During my first year-long training course in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), all participants went through a social experiment. During one of our lunches, we were divided into three groups. The biggest group received a simple meal consisting of rice and beans. I was part of a small group that was given slightly better food and a couple of the participants got an abundance of delicious dishes.

Even though it was an exercise and even though the participants could eat the usual lunch afterwards, the reactions were strong. When we later evaluated the exercise, many people were still annoyed. Depending on the group we belonged to, different participants experienced mixed feelings of frustration, anger and shame. What we experienced during an hour on a training course we ourselves chose to participate in, many people around the world experience all the time in their everyday life.

The strong need for fairness

The need for justice lives strong within us. It is enough to study how siblings act when it comes to sharing desserts or candies. Often it is millimetre justice that applies. Also among friends we quickly learn (after we have left the egocentric stage) to share equally. If we continue to take advantage of others, we will soon have no friends left.

It’s not just humans who react strongly to unfairness. In experiments with capuchin monkeys, it has been seen that they react to injustice. In an experiment where the monkeys were given rewards for performing a certain task, one monkey was given cucumbers and the other grapes. When the monkey that got pieces of cucumber saw that the other one got the grapes, it threw the cucumber away and refused to do the task.

Different strategies

Something I find interesting is how the need for fairness is expressed in different strategies depending on which political values ​​we have. According to Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist, liberals and conservatives view fairness from different angles. Liberals tend to see justice as equality and conservatives as proportionality. In other words, for liberals the equality strategy involves similar living circumstances and for conservatives the strategy is based on how much each individual contributes.

According to Haidt, the evolutionary basis of fairness is the ability to cooperate without risking being exploited. In many different social experiments, the most successful strategy for individuals has been to play tit for tat. That means to be nice to people when we meet them for the first time. If they in turn are nice to us, we continue a mutual exchange. However, if they respond in a way that we do not perceive as nice, the most successful strategy is to stop being nice ourselves. That strategy means we are not taken advantage of.

A foundation for contact

One of the foundations of NVC is contact. When we experience injustice, strong emotions often arise within us. If we haven’t learned to take responsibility for our feelings by connecting them to our needs, we easily make judgments about others (or ourselves). We get thoughts that others – whether they are other individuals or other groups – are selfish, evil or maybe naive. When we believe in these judgments, we tend to distance ourselves from them.

We all have the need for fairness and it expresses itself in different ways. Regardless of whether people have a needs’ awareness or not, it seems beneficial for a group of people or a society to build cooperation and sustainable relationships on fairness. A practice we can cultivate is to identify the need for fairness behind strategies we ourselves do not use. And instead of believing in our judgments, we can connect with the beauty of the need behind other peoples strategies. When we are able to relate to others, to both our and their need for fairness, then it will be easier to connect.

What does fairness mean to you?

Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/the-needs-year/modules/week-36/ 


Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)

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On 8 September at 18:00-18:45 CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Angela Walkley. We will talk about the need for fairness.

Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.

If you read this afterwards, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.

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