An Introduction to Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

Beth Banning
12 May 2018

Nonviolent Communication or NVC is a vast and nuanced area of study but the basic concepts can be grasped and applied almost immediately. This is my own take of the core concepts and how to get started. Let me know what you think!

What is Nonviolent Communication?

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, didn’t like the name “Nonviolent Communication” for the same reason Gandhi didn’t like the term “nonviolent”: it describes what something isn’t instead of what it is. Nevertheless, the name has stuck. NVC has one very simple purpose:

Nonviolent Communication connects us to the feelings and needs within ourselves and others.

Why is it great?

NVC provides several benefits, letting us:

  • Resolve conflict in many forms and in various areas of our lives
  • Enjoy deeper, more productive relationships
  • Take ownership our feelings and actions
  • Stay conscious of choice in every moment

Professionally, Nonviolent Communication has the added benefit of making teams much more effective and more pleasant to work in. 😄

How does it work?

Nonviolent Communication helps us to be explicit and transparent about our observations, feelings, needs, and strategies (for meeting those needs). We all share the same basic needs (which are never in conflict) but we use different strategies for meeting those needs which are sometimes in conflict. 

When someone does something we don’t like, a typical NVC approach to resolving this situation could look like this:

  1. Make a clear observation of what happened, carefully avoiding any judgement, criticism, or blame
  2. State how you feel in this moment
  3. Articulate what need of yours is not being met
  4. Make a clear request to help meet that need

Let’s look a little deeper at each of these…

Observing without judging

It’s extremely difficult to observe without immediately judging or evaluating. Making judgements is something we’re biologically hard-wired to do for our own survival and advancement.

Practice identifying when you’re making a judgement and instead try to make a clear observation. Even a statement like “You’re yelling” can be interpreted as having an element of judgement or blame in it. Watch out for statements like “You always” or “you never”.

For example, instead of saying “you’re always late” you might say “The past 3 times we’ve met, you’ve arrived more than 15 minutes after the agreed meeting time.” This takes a lot of practice.

Expressing feelings

Many cultures discourage openly expressing emotions as part of regular communication between people. We are often taught that being “emotional” is a sign of weakness or that it makes communication more difficult. In truth, honestly expressing emotion (without judgement) is a gateway to rich and nuanced conversations that improve understanding.

As a result of our typical cultural training, most of us have a very limited vocabulary with which to express our feelings. It may be limited to “good”, “bad”, “happy”, “angry”, etc.

When we clearly articulate and label our emotions (and don’t mix them with observations, evaluations, or strategies), they become an extremely powerful (even vital) tool for understanding how well our needs are being met and how to move forward. It can be enormously liberating to know that we’ve found a word to express our true feeling and that another has understood us.

It’s a useful exercise to write down some more nuanced words for expressing your emotions and practice using them on a regular basis. This way, they’ll be available when you need them instead of making you feel like you can’t express yourself (or be understood).

Check out this list of feelings from the Centre for Nonviolent Communication.

Judgements disguised as feelings

When expressing our emotions, it’s essential that we express actual feelings and not judgements or evaluations. This can be very tricky. Statements beginning with “I feel” and an object, such as “I feel that…” or “I feel they…”, are often evaluations disguised as feelings (e.g. “I feel that you’re being unfair”) rather than a true feeling: “I feel angry because this situation isn’t meeting my need for equality”.

Expressing needs

As with feelings, we are often culturally conditioned to ignore or downplay our needs, leaving us without the critical vocabulary needed to describe them. Marshall Rosenberg believes that all human needs derive from a few basic needs:

  • Autonomy
  • Celebration
  • Play
  • Integrity
  • Interdependence
  • Physical nurturance
  • Spiritual communion

Here’s a more comprehensive list.

Strategies disguised as needs

Sometimes we use the word “need” without actually expressing a need. Often this is because we want to jump immediately into a strategy for meeting the need. For example, saying “I need you to be quiet” is a request or strategy but not a need. The underlying need might be expressed as “I need to be heard and understood.” If we jump straight to a solution, we miss out on expressing the need and may not see the most effective or achievable strategy for meeting that need. Watch out for these.

Making a clear request

Often (but not always) the final step after observing, feeling, and needing is to make a clear request that would help get our needs met. Sometimes, it is enough to simply express our observations and feelings, or our observations, feelings, and needs. But when we’re ready to move into strategies it’s important to clearly articulate them in a request.

If we don’t make our requests clear and achievable, people won’t be able to do what we ask. Practice articulating requests using positive language to express what you do want and not what you don’t want. For example, rather than saying “Will you please listen to me.” it’s far more effective to ask “Would you be willing to wait to respond until I’ve finished speaking?”.

Furthermore, it’s essential that our requests are never heard as demands. You might ask an angry child the following: “Would you be willing to speak with an adult when you’re feeling angry?” rather than saying “Don’t hit me.” or worse, “If you keep hitting me, I won’t spend time with you.” Notice, this last example included a threat. I’ll talk more about the tragic futility of threats and punishment in a future post.

Ways of speaking and listening

Different ways of speaking and listening can either degrade or enhance communication between people. It’s critical that we remain conscious and choose a way that enhances communication, especially when emotions run high. A fun and useful “tool” for exploring this is the concept of Jackal and Giraffe Language which Marshall Rosenberg to help us identify patterns in our speech.

Jackal Language

Characterised as being harsh and aggressive “Jackal Language” makes communication more difficult by assuming and judging without looking at root feelings and needs.

👂Jackal Language

  • Implies wrongness, blame, or criticism
  • Avoids making an empathic connection
  • Seeks to be “right” about the situation
  • Prompts attack or defensiveness
  • Denies choice & responsibility

Giraffe Language

By contrast, “Giraffe Language” (Giraffes having the biggest hearts of any land animal) enhances connectedness and empathic communication by looking at the feelings and needs in both the speaker and the listener.

👂Giraffe Language

  • Remains objective and non-judgemental
  • Seeks to create an empathic connection based on feelings and needs
  • Seeks understanding and clarity about the situation
  • Empowers us through choice & responsibility

By using our different “ears” we can either hear blame, criticism, and attack or feelings, needs, and requests.

According to Marshall Rosenberg, “with this technology it will be impossible for you to hear criticism, harsh remarks, [or] criticism. All you can hear is the only thing human beings are ever saying: ‘please’ and ’thank you’…what used to sound like criticism, judgements, and blame, are simply tragic, suicidal expressions of ‘please’.” 1

Everyone is only ever saying “Please” or “Thank you”. We just need to be able to hear them. 👂😉

Going deeper

This is a tiny taste of what NVC has to offer but should provide you with some background and a few tools to try out. If you’d like to go deeper, I recommend reading the book 📚 “Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg.

Thankfully, there are also a great deal of videos online featuring Marshall teaching including this short introductory video.

There are also hundreds of local NVC practice groups and training courses available around the world.

If you’d like to learn more or practice with me, please get in touch. Do you have experience with NVC? I’d love to hear your own observations about what you’ve found useful and how it’s impacted your life. Contact me.

Tags:  NVC   Teams   Communication