Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., published 2003
What is all this hippie nonsense?
A common question, this is the best introduction I’ve found so far, via a lecture given by the author.
The NVC Process
To practice the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process involves four components, which are:
- observations – the concrete actions that affect our well-being
- feelings – the emotions we experience in relation to what we observe
- needs – values, desires, etc., that generate our feelings
- requests – the concrete actions we’d like to see others take in order to enrich our lives
The NVC process is not a new way to manipulate other people; it involves giving and receiving a level of respect and empathy common to ourselves and others which entails:
- expressing honestly through the 4 components
- receiving empathetically through the 4 components
Obstacles to needs-based communication
There are many pitfalls that trap us in our efforts to communicate our unique needs. One common communication style which serves to hinder compassionate communication is moralistic judgment, an impersonal way of communicating the focuses on the “wrongness” of the actions of others rather than on revealing what a person thinks and feels inside of themselves. In truth, analyzing and judging the behavior of others is actually a reflection of our own needs and values. For example, “The rich are so selfish!” might be an attempt to communicate something closer to, “When I witness poverty, I feel sad; I value living in a community where everyone seems to have enough to take care of themselves.” The danger of moralistic judgments is that the act of classifying can promote violence by creating adversarial, us-them attitudes toward others– people become obstacles to satisfying our needs and values rather than potential partners.
Another problematic approach to communication involves making comparisons, which are simply another form of judgment. When we make comparisons, we block compassion– for ourselves and for others. It is another way to build walls and separateness.
Compassion is similarly difficult to achieve when we engage in denial of responsibility by using language which obscures the connection between our own thoughts, feelings and actions. In Nazi Germany, officers responsible for the Holocaust and other atrocities relied on Amtssprache, or “office talk/bureaucratese”, to deny responsibility for their actions because everything they did, they did because of “superiors’ orders” or “company policy” or “just following the law/doing my job.”
There are many ways in which we can deny responsibility for our actions by attributing their cause to factors external to the self:
- vague, impersonal forces; “I did X because I had to”
- condition, diagnosis or personal history; “I do X because I am Y”
- actions of others; “I did X because Y did Z”
- dictates of authority; “I did X because Y told me to” (Amtssprache)
- group pressure; “I did X because everyone in group T does X”
- institutional policies, regulations or rules; “I did X because those are the rules around here when people do Y”
- gender, social or age roles; “I hate X, but I do it because I am a good Y”
- uncontrollable impulses; “I was overcome by my urge to do X”
History is rife with examples,
We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think and feel
Two other ways we create obstacles to life-enriching communication are by stating our desires as demands, and speaking in terms of “who deserves what”.
A demand explicitly or implicitly threatens listeners with blame or punishment if they fail to comply
Similarly, speaking in terms of “deserving” creates the impression of “badness” or “wrongness” and promotes behavior based upon fear and punishment-avoidance (a negative philosophy) rather than goal-seeking and personal benefit (a positive philosophy). In other words,
it’s in everyone’s interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefitting themselves
Implementing NVC: nuances and complexities
At this point you might be thinking, “NVC sounds interesting, but how do I actually use it?” Even the first element, observation, can hang people up.
The reason that the NVC process stresses observing without evaluating is that when people hear evaluation, they are less likely to hear our intended message and instead hear criticism which puts them on the defensive rather than being receptive to what we have to say. However, the NVC process doesn’t require complete objectivity and detachment from emotional realities, only that when evaluations are made they are based on observations specific to time and context. In other words, evaluations must be about specific actions taken within specific time periods. For example, “John is a great guy” is a generalized evaluation whereas, “John helped the little old lady cross the street yesterday afternoon” is an observation without evaluation.
Another element of NVC that new adoptees struggle with is separating feelings from non-feelings (thoughts). It is a common construct of the modern English language (and many others) to use “feel” in place of “think”. Red flags for feel/think confusion are the use of the following after the word “feel” when making a statement:
- words such as “that,” “like,” and “as if”; “I feel like a failure” or “I feel that you shouldn’t do that”
- the pronouns “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” and “it”; “I feel it is useless”, “I feel I am always running around”
- names or nouns referring to people; “I feel my boss doesn’t like me” or “I feel Jeff is doing a great job”
In NVC, there is a difference between expressing how we feel, and expressing what we think we are (self-evaluation):
- feeling; “I feel disappointed/sad/frustrated with myself as an X”
- evaluation; “I feel pathetic as an X”, which is better stated, “I am a pathetic X”
Part of developing our ability to accurately express feelings entails developing our feelings vocabulary, and learning which words connote states of being or evaluations of capability, and which words can authentically convey an emotional response to such values or needs.
The other critical component involved in accurately expressing out feelings is taking responsibility for their cause. The common misconception is that external factors cause internal emotional reactions. The reality that, while external factors may provide a stimulus, the direct cause is our internal values, beliefs, expectations and needs; when they are satisfied, we have one set of feelings (positive) and when they are violated or negated, we experience a different set of feelings (negative).
When we receive a negative message from another person, we have four options for choosing how to react to it:
- blame ourselves
- blame others
- sense our own feelings and needs
- sense others’ feelings and needs
Accepting responsibility for our feelings involves acknowledging our needs, desires, expectations, values or thoughts. We commonly mask these things by using unaccountable language such as:
- use of impersonal pronouns such as “it” or “that”; “It makes me so X when Y” or “That makes me feel Z”
- use of the expression “I feel X because…” followed by a person or personal pronoun other than “I”; “I feel X because you…” or “I feel X when Z…”
- statements which only mention the actions of others; “When Y does X, I feel Z”
The simplest remedy is to adopt use of the phrase “I feel… because I need…” which connects our own feelings to our own needs. This can improve our communication with others, as well, because when people hear things that sound like criticism they invest their energy in self-defense, whereas when we directly connect our feelings to our needs we give people an opportunity to behave compassionately toward us.
If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met
The liberation cometh
Emotional liberation is the state of being achievable through disciplined and consistent practice of the NVC process wherein an individual is able to freely and safely express his authentic feelings and needs to others, and to similarly be free and secure in receiving these authentic feelings and needs from others. The movement from emotional slavery to emotional freedom typically involves three transformational stages:
- emotional slavery; we see ourselves as responsible for others’ feelings
- obnoxious observation; we feel reluctant as we realize we no longer want to be responsible for others’ feelings
- emotional liberation; we take responsibility for our intentions and actions
Implementing NVC: the final step, making requests
The fourth component of NVC, making requests, is in some ways the most challenging of all. To practice effective request-making it is important to be in the habit of utilizing positive language as it is hard to “do a don’t.” Thinking of a way to express your request in the form of “Would you be willing to do X?” instead of “Please stop Y” serves to remove incentives for resistance and fighting and gives the other person an opportunity to make a positive contribution to your well being.
Similarly, the focus should be on making specific, concrete, actionable requests rather than something general, ambiguous, vague or abstract.
We often use vague and abstract language to indicate how we want other people to feel or be without naming a concrete action they could take to reach that state
Being clear about what you’re requesting from another person makes it more likely they’ll be willing and able to comply with your request– how can a person satisfy your needs if they don’t know what they are and don’t know what they could do to help you with them? Don’t make people guess!
Additionally, expressing feelings without providing a request can confuse people and lead them to believe you are trying to pin guilt for your emotions on them, rather than prompting them to take some corrective action. For example, “It bothers me that you forgot to do X” is not a clear request for a person to do X and may be interpreted as “You make me feel bad!” which is antagonistic and inspires self-defensive reactions.
Whenever we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return
Another guideline for making requests is to ask for a reflection– ask the person you just made a request of to reflect the request back to you to confirm you have been understood.
After we’ve communicated a request, we’re often interested in knowing how our the other person has reacted. We can get a better understanding of this by soliciting honest feedback through one of three ways:
- inquiring about what the listener is feeling
- inquiring about what the listener is thinking
- inquiring as to whether the listener is willing to take a particular action
A key here is to specify which thoughts or feelings we’d have to have shared; without specificity, the other person may reply at length with thoughts and feelings that are not the ones we’re seeking. Particularly challenging situations arise when making requests of a group.
When we address a group without being clear what we are wanting back, unproductive discussions will often follow
Keep in mind that there is a difference between making a request and making a demand. The difference is that when a person hears a demand, they believe they will be punished or blamed if they don’t comply. This leaves them with two options:
Notice how “respond with compassion and seek resolution” is not one of the options. If the speaker criticizes or judges the listener’s response, it is a demand, not a request. A request implies that a person is free to disregard it if they don’t want to comply; that’s their right as a free individual with their own needs and wants.
Making a request implies we are prepared to show empathetic understanding of another when they are unwilling to comply with our request. However, if someone doesn’t comply with our request, we don’t have to give up. We do have an obligation, though, to empathize with their reasons for not complying before attempting to persuade.
This is a powerful and transformative framework for not only communicating with others but better understanding one’s self and one’s own needs. The world would be a much different place if it were more widely understood.