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Nonviolent Communication

Updated: Jan 7, 2022



Nonviolent communication (NVC) was founded and taught by American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. He described NVC as “a way of communicating that leads us to give from the heart” ... “a language of compassion”. We can use NVC to improve the quality of our relationships, via clear communication, whether that be at home, at work, in education or any other relations. It is used within clinical psychology and by the layperson as part of our daily interactions, helping us to become better listeners and engender a positive opinion of others and ourselves.


Nonviolent communication encourages one to engage their consciousness towards compassionate intentions, collaborating with others and expressing oneself authentically. Whilst doing so, we must become acutely aware of how our use of language affects our interactions and can draw us closer or push us away from others. Regardless of our means of influence, we should seek to share power and responsibility with others rather than seek to control or dominate.


NVC also helps to convey our feelings and needs to another person so they are better able to understand and empathise with us. There is a firm distinction made between observations and judgments, requests and demands and requirements and games that allows one to be heard whilst neither accusing or controlling the other person.


Before we look at how to use NVC, we should look at the underlying principles on which this approach is built:


1. All human beings share the same needs and the needs are sources of life, vitality and humanity.


2. We try to meet our needs as we can, in our best possible way, in every moment, through every action we do or we do not do.


3. All kinds of violence are the tragic expression of unmet needs.


4. All our needs can be met in peaceful ways for which there are many strategies.


5. Some ways of thinking and speaking create blockages in communication and prevent our access to very important needs and hence to the sources of inner vitality and power.


6. Our feelings result from our needs, whether they are met or unmet.


7. Every person has rich inner resources and receiving empathy from others can help to access these internal resources.


8. The natural tendencies of human beings are to give and to receive empathically, to serve life, to contribute to the well-being of self and to the well-being of others.


9. Human beings have the free will; we are not responsible for all that happens to us, but we can choose how we respond to what happens.

(epale.ec.europa.eu)


There are four steps to using NVC; observe, express feelings, express your needs and make specific requests.


1) Observe; this is the ability to perceive without judging. One should learn to present the facts minus personal judgements or opinions. For instance, instead of claiming “you always interrupt me!”, one could simply state “you have interrupted me three times during this conversation”. This crucial separation alleviates triggering defensiveness and creates an avenue to explore understanding and solutions together, instead of butting heads.



2) Express Feelings; these are always a result of a personal need that is or is not being met. Be careful not to confuse feelings with judgmental evaluations or personal interpretation. It is usually feelings that we surpress or don’t think we can express that lead to poor communication. However, if we keep our feelings to ourselves than the root cause of our disturbances cannot be solved, simply because the other person (and perhaps ourselves) are not even aware they exist! Using the example above, one might say “I am feeling frustrated because I can’t finish” or “I feel sad”.


There’s a saying in AA: “No one else can make you feel”. This reminds us that our feelings are our own responsibility. Sure, someone else may be a stimulus for feeling, but how we respond and the feeling that arises in us is really of our own making. For instance, when someone criticizes us, there are approximately four responses we could have. We may take this personally like a mortal wound or retaliate with an equal or more grievous criticism – these are automatic reactions. Alternatively, we could choose to step back and consider what our own feelings are and what needs are being neglected. We can even go so far as to consider the other person’s feelings and needs. The key here is recognizing that we have a choice.



3) Express your needs; our outer expression of feelings indicates the inner existence of needs that are either being or not being met. For instance, the person in the example who is being interrupted may feel frustrated because they have a need to be respected. Needs are fundamental to humans yet we are not often taught how to identify and express them, therefore is may take some time to develop a sufficient vocabulary to describe the nuances of our individual needs.



4) Make specific requests; once you have clearly expressed how you feel and what needs this is affecting for you, you can finish your communication by making a concise, reasonable request to meet this unmet need. Returning to our example, one may ask “please could you let me finish my points before asking questions?”. This is probably a good point to add that the tone of your voice is extremely important; try to avoid any mocking or aggressive intonations and aim for a soft, neutral, open and honest tone.


Since NVC is positive focused, try to frame your request in a way that states what you do want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen. This will come across more permissive and appealing to the other person. Of course, one has to be prepared that the other person may refuse but the more clear, concise and reasonable you are, the greater the chances of your request being granted.


Don’t forget that nonviolent communication is a reciprocal exchange. You should encourage the person you are communicating to express their own feelings and needs too! Listening is possibly even more important than the necessity to be heard yourself. This whole process is far more about developing empathy skills than learning a set formula.

At first, using these four stages can seem impractical and clunky; I wish to assure you that with practice you will be able to phrase each in a more natural way and adapt the formula to whatever interaction comes up.



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