“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”
Ok first let’s all have a laugh at the title of this article. This is not the most nonviolent phrase, but I found it fun nonetheless. You see, it is important not to take life too seriously. With that said, let’s jump in! Nonviolent communication (NVC) isn’t about formulas, sentence structure, or saying the perfect thing. It’s about being loving.
Nonviolent communication uses neurolinguistics hacks to calm the speaker down and disentangle their experience to connect with the other person in clear and actionable way. To state another way, NVC re-centers our heart to avoid common communication problems. To do this one learns a series of communication tools. Many people have learned these tools, which is great, but far too often miss the point.
Sadly, there are a bunch of people who now have hammers and have no idea what a nail looks like.
The four stages of NVC
For some history, Marshall B. Rosenberg was a very insightful psychotherapist who took lots of research and condensed it into a simple way to have productive communication. Communication that opened people up to be curious about another’s needs, and to more powerfully advocate their own needs. He offered a four-step process of addressing observations, feelings, needs, and requests as a way of not only providing a complete experience, but also disentangling each experience from the other. This became the foundation for NVC. By letting observations, feelings, needs, and requests each stand on their own he found that communication went much smoother. People were less triggered – less likely to stop listening – and more meaningful conversations could arise.
Rosenberg put a high value on taking ownership of our own experience and speaking from the center of that experience as a way of avoiding attacking the other. Sure, it can feel great to just say “fuck you, you are so lazy,” but as time would tell this accomplishes very little. Real changes in relationships come from a deeper understanding.
Where we are at today.
Luckily many people have been trained in the basic exercises of nonviolent communication whether they know it or not. Experts around the world have done some extensive study into these communication tools. There are four main issues though.
1: I see far too often the tools are not being used correctly. Well trained or not.
2: If you use these tools exactly as prescribed, they don’t work in many circumstances. They can even work against you.
3: The tools themselves are the second step to nonviolent communication not the first.
4: For some reason NVC is often only used in half the equation.
5: The assumption you just made ruined everything.
1: How it should work
Nonviolent communication works better when directed towards the self than the other person. What do I mean by that? We use these tools to shift our consciousness not to get someone else to agree with us or listen to us.
Let’s take the 4-step process one step and a time and see what I mean here.
Make an observation: “You were supposed to come home for dinner early but didn’t. This was the third time this week you didn’t come home when you said you would.”
State your feelings: “This made me feel unimportant.”
What are your needs? “I need to have time with you when we can be romantic.”
Make a clear request: “Can you set aside time this weekend for us to have a moment together?”
Fairly simple right? Who could argue with that! Now imagine your partner furious, staring you down, a cold meal on the table untouched, and in the most tempered voice they can muster:
State your needs. “I need to have time with you when we can be romantic.” This is a big missed opportunity. Humans are pretty good at relating to core needs. Sometimes hearing them can even bring us closer. It can also push people away. Your needs need to be about you. Very often I’ll hear things like “I need you to put energy into this relationship.” That sounds like a core need, but it’s really a demand. The need is “I just need to know the energy I put out into the world is being met.” The difference is that the other person may already feel they are putting energy into the relationship. Stating a need clearly on its own allows for the conversation to go both ways without contradiction. That is maybe the partner really hasn’t been showing up and they apologize. Or maybe they feel they have been putting in a lot of energy but are not being recognized for the work they do.
You then let them know one way, one suggestion, as to how to how they can meet those needs. “Can you set aside time this weekend for us to have a moment together?” This often fails here because people don’t actually make a request they make a demand. “What? First you come home late and now you won’t even set aside some time with friends for me this weekend!” This request is not supposed to be the end all be all. It is one suggestion that shows an example of meeting your needs. This is supposed to be the first step in the direction of a solution, not necessarily the solution itself.
2 The Steps Don’t Always Work
Ok so my partner didn’t come home when they said they would. This wasn’t an isolated incident and I want to talk about it with them. Deep breath. “You were supposed to come home for dinner early, but didn’t. This was the third time this week you didn’t come home when you said you would. This make me feel unimportant”
See the point? I’ll explain. If you are using NVC then the situation is probably more complicated than just that. Let’s take Joe and Sally.
Sally has been working extra hours to support Joe in his new career. Joe is used to her working more than him, but she never would just come home late without calling him first before. Sally feels like working late is a gift, but Joe sees the relationship starting to dissolve. In this case let’s read the very first line again:
Joe: “You were supposed to come home for dinner early, but didn’t. This was the third time this week you didn’t come home when you said you would.”
Sally: “I can’t do anything right. I’m working my ass off to keep this family together and all you care about is that I’m home late.”
Now we are really getting closer to reality. We haven’t even gotten to how Joe feels yet. I could only imagine the chaos about to erupt when the next statement is “This made me feel unimportant.” To which we may expect an exasperated “I’m doing this for you!” from Sally followed by an “I’m too tired for this. You don’t even care about what I do for you.”
See how far we got from Joe’s attempt to rekindle the relationship?
Has nonviolent communication failed us here? Well, not really. It just wasn’t used right. Sticking to a formula has some serious problems. It’s not always appropriate to just state the objective facts if those facts are contested, hold multiple meanings, or are it in it if itself a whole other argument you are not necessarily trying to invite in. It is important to use context and take a moment to see things from the others perspective. We shouldn’t assume we know what they think, but there is nothing wrong with being well aware of what subjects might be sensitive and why.
Let’s take an example with work. “The presentation you made was rushed and not polished the like the other presenters. I feel you just don’t have your heart in it.”
Now in many contexts this just means “Come on, you can do better.” What if you know they put weeks of effort to prepare? It becomes a whole other statement. Here it may be better to start with an observation like “I noticed that you put a lot of work into this last project, but it didn’t feel thought out. Can we talk about what you were trying to accomplish and how we can make future presentations better?”
Sometimes it can also be much more helpful to lead with how we are feeling. “I’m feeling really soft right now and unimportant in your life. I don’t think that is your intention so I wanted to talk about some of the things that have been happening so we can get on the same page?”
I did two things here. First, I started with feelings. Second, I let them know I wasn’t attacking them. I could have done one better by asking for a good time for them to talk.
Beyond order, there is the formula itself.
Formulas often works well with children, but in many relationships formulas make us appear apathetic. It comes from a detached space, and if the problem is that the person isn’t feeling connected to you then using some formula to show you are there for them may just reinforce the point that you are not. People don’t want a formula they want a soul!
If every time you get upset you default to the same linguistic patterns this will triggers the inauthenticity button for people. They won’t feel that you are really there for them, they’ll just know you are using some tool with your own desired outcome. That may not be their desired outcome. Asking them to use the same tool as you can lead to a full-blown fight on your hands, or, perhaps worse, silence.
The steps can be useful when practicing. This is great to get the idea of NVC. As you can see, it doesn’t really work like that though, so let’s step back and ask what all these formulas are really doing. They are about getting YOU to come from a loving space without using language that attacks the other person. Guess what? All forms of language including body language, intonation, and context count as well!
The trick is that when we separate the objective from our feelings, when we focus on our needs, and when we search for solutions with childlike curiosity it is easier to come from a loving place. It is from that loving place that the other person feels and responds to us. All the steps are really for us to get there. If you are coming from full, pure love it’s honestly hard to say something wrong as it will feel at odds with the rest of your communication. Even mean things will trigger confusion and curiosity more than defensiveness.
Imagine laying your head in your partners lap as they comb through your hair and say in soft affectionate voice with heartfelt unconditional love “You were supposed to come home for dinner early but didn’t. This was the third time this week you didn’t come home when you said you would. You are a terrible person.” All while smiling down on you like the sun with a warm smile that never left and not a hint of sarcasm. Just pure love.
I know I’d probably laugh a little thinking it was a joke. Maybe recognize there was some truth to it and then reassure them that I didn’t mean anything by being late. Why? Because all of their other forms of communication mean more to than word choice. In fact, body language, tone, and context tell us what the words really mean.
NVC should be used internally then expressed in an infinite number of ways thereafter. It gives us basic tools to refocus our energy towards the conversation and try to avoid cornering the other person. Once in this space where we are connected to our feelings, focused on our needs, curious, and taking with someone as empowered as us, we can pick and choose what is best to move the conversation along. Then we come back to another linguist tool if necessary to readjust or retune the conversation.
3 What’s the first step?
One of the most difficult things about learning NVC is that there is this unstated assumption that in the moment of heat, anger, pain, and sadness you’ll naturally just take a step back and create some well formulated responses. This is why NVC is the second step. Or maybe the third. Before NVC you need to learn to be present with and have a mature relationship with your emotions. How do you do this? Lots of practice. You need to retrain your brain.
When I was in high school I made a New Years resolution to not get mad for a year. Whenever I got mad at someone I instantly tried to imagine things from their perspective. Did they have a bad day? Did they know that would hurt me? Maybe they are feeling disempowered and are using this situation to compensate…
I discovered that when you replace frustration with compassion anger quickly melts into love. In many situations I discovered anger wasn’t even what I was feeling, it was just hiding sadness. But we have strong heuristics. That is if when upset we do X, we tend to just keep doing X. But our brains are lazy so if every time we get upset we try to catch ourselves doing X and quickly switch to Y instead, eventually we start going straight to Y. This isn’t to say anger doesn’t have its place, just that it is often not as appropriate as we might first expect in many common situations. Remember it is actually important for others to witness how their actions made us feel, NVC is just about simmering down to the point where we are still coming from a place of love for them and ourselves. Even if that love means a very strong boundary between the two of us.
Good First Steps
Finding calm: Take long deep breaths and calm down your nervous system. Practice meditation (Meditation works by allowing us to become familiar with a calm space inside us, so it is easier to calm down in moments like these).
Invoking compassion: The Buddhist perspective is that we have all been born and reborn so many times that everyone has been your mother and everyone your child. So, treat the soul in front of you as the divine mother would embrace her child. Offer loving compassion.
Revisit: If you can’t have a good conversation because of how worked up you are don’t. Take some time away and plan to meet up with them again. Or maybe you can but they can’t. Ask if it’s ok to talk now. If not, when? Sometimes by the time both sides have expressed how they feel and come to terms on what has happened one or both people may not be in the space to explore solutions. Its ok to take time and come back.
4 THE OTHER HALF OF NVC
To this point we have mainly focused on the speakers speaking capabilities. It is just as important to listen non-violently. Arguably more important. Rosenburg talks about this, but by the time people get used to what to say they forget to do the listening part, or they want desperately for the other person to make it easy on them and speak with NVC too. That is nice, but actually unnecessary. In fact when you really nail NVC it won’t make much of a difference if the other has practiced or not.
When listening with NVC we are actively engaging someone with great curiosity to develop an understanding for their objective reality, feelings, needs, and work to co-create requests. It is ok if we have to dig a little here. In fact, it feels great when someone is intently focused on understanding us and in it of itself can shift the energy of a conversation. Once you feel you have a good grasp of their feelings and needs, you can suggest or invite requests on their behalf. It’s not just about listening for your benefit, its listening for theirs too. This requires the maturity to own up to mistakes, honestly want the best for the person who you are talking to, and quell the need to firmly establish just how right you are.
If we don’t engage this half of the equation, then we’ll fall flat on out face. Why? Let’s take another example:
Joe: “Hey, you were late again tonight. This made me feel unimportant. I need to have time with you when we can be romantic. I think its important for our relationship. Can we do that this weekend?”
Sally: “I know. I was late today and have been late a lot recently. Not only is it helping the family, but my career is important to me. I feel unsupported when coming home a little late is such a big deal for you. I want you to trust that I am doing my best.”
See my point? Yes, my exaugurated point! In fact, Joe and Sally are doing pretty well here! By all means NVC is working, but there is still a very large missing component. By only focusing only on their own needs they still create tension in the conversation; a small battle. You can walk away from the battle field entirely by letting someone know that they don’t need to defend, assert, or fight for their point of view. Let’s look at this reworking to illustrate the point:
Joe: “Hi Sally, do you have a moment to check in? I know that you have been working so hard recently as I find a new career. I understand that you’ll need me to cut you some slack. Still, with us being so busy, and the amount of late nights you are having to work, I can’t help but feel like our relationship is being pushed aside. That connection means a lot to me. Everything. I want to see if we can find some ways for us to have more time to connect. I also feel like it has been a while since we really checked in and am curious about how you are doing. If with some of the changes there are new ways I can support you.”
Sally: “Yes, I know I was home late again. I am sorry and will try to do better next time. Let’s just have dinner.”
Joe: “I appreciate that you hear me, but don’t really feel like I got any insight into your experience or had a chance to express mine. I also hear that you are hungry. Do you think you can find some time later this week to have this conversation and let me know so I can schedule it in? Tonight we can just have dinner and relax.”
Here Joe weaves in NVC on Sally’s behalf while expressing his needs and feeling as well. He expresses a healthy curiosity, and a healthy sense of unknowing. All while staying firm in his need. Now with someone working actively to meet her needs Sally doesn’t have to fight for her position. She is free to respond with her perspectives, needs, etc at ease. In this case she chose the “lets not talk about it right now” option that Joe provided. See how Joe picked up on that? He stayed firm to his needs for a deeper conversation while acknowledging that “let’s just have dinner” was Sally’s way of saying “now isn’t a good time for me.”
This is an NVC win! In truth, the win doesn’t come from the words that Joe used. It comes from the place within himself where he could speak with such love. What Sally responds to will be the love coming from Joe, not the articulation itself. If he was obviously only angry when saying this Sally probably wouldn’t hear a word. If he was only speaking to his needs, only to his vantage point, and forcing a conversation when Sally was too tired, then she would have been on the defense the entire time. Perhaps even taking some offensive swings to gain ground. Real NVC comes when someone doesn’t have to stand up for themselves, because they can feel you standing up for them. That is the common missing half of NVC.
One of the most interesting phenomenon that happen in communication, especially when we are angry, is that two people can talk for hours with a perfect dynamic of back and forth and walk away having two completely different conversations. Many many times NVC fails because of this. It’s not that it wasn’t done right, you just had a different conversation than the person you were talking to. Their conversation could have been better, worse, or just… different. What do I mean by this?
Words, phrases, examples, body language… all can have multiple meanings. Often when someone makes a statement we will apply a meaning that supports that statement in the context by which it was spoken, it all seems logical, but the meaning can still be wrong. In most of life we catch the error sometime down the line and adjust our understanding with the new information. No problem. In an argument this gets more tricky. Lets jump in:
Sally: Joe I was wondering if you could clean up the house before our guests come over for dinner.
Joe: I’d rather not. I have had a long day and feel the stress of several projects looming that I want to finish.
Sally: I hear your need to get this work done, but we both committed to having them over and I don’t want to feel like I have to make all the sacrifices here. That and what I need to do has to be done before they get here.
Joe: Ok sally I’ll clean up.
Ooops… Now allow me to nit-pick here a bit. This is just an example after all. Joe and Sally’s definition of “clean up,” may be very different. Especially when one is stressed and doing something, they don’t have their heart in it is easy to cut corners. Furthermore, there may be reasons why Sally is especially concerned for the state of the house when these friends come over. The assumption that Joe and Sally are now on the same page will very often fail at this stage.
As the argument gets more nuanced, emotional, and complex issues sneak in even easier and hours of doing and saying the right thing can come crumbling down into despare and anger in seconds when two people realize that they weren’t on the same page the entire time.
It is important to use tools of making sure that you understand what the other is saying along the way to avoided this. A few go-to’s are:
Just to make sure I understand you let me repeat what I heard.
Can I say what I think I heard from you to make sure we are on the same page?
When you say “…” you also mean “…” right? Or did I miss something?
Can you please elaborate on that. I know its simple, but I want to make sure I didn’t miss some important nuance.
The key here is to take ownership and responsibility. No one likes to hear that the other person didn’t understand what they just “clearly stated” because for some reason something is somehow wrong with them. That is an easy way to invite a second argument to join the first one. Rather, we all need to realize that as a function of communication is misinterpretation. We do it all the time, its ok, its human, and we have a lot of empathy for others when they express a curiosity to correct their own misinterpretations. Use that empathy to your advantage. Use it to find clarity.
Make sure you are having the same conversaion.
Real Nonviolent Communication
Ok Ok! We covered a lot there. So what should you do? Practice. Make mistakes. Laugh. Cry. Practice again.
WARNING: The thing about NVC is that it can be pretty easy to use it as a way to take the high road, then use that against the other person. “I’m listening and caring, and you’re just being a d*#!” Just because you use NVC doesn’t mean that you don’t make mistakes, and miss key insights. NVC doesn’t make you an angel. Immediately going into attack mode doesn’t necessarily make them bad either. This doesn’t mean that you need to accept someone’s toxic and abusive behavior. Of course not. At the same time, just because you have some useful tools doesn’t mean that your opinions, feelings, or solutions are any better than the other person. NVC is just a tool to create an effective container for a conversation. Once that container is created you are on even ground.
Likewise, NVC is a trust builder so watch out. If you betray it, trust can be hard to rebuild. If you find yourself using NVC-like language to place value of your experience over theirs, or just in the moment to smooth out the conversation but not following through, then it is not actually NVC and can work against you.
Here are a few great complementary steps to NVC. Real NVC!
Empower the person: It’s not NVC if you have power over them. It’s not NVC if they are cornered. NVC demands two or more people on the same level. You use your curiosity and compassion to invite them to explore/solve the issue with you.
Invite the conversation: If it needs to happen now recognize that it may be difficult for them and be companionate to that. It’s always best to ask when a good time is.
Lead from your heart: Speak to your feelings and core needs. Don’t make them responsible for your feelings or needs, but aware of them. Stay connected to and responsible for your own decisions. Be careful here too. Often we subconsciously come to the conclusion that awareness will fix everything. When they know their impact then they will do exactly what I want. Don’t fall into this trap. You still need to communicate your needs. This is just about not overcomplicating the conversation, or speaking to something you think will bring a better response instead of your full and true experience.
Stay curious: Don’t assume you already know the best way forward, or their side. Take extra steps to avoids making assumptions wherever you can. Clarify what you think you hear from them.
Focus on win-win solutions: Take care of them. Look for routs forward that create the most harmony for both of you not just anything thing that works.
Self-Care: Proper NVC can take a lot of energy. It takes a lot of focus in very stressful situations, a little creativity, and a lot of holding space. If you are feeling overwhelmed with your stress a healthy dose of self-love – a few self-care rituals that work for you before and after a tough conversation – can work wonders.
Embrace the positive: Don’t always make change about what needs to stop happening. Focus on what is good and you want more of as well. Yep! You can use NVC as a tool to talk about what you like. NVC is actually great for positive conversations. It is very helpful to point out observations of things that you appreciate, break down how it made you feel, and let people know you’d be quite happy if these actions continued. A “thank you” is great but “When you came home early this week and got dinner started for us, I really felt supported in all the extra stress I have been dealing with at work. I know you have been busy too and want to acknowledge that the extra effort reminded me of how much you care about me when I really needed to feel cared for. Thank you.” This helps them learn about you. When you hit problem areas later on these insights will help others find solutions with you.