We Need to Talk (about Nonviolent Communication)

I‘ve traditionally been a bit of cack-handed communicator.

In everyday communication and when nobody’s got any beef, I’m totally fine. The challenges come during high stake moments, and specifically in knowing how to express my needs in a way that isn’t either too weak or overly forceful. I didn’t even think in such terms until quite recently.

And so I was very happy to discover Marshall Rosenberg’s compassionate communication process, nonviolent communication. And if you have yet to discover it, I think you’ll be too. Because it isn’t just me – everyone has challenges in communicating.

According to researchers, being a compelling communicator boils down to projecting two qualities: warmth and strength. Being compelling is important, but it doesn’t help you to navigate potential conflict.

Nonviolent communication does. In fact, practicing NVC can lead you to completely rethink your values, but more on that later. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the nonviolent communication model is that it gets you to focus your attention in more productive ways during potentially heated exchanges.

This post is intended to be a starting place for how to practice nonviolent communication, and discusses some other ways to become a more effective communicator.

What exactly is nonviolent communication, and what problem does it solve?

Nonviolent communication is the most widely used self-help process for communication. Psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg developed the process in the 1960s. So what problem was Marshall looking to solve?

Rosenberg found that most of us have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand and diagnose, and to think and communicate in terms of what is right and wrong. We tend to express our feelings in terms of what another person has ‘done to us’, therefore absolving ourselves of responsibility (and by extension, making solutions harder to come by).

We've been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand and diagnose. Click To Tweet

Also, we struggle to understand what we want or need in the moment, and how to effectively ask for what we want without using unhealthy demands, threats or coercion. Needless to say, communicating this way can create misunderstanding and frustration, or simply keep us from getting what we want.

The nonviolent communication principles help to overcome this by having us focus on hearing the true needs of others with less effort, and asking for what we need without being douchebags. Rosenberg says “we perceive relationships in a new light when we use NVC to hear our own deeper needs and those of others.”

Marshall makes the interesting point in the book that nonviolent communication is especially important for lawyers, engineers and corporate managers, because such professions particularly discourage demonstrating emotion and feeling. 

Specific problems with the way we communicate

In the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (which is a must-read by the way), Rosenberg describes a few common ways of communicating which serve to alienate us from our natural state of compassion. You may recognise some of these.

Language that absolves responsibility

The language we use can obscure our awareness of our responsibility. For example, we begin sentences with ‘I should’ or ‘I have to’ and we also make others responsible for our emotions and feelings.

Using language that absolves responsibility is harmful as your language defines your self-concept, attitudes and behaviour. Nonviolent communication helps you to use language that acknowledges choice, rather than a lack of choice.

Failing to separate observations from evaluations

When we share our observations with others and combine them with some sort of an evaluation, they are going to hear that as criticism. Nonviolent communication helps you to become more aware of when you are communicating in an evaluative way.

Failing to distinguish feelings from thoughts

We tend to start a sentence with ‘I feel’, but actually end it with a thought. For example, we might say ‘I feel like you aren’t taking me seriously.’ That’s a judgment and it isn’t telling the person how their behaviour is making you really feel, i.e. sad.

I found this section of the book really enlightening, and I realise I often try to make my feelings known through the language of thoughts.

The problem with expressing your problem with thoughts rather than feelings is that other people don’t connect with thoughts. You are much more likely to make yourself understood if you talk about how you feel.

Nonviolent communication helps you to distinguish your feelings from your thoughts. Therefore it improves the prospects that others empathizing with you.

We aren’t clear in making our requests

If you haven’t identified the clear action that a person can make to meet your needs, your needs are unlikely to be met. Nonviolent communication helps you to get clarity over that.

We make demands, not requests

Nonviolent communication brings your awareness to how often your requests are actually veiled demands. You know you have made a demand when you take it badly that someone refuses what you are asking.

We fail to listen with empathy

In seeking to empathize with others, we tend to fudge it by offering sympathy or consolation without asking whether advice or reassurance was wanted. NVC says that empathy is emptying our minds and listening with our whole being. And that intellectual understanding blocks empathy.

The process says ‘don’t just do something – stand there’.

Being indirect, i.e. being passive aggressive

Being passive aggressive, which is one of the confrontation styles, is a common but alienating way of communicating needs. Nonviolent communication involves a commitment to handling things directly.

Nonviolent communication – how to do it

There are four components to nonviolent communication:

  1. Observations: The concrete actions we observe that affect our wellbeing.
  2. Feelings: How we feel in relation to what we observe.
  3. Needs: What we need in relation to how we feel.
  4. Requests: The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives.

Note that NVC is about speaking and listening. You apply these principles to what you are hearing so that no matter what people say, you only hear what they are (1) observing, (2) feeling, (3) needing, and (4) requesting.

Although it seems pretty rigid and unnatural, you can just use the components as guiding posts as you talk and listen.

The four NVC elements are observation, feeling, need and request Click To Tweet

If you had to name the value underlying the NVC process, you would call it compassion. But there are also the values of clarity and truth. As I often repeat on this blog, so much of how we listen is influenced by our unique filters on the world, determined by our egos. As the expression goes, we tend to see things not as they are, but how we are. So it is good to know that by using NVC, you help to avoid the negative effects of your ego in your listening and speaking.

Let’s look at each element in more depth.

Making observations

Firstly, you identify what it is that you observe that does not contribute to your wellbeing. For example, it may be something that someone has said or done.

The trick when communicating what you have noticed is to do so without evaluating. This is quite hard to do for us. Perhaps that’s why observing without evaluating has been described by Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti as the highest form of human intelligence.

Your observations should be purely factual observations, with no component of judgment or evaluation. Directly observable facts provide a common ground for communication.

Neutral observations versus judgments:

‘When I see you give away your lunch money, I think you are being too generous’  (observation) versus ‘you are too generous’ (judgment).

‘It was 3am and I could hear your music playing‘ (O) versus ‘It’s too late to play your music’ (J).

‘Nem only studies for exams the night before‘ (O) versus ‘Nem procrastinates’ (J).


Expressing feelings

Next, you identify how you really feel in relation to what you observed that caught your attention. In NVC, you distinguish between words that express actual feelings and words that describe what we think we are. A few examples might help.

Expressing what we think, versus our feelings:

‘I feel inadequate as a piano player ‘ versus ‘I feel disappointed in myself as a piano player’.

‘I feel unimportant and under-appreciated at work’ versus ‘I feel sad/misunderstood/discouraged’. 

‘I feel like you don’t miss me when you’re not here’ versus ‘I feel sad you’re leaving.’

Notice that expressing our feelings is a lot more vulnerable. Also note that to do this, you may need to develop your feelings vocabulary.


Identifying needs

Next, you identify what it is that you need, that caused the feeling. The more that we are able to connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately. By tuning into the feeling, you can often find the underlying need.

Examples of acknowledging needs:

‘I’m feeling uncomfortable because I’m needing connection right now. Is now a good time to hang out?’

‘I’m feeling angry you said that, because I am wanting respect and I hear your words as an insult.’

‘I’m sad that you won’t be coming home for dinner as I was looking forward to spending time with you.’

Note that the statements all show the speaker taking responsibility for their feelings.


Making requests

The final part is to make a concrete request, framed in positive terms, for action to meet the need just identified. Ask clearly and specifically for what you want right now, rather than hinting or stating only what you don’t want.

For the request to really be a request, and not a demand, allow the other person to say no or propose an alternative. It’s a request if the speaker then shows empathy towards the other person’s needs. You take responsibility for getting your own needs met, and you let them take responsibility for theirs.

Examples of concrete requests:

‘I’d like you to tell me one thing that I did that you appreciate’.

‘I would like you to drive at or below the speed limit.’

Examples of vague requests:

‘I’d like to get to know you better’.

‘I’d like you to prepare dinner more often’.

‘I’d like you to show respect for my privacy’

Other habits of effective communicators

Nonviolent communication is the closest thing I have found to a complete toolkit on communication, and it is especially essential for conflict resolution. This next section is about how to be a more effective communicator generally.

Expressing a clear growth mindset, entrepreneur Brian Tracy said “communication, like riding a bicycle or typing, is a skill that you can learn. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”

Here are some things you may want to think about:

Develop simplicity

Simple messages and communications convey sincerity, integrity, confidence and truth. Make an effort to streamline your communications. This is particularly important when saying no. Do not feel a need to provide excuses and explanations. You don’t want people to think that your no is up for argument.

Speak with purpose

Get to the point. If you tend to babble, reflect on what it is you want from conversations in advance. It should help you to be more intentional in your speech.

Cut the negative crap

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people” Become a great mind. If you want to demonstrate trust and openness, and create a safe space for people to be frank with you, then avoid sharing your endless opinions. They often don’t add anything. And definitely avoid gossip.

Say what you mean, mean what you say

One of the famous four agreements is being impeccable with your word. Our language is where we show our integrity, and integrity matters. It is how others learn to trust in us.

Be natural

Own your unique self expression, as it is a major way you can cultivate self-love. Don’t over fixate on eloquence; concentrate on being distinct and real.

Be really present

Get really mindful of knowing when your mind is drifting in conversation.

Check your non-verbal communication isn’t giving off wrong signals

Keep an eye on yours and other people’s body language (watch those closed arms.)

Know your audience

Meet people where they are instead of where you are.

Don’t always rush to fill silences

It takes confidence initially, but allowing for pause in conversation gives everyone the permission to think a bit more about their responses. Plus, this allows for conversation to become more creative.

Eliminate distractions

Do not use your smartphone (or keep it in eye-shot) when you are speaking with people unless you have to for some reason. Remember how it feels when other people do that to you, and that the biggest gift you can give anyone is your attention.

Final thoughts

I think that the nonviolent communication process offers the potential to be truly life-changing for most of us. Not only does it improve how we speak but it changes how we listen, which in my view is equally if not more important.

My experience is that NVC is incredibly simple to learn, but putting it into practice consistently is testing. However it is something that I believe is truly worth the effort.

It isn't just about communication. Nonviolent communication is a values system Click To Tweet

Using this model helps to remind you to keep your attention focused on a place where you are more likely to get what you are seeking.

If you want to explore NVC principles in greater depth, I really recommend that you read Marshall’s book.

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