possible if we reduce others to a story © US Marine Corps

Why We Fight – Part One: Judgement, blame and endless cycles of conflict.

We blame other people for our frustrations and fears. The stories we tell about them leave us locked in a powerless and unfulfilling conflict. Knowing why this happens and what’s really going on gives us a path to freedom and responsibility.

Once upon a time us humans led a fragile and precarious existence — our lives were literally on the line at all times.

We were at threat of being maimed and eaten by wild animals, attacked and enslaved by other groups or robbed of the sparse supplies that would keep us alive through droughts or Winter.

Life was fairly shit.

In order to survive we needed to develop a lightening fast ability to judge threat. Our brains and bodies reacting in moments to identify potential harm, pinpoint the source and react accordingly.

We had to be able to simply look at another person and know what to do, using our gut instinct and the power of the resulting feelings like fear or anger.

When you consider that our earliest ancestors began walking on two legs around 4 million years ago, and the first evidence of our more complex brain development 100,000 appears years ago, the relative safety of our past few hundred years feels like a fraction of our existence.

This means that for millions of years this process of instant judgement and reaction has been running on a repeating loop.

Primal responses to civilised society

These days, immediate threats to my existence are few and far between.

As an adult male living in the UK, I’m far more likely to die of a self-inflicted and delayed death (heart disease, dementia, stroke) than I am to come to a sticky end at the hands of another human being.

In fact murder rates and the number of deaths in traffic accidents are at some of the lowest ever recorded.

But our judging process doesn’t take this into consideration.

As our society has evolved at a rate that far outstrips that of our core functions, this instant reflex has learned to replace mortal danger with threats that actually pose little or no risk to us.

Instead, as more and more of our basic needs are taken care of, these corporal threats have been replaced with threats to our sense of acceptance, the security of our worldview or opportunities to acquire more material possessions (or more specifically, what this represents to us).

So this once invaluable threat-assessment-and-response function is now primed to spot, judge and react to our colleagues, neighbours and strangers on Facebook with similar levels of fear, anger, blame and retribution as we did marauding tribes and ravenous bears.

Sound familiar — the way you were triggered by that post about women’s rights? The snide comment from a team member that left your blood boiling? The time someone jumped in front of you in a supermarket queue and you wanted to rip their head off? Or is that just me…

How we judge and get judged

While every single human being is a unique construct, shaped by its unique history, we all share this simple survival process.

Let’s look at how it happens:

  1. I experience an event — something happens outside of me (a door slams, a cup is left out, someone shouts).

2. I notice a feeling — my body and brain seem to respond to the event (I feel anger, fear, frustration).

Somewhere between 1 and 2 we instantly locate who or what is responsible for the event and the feeling we attach to it. This is the process of making it personal and locating blame.

3. I judge someone or something — I label the person at fault (they are selfish, rude, inconsiderate, aggressive)

4. I punish (or reward) the source — I respond with an ‘appropriate’ action (I shout at them, I withdraw, I threaten to take something away).

For example: Crossing the road I see a car come speeding towards me. I feel afraid and angry, immediately judging the driver to be irresponsible for driving so fast. I shout after them as they drive away.

The Judgement Cycle — creation of Thaya Thayaparan, Peace and Community Action in Sri Lanka.

And because we all have it running in the background it’s ready to go off — anywhere and everywhere — at all times. So when one person has pinpointed another as a source of blame and meted out their punishment, it triggers that person’s judging process resulting in a punishment resulting in... And so on.

So while we’re all externalising our difficult feelings and pinning them on each other, we’re perpetuating an endless cycle of blame and judgement.

The creation of Thaya Thayaparan (who runs Peace and Community Action in Sri Lanka) it explains the link between our habitual conditioning and the resulting feedback loop.

We can see this in:

In our internal dialogue — I think I’m depressed, I feel sad and low, I must be weak, I don’t deserve to be with my friends.

In our close family units —Parent: you’ve not cleared away your toys, I feel frustrated, you’re inconsiderate, I’ll take away your pocket money. Child: you’re taking away my pocket money, I feel sad, you’re mean, I’ll sulk.

In global conflict —Country One: you’ve taken our land, we feel angry, you are terrorist aggressors, we’ll fire rockets at you. Country Two: you’ve blown up our city, you are the terrorist aggressors, we’ll bomb you.

From the conversations we have with ourselves to global negotiations, the internal process of judging and blaming guides us towards actions that perpetuate a cycle of violence.

Until someone decides to do something different.

The truth of our unmet needs

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

As the quote (misattributed to Ghandi) says, there’s only one destination for our exchange of judgement and blame.

Of course it can be argued that there is a moral imperative here — that we should be striving for a society free from all forms of violence.

However, I find it far more practical and objective to recognise that when we buy into this externalising of our feelings and jump to blaming, we give away our power and responsibility.

Test this for yourself. Last time someone really pissed you off and you acted out of the urge to punish them for it — did you get what you really wanted? Did it give you any lasting, deep satisfaction?

For most of us that aren’t psychopaths, it’s a rhetorical question. The self-righteous feeling you get from sticking it to someone who ‘deserves it’ is usually replaced by one of unease.

Even when it comes to slagging off political figures on Facebook — you can post abusive messages about Donald Trump all you want, but it just doesn’t make the fear or anger you feel go away.

But if our most deep rooted conditioning is built on this principle and desire to judge and blame, what is the alternative?

Or the question I’m more interested in is: how do we reclaim our power and take responsibility for shaping our own experience of the world?

The work of Marshall Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication provides a very clear answer — that beneath the judgement and blame is an unmet need.

Every thought, feeling and action is driven by a desire to give oneself something we (largely) perceive ourselves not to have currently.

These are different to the strategies we employ to meet the need.

For example — I’m in a cold house and have a physical need for warmth. The strategies available to me include:

  • turning the heating up
  • putting on a jumper
  • jogging on the spot
  • hugging my partner

And probably a few more I haven’t thought of.

Or I’m experiencing a difficult time in my life and have a need for support. I could call up a friend, email an old colleague, go and stay with my parents for a few days… the list goes on.

These needs can be basic and physical (such as warmth, sustenance, shelter), basic human emotional needs (love, security, belonging) or related to self-realisation (learning and growth, agency and autonomy).

You can find a full list of needs here.

I refer to these needs as ‘the universal building blocks of human wellbeing’ because at one point or another we will all experience all of them, and when our needs are met, we experience ‘good’ or comfortable feelings like joy, amazement, relief.

Conversely, when our needs are not met, we experience more uncomfortable feelings like anger, frustration, sadness.

Our needs are never in competition

So as human beings we are both needs-meeting and judgement-making machines.

Directed by our needs, we think, feel and act our way through life towards getting them met.

In any given moment we pick a strategy that we believe will help us meet those needs and seek it out.

When our strategy is frustrated and we perceive our needs are not being met, our judging process switches on, allowing us to identify who’s at fault and dish out punishment.

The irony is that beneath the strategies our needs are unique to us and us alone. There are no ‘shared needs’ or ‘competing needs.’

We both might have a need for warmth but I only need to warm myself. And only I know when I’m warm enough and my need is met. We might be able to give our need the same name, but they are distinct.

And although I might want to turn up the heating while you don’t, it’s only our strategies that are in conflict. There are always enough strategies to go around.

It’s only if I can’t let go of that strategy (and go get a jumper) that we fall into conflict and the potential cycle of judgement.

Confusingly, needs are also dynamic and contextual — they can change moment to moment, depending on what’s happening.

So in the example above, my need for warmth might quickly change to a need for autonomy if the other party tries to stop me turning up the heating.

The way out of this loop of judgement and perpetual violence is very simple.

In any given moment, when I find myself triggered, blaming and urged to punish I can pause, notice, accept the judging and relocate my focus from out there to in here — asking: what is it that I really need?

And importantly — the fictional scenario above is fairly rare because although our conflicts are usually because we’re competing over a strategy, our needs are usually very different.

If we take the time to dig below the surface we can usually identify our needs, clarify them and find opportunities to help ourselves — or each other — get them met.

The root of our needs

The question all of this begs is: beyond our basic physical needs (for warmth, sustenance, shelter) and some of the primal social needs (love, belonging) that are strongly linked to procreation and survival, why do our other needs exist? Where do they come from?

It turns out they’re all fictional.

But that’s for the next part of the story.

I’m shortly launching an online, six-week course on exploring healthy conflict. If you’d like to hear about how to enrol, email me at

Or if you’d like to start using the practice of working with needs in your work or life, you can buy a set of Needs Cards or my e-book Working with Needs.




Getting comfortable with conflict to have the conversations that matter.

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Max St John

Max St John

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally.

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