For a long time I resisted reading Nonviolent Communication (NVC) because I did not like the title - it seemed to implicitly accused my current communication of being violent, though obviously the author knows nothing about me.
I suppose ultimately under Marshall B. Rosenberg’s (MBR’s) definitions much of the verbal communication in which most of us engage regularly is indeed violent - especially that most “violent” of words, “should”.
Nevertheless, let me unequivocally state that I am glad I got over those reservations and read the book, and that I have since bought several more copies of the book and gifted it to others.
It is an ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking and help others do the same.
Communication That Blocks Compassion
Before we dive into MBR’s Nonviolent Communication process, let’s look at what the opposite of that looks like - MBR refers to this as “communication that blocks compassion”. Labels and judgements are on great example, even implicit ones. When we use them, we become trapped in a world of who is what that is hard to escape. These are a matter of perspective. For example,
If my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is “picky and compulsive.” On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is “sloppy and disorganized.”
MBR believes that
all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.
I think that is spot on.
Perhaps my favorite observation from the book is about communication that denies responsibility:
Communication is life-alienating when it clouds our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. The use of the common expression have to, as in “There are some things you have to do, whether you like it or not,” illustrates how personal responsibility for our actions can be obscured in speech. The phrase makes one feel, as in “You make me feel guilty,” is another example of how language facilitates denial of personal responsibility for our own feelings and thoughts.
We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to factors outside ourselves:
- Vague, impersonal forces — “I cleaned my room because I had to.”
- Our condition, diagnosis, or personal or psychological history — “I drink because I am an alcoholic.”
- The actions of others — “I hit my child because he ran into the street.”
- The dictates of authority — “I lied to the client because the boss told me to.”
- Group pressure — “I started smoking because all my friends did.”
- Institutional policies, rules, and regulations — “I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s the school policy.”
- Gender roles, social roles, or age roles — “I hate going to work, but I do it because I am a husband and a father.”
- Uncontrollable impulses — “I was overcome by my urge to eat the candy bar.”
The cure here is to replace this language with language that explicitly embraces our agency and control, as in “I chose to clean my room because I value order.” This is not easy to do, because, especially for those of us raised in a highly authoritarian environment, where the word of parents, teachers, and other authorities is a dictate that must be obeyed, no questions asked.
I think it is no coincidence that some of the most creative and influential entrepreneurs and artists were troublemakers as kids. MBR writes
[T]he more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves— to outside authorities— for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.
The Nonviolent Communication Process
Nonviolent Communication has four steps:
- Observe what is actually happening in a situation
- State how we feel when we observe this action
- Say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified
- Make requests.
Good communication consists of expressing these four pieces of information very clearly, and receiving those same four pieces of information very clearly from others. This latter part is nontrivial; many of us struggle to communicate clearly, and so in my mind the process of being a great active listener and helping others express themselves clearly may just be the single most useful skill one can learn from NVC.
Let’s dive into the process.
Observing Without Evaluating
NVC stresses separating observation from evaluation. This is important because when we mix in evaluation, others are likely to hear criticism and instinctively resist what we are saying. If things get bad, it may become impossible to even agree on facts (writing this made me instantly think of US politics and cable news).
I like to think of it like so: if you were to show three people a video and audio recording of the event, would all be able to describe what happened in the same way? For example, “being insensitive”, isn’t something that can be captured like this - it involves a moralistic judgement. A simpler observation might just repeat exactly the words spoken and perhaps capture body language or tone of voice. Finally, observations should be tied to a specific time and context: rather than “you interrupt others”, it might be “you started speaking before Jenny finished her sentence regarding the pumpkin pie”.
How does the thing we observed make you feel? Describing feelings clearly, and identify our emotions, can help us connect with one another. It often feels strange to do, because describing our feelings makes us vulnerable… and yet that vulnerability can help resolve conflicts. Note that the word “feel” in the English language doesn’t always express feelings. For example:
- I feel I didn’t get a good deal (that’s something you think)
- I feel that you should know better (again - thinking, not feeling)
- I feel like a failure (“like” something isn’t a feeling)
- I feel she didn’t do the right thing (thinking)
- I feel unimportant to others (what I think of how others are evaluating me)
Some actual feelings are happy, sad, encouraged, disheartened, touched, grateful, puzzled, shocked, sleepy…
The third component of NVC entails the acknowledgment of the root of our feelings. NVC heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings. We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment. With this third component, we are led to accept responsibility for what we do to generate our own feelings.
MBR identifies four ways of dealing with receiving a negative message. Let’s take a look at them in the context of receiving this message: “You’re the most self-centered person I’ve ever met!”
- Take it personally by hearing blame and criticism. We might react: “Oh, I should’ve been more sensitive!” We accept the other person’s judgment and blame ourselves. We choose this option at great cost to our self-esteem.
- Blame the speaker. We might protest: “You have no right to say that! I am always considering your needs. You’re the one who is really self-centered.” When we receive messages this way, and blame the speaker, we are likely to feel anger.
- Focus on our own feelings and needs. Thus, we might reply, “When I hear you say that I am the most self-centered person you’ve ever met, I feel hurt, because I need some recognition of my efforts to be considerate of your preferences.” By focusing attention on our own feelings and needs, we become conscious that our current feeling of hurt derives from a need for our efforts to be recognized.
- Focus on the other person’s feelings and needs as they are currently expressed. We might for example ask, “Are you feeling hurt because you need more consideration for your preferences?”
Go ahead and run through each of those scenarios. Certainly the fourth option is most constructive; it will allow the other person to elaborate, and ultimately lead the conversation to a place where the person feels heard and understood, at which point we can start making requests and finding solutions.
I should note that this is not always easy to do; it can demand great patience, selflessness, focus, and energy. Sometimes the best thing to do can be to take a break, walk around until both sides have cooled off, and come back to restart the conversation when both participants have the energy and patience to listen to each other.
To connect feelings to needs, try this sentence structure: “I feel… because I need…”
If we don’t value our needs, others may not either.
Making requests seems simple and obvious, and yet daily experience suggests that it is anything but.
The clearer we are about what we want, the more likely it is that we’ll get it.
The use of vague or abstract language can mask oppressive interpersonal games. I like to come back again to the video feed analogy: if someone were watching a video feed, it should be unambiguously clear to them if and when the request has been met.
My theory is that we get depressed because we’re not getting what we want, and we’re not getting what we want because we have never been taught to get what we want. Instead, we’ve been taught to be good little boys and girls and good mothers and fathers. If we’re going to be one of those good things, better get used to being depressed. Depression is the reward we get for being “good.” But, if you want to feel better, I’d like you to clarify what you would like people to do to make life more wonderful for you.
Needs are often not explicit in conversation. In fact, speakers often believe they are not requesting anything. MBR would disagree - he believes that any time we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return. It may be as simple as empathic connection, or their honest opinion, or a more specific action - and the clearer we can be on what it is, the more likely we are to get it.
Remember: the objective of nonviolent communication, even when making requests, is not convincing someone to do what we want, but rather a relationship based on honesty and empathy.
Being a great listener is not easy either; it can take a lot of focus and concentration to do really well.
Instead of offering empathy, we tend instead to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message. We give to others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood.
These are some of the ways in which we often prevent ourselves from connecting empathically with others:
- Advising: “I think you should… ” “How come you didn’t… ?”
- One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait’ll you hear what happened to me.”
- Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just… ”
- Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
- Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time… ”
- Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
- Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing… ”
Trying to “fix” situations or make others feel better can actually prevent us from being present and building a stronger connection.
One good way to create this connection is to reflect back what the speaker told us. If we get it right, they can confirm this, elaborate, and go deeper and further at whatever pace is comfortable for them. If we get it wrong, this creates an opportunity for them to correct us. NVC suggests reflecting back in the form of questions about what others are observing, feeling, needing, or requesting. NVC suggest staying with listening empathically all the way until the other person has fully expressed themselves, and only then potentially offering solutions or suggestions.
MBR stresses, however, that this should only be used when it contributes to a better connection. Indeed, sometimes people can react angrily if they believe we are reflecting their words back out of ill-will.
This technique can be applied with great effect to oneself. Playing both sides of the conversation is straightforward and can yield surprisingly powerful insights and breakthroughs.
MBR believes that what bores the listener bores the speaker, too, and so invites you to interrupt a dead conversation as soon as it’s gone to a boring place. You can do this
We do this by tuning in to possible feelings and needs. Thus, if an aunt is repeating the story about how twenty years ago her husband deserted her and her two small children, we might interrupt by saying, “So, Auntie, it sounds like you are still feeling hurt, wishing you’d been treated more fairly.” People are not aware that empathy is often what they are needing.
Once, at a cocktail party, I was in the midst of an abundant flow of words that to me seemed lifeless. “Excuse me,” I broke in, addressing the group of nine other people I’d found myself with, “I’m feeling impatient because I’d like to be more connected with you, but our conversation isn’t creating the kind of connection I’m wanting. I’d like to know if the conversation we’ve been having is meeting your needs, and if so, what needs of yours are being met through it.” All nine people stared at me as if I had thrown a rat in the punch bowl. Fortunately, I remembered to tune in to the feelings and needs being expressed through their silence. “Are you annoyed with my interrupting because you would have liked to continue the conversation?” I asked. After another silence, one of the men replied, “No, I’m not annoyed. I was thinking about what you were asking. And no, I wasn’t enjoying the conversation; in fact, I was totally bored with it.”
Connecting Compassionately with Ourselves
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most useful applications of NVC is in connecting compassionately with ourselves.
In our language there is a word with enormous power to create shame and guilt. This violent word, which we commonly use to evaluate ourselves, is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that many of us would have trouble imagining how to live without it. It is the word should, as in “I should have known better” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” Most of the time when we use this word with ourselves, we resist learning, because should implies that there is no choice. Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy— our strong need for choice. We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a should.
Think for a moment of all the people you’ve heard say, “I really should give up smoking,” or, “I really have to do something about exercising more.” They keep saying what they “must” do and they keep resisting doing it, because human beings were not meant to be slaves. We were not meant to succumb to the dictates of should and have to, whether they come from outside or inside of ourselves. And if we do yield and submit to these demands, our actions arise from an energy that is devoid of life-giving joy.
When reflecting on a way we acted that we now regret, the key question to ask is “What need of mine was I trying to meet when I acted that way?” This will unlock the path deeper.
MBR presents the following exercise to underscore our agency and control, which I find powerful:
- Step 1: What do you do in your life that you don’t experience as playful? List on a piece of paper all those things that you tell yourself you have to do. List any activity you dread but do anyway because you perceive yourself to have no choice.
- Step 2: After completing your list, clearly acknowledge to yourself that you are doing these things because you choose to do them, not because you have to. Insert the words “I choose to… “ in front of each item you listed.
- Step 3: After having acknowledged that you choose to do a particular activity, get in touch with the intention behind your choice by completing the statement, I choose to… because I want….
In step 3, it is at first often tricky to identify why we still do the dreaded activity. Often, clarifying the need behind some dreaded activity can significantly alter our perspective on it and thereby even the whole experience from one of drudgery to one of enjoyment. MBR, for example, talks about how reflecting on his desire to get the best education for his children changed his perspective on the long drive to their school.
There are, however, other reasons that typically do not lead to a sense of joy and fulfillment: for money, for approval, to escape punishment, to avoid shame, to avoid guilt, or to satisfy a sense of duty. MBR cautions you here. On approval, in particular, he has this to say:
Our culture has educated us to hunger for reward. We attended schools that used extrinsic means to motivate us to study; we grew up in homes where we were rewarded for being good little boys and girls, and were punished when our caretakers judged us to be otherwise. Thus, as adults, we easily trick ourselves into believing that life consists of doing things for reward; we are addicted to getting a smile, a pat on the back, and people’s verbal judgments that we are a “good person,” “good parent,” “good citizen,” “good worker,” “good friend,” and so forth. We do things to get people to like us and avoid things that may lead people to dislike or punish us. I find it tragic that we work so hard to buy love and assume that we must deny ourselves and do for others in order to be liked. In fact, when we do things solely in the spirit of enhancing life, we will find others appreciating us. Their appreciation, however, is only a feedback mechanism confirming that our efforts had the intended effect. The recognition that we have chosen to use our power to serve life and have done so successfully brings us the genuine joy of celebrating ourselves in a way that approval from others can never offer.
So here is the final step of the exercise: change. Is there something on your list that really don’t enjoy doing? Maybe even your reason for doing it isn’t clear to you? Or maybe it’s a reason that ultimately doesn’t align with your values?
If so, stop doing it!
That’s all it takes. MBR recalls with great joy a breakthrough that came to him during this process:
At first I fumbled to identify what I wanted from writing clinical reports. I had already determined, several months earlier, that the reports did not serve my clients enough to justify the time they were taking, so why was I continuing to invest so much energy in their preparation? Finally I realized that I was choosing to write the reports solely because I wanted the income they provided. As soon as I recognized this, I never wrote another clinical report. I can’t tell you how joyful I feel just thinking of how many clinical reports I haven’t written since that moment thirty-five years ago! When I realized that money was my primary motivation, I immediately saw that I could find other ways to take care of myself financially, and that in fact, I’d rather scavenge in garbage cans for food than write another clinical report.
We all experience anger. Glossing over it here would be to pretend that this book is for goody two-shoes who never feel anger, and thus sell the book short. On the contrary, NVC has a lot to say about anger. First, it’s important to always remember that what other people do is not the cause of how we feel. That, instead, is rooted (once again) in our needs.
For example, if someone arrives late for an appointment and we need reassurance that she cares about us, we may feel hurt. If, instead, our need is to spend time purposefully and constructively, we may feel frustrated. But if our need is for thirty minutes of quiet solitude, we may be grateful for her tardiness and feel pleased. Thus, it is not the behavior of the other person but our own need that causes our feeling.
MBR believes that at the core of all anger are unmet needs. Anger coopts the energy that is needed to meet those needs and instead channels it toward punishing people, which is a direction unlikely to lead to our needs being met. As before, reframing our feelings is very helpful: go from “I am angry because they…” to “I am angry because I am needing…”.
Here’s how NVC suggests we deal with anger:
- Breathe. Do not cast blame, do not punish. Identify the thoughts making you angry.
- All judgments like these are tragic expressions of unmet needs. With that in mind, connect to the needs behind those thoughts.
- This step is difficult but important. It will often be difficult for others to receive our feelings and needs in such situations, and if you want them to hear you, you need first to empathize with them. The more you empathize with what leads them to behave in the ways that are not meeting your needs, the more likely it is that they will be able to reciprocate afterwards.
- Finally, express your feelings and unmet needs. The goal here is for the other person to truly hear your pain. Focus on your feelings and needs, and not blame - to whatever degree people hear blame, they will resist everything you are saying.
This involves vulnerability, and communicating it in this way requires strength and confidence. But it is precisely this vulnerability which is needed to create empathy and understanding, and hopefully start creating breakthroughs towards a positive resolution.
Speaking of which, I think (this is Krystof rather than MBR now) ultimately there are three broad courses of action that can lead to a positive development here:
- change it
- quit it
- accept it
Ideally, expressing anger through the NVC process described above has led to a stronger connection which will ultimately allow the situation to be changed such that everyone’s needs are met. But of course this isn’t always trivial; one may take years working on changing a situation, only ultimately to not succeed and decide to either accept or leave it. The key here is the focus on one of these positive courses of action, rather than on complaining or staying with anger.
5/5 - Nonviolent Communication is one of my favorite books. I have bought and gifted multiple copies, and will continue coming back to it. The book presents an empowering philosophy and way of connecting with others and oneself that can powerfully transform your relationships for the better; it’s human connection turned up to 11.