To practice NVC, we need to proceed slowly, think carefully before we speak, and often just take a deep breath and not speak at all. – Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
I was so eager to study and learn what Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is. While on it, I got a little bit reluctant to proceed since it was like learning a new language. So I set it aside for some time and moved on to the other project I was undertaking.
Then I saw the movie, Arrival, and realized just how essential the form of communication is to our understanding of each other. Language, indeed, can either be a tool for war and destruction, or peace and unity. NVC was definitely formulated for the latter.
Though Marshall Rosenberg introduces a new structure in the way we construct our message, what’s more important is we learn the essence behind it. To do that, we must develop the awareness to be mindful of how we communicate.
Words can hurt or heal. And we’ve been accustomed to using language that hurts without us knowing its lasting implications.
Here’s where Nonviolent Communication can help utilize the tool for healing. It is healing to the receiver and more so to the giver as it allows for a true expression of oneself.
If we are to foster a deeper connection to healing the illusion of separation, which is the root of human suffering, then it calls for a renewed approach to communicating — that is NVC.
What is NVC?
I have since identified a specific approach to communicating—both speaking and listening—that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.
Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as to others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.
There is no real communication without a true connection. And true connection is possible only through compassion, which is at the heart of Nonviolent Communication.
That’s why NVC is also known as Compassionate Communication.
Marshall says there’s nothing new in NVC. It’s like relearning a skill we have forgotten – a communication skill that we as humans were meant to relate to one another.
Like we pointed earlier, it is from this illusion of separation that we learn alienating ways of communicating with each other. We defend, criticize, and judge.
So rather than these habitual, automatic reactions, we learn to consciously respond based on our awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting.
Through NVC, we’re able to authentically express ourselves and deeply listen to the needs of others as well as our own.
Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully puts it in an interview with Oprah:
The NVC Process
When we use this process, we may begin either by expressing ourselves or by empathically receiving these four pieces of information from others.
While I conveniently refer to NVC as a “process” or “language,” it is possible to experience all four pieces of the process without uttering a single word.
The essence of NVC is in our consciousness of the four components, not in the actual words that are exchanged.
Getting into the process, there are four components of NVC:
First, we observe whether what others are saying or doing is enriching our life or not. Next, we state how we feel with our observations. Then, we express the needs that are connected to those feelings. And lastly, we mention our request from the other person so our needs may be met and thus, enrich us.
All throughout the book, you’ll find several examples of statements that include the four components. There are also exercises to help us identify them in what’s being said or heard.
Note that, as Marshall says, NVC is more about consciously knowing the components involved rather than the mere words that are exchanged.
One form of life-alienating communication is the use of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness or badness on the part of those who don’t act in harmony with our values. Another is the use of comparisons, which can block compassion both for others and for ourselves. Life-alienating communication also obscures our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Communicating our desires in the form of demands is yet another characteristic of language that blocks compassion.
In one of the opening chapters of the book, Marshall talks about the major forms of language that hinder compassion in what he calls “life-alienating communication”
- Moralistic Judgments – implying the wrongness or badness of others when they don’t align with our values. We analyze and criticize others instead of observing the underlying needs of ourselves and others.
- Making Comparisons – comparison is a thief of joy, and compassion, too. It’s a form of judgment in that we classify people and label them.
- Denial of Responsibility – we are each responsible for our own thoughts and behaviors. But we deny that responsibility when we point to external factors such as:
- Impersonal forces: “I did it because I had to.”
- Personal history: “I got drunk because I’m an alcoholic.”
- The actions of others: “I hit my child because he broke the furniture.”
- The dictates of authority: “I did it because my boss told me so.”
- Group pressure: “I smoke because all my other friends do.”
- Gender and social roles: “I hate my job but I have to support my family.”
- Making Demands – explicitly or implicitly, demands evoke blame and guilt if others fail to comply.
Observing Without Evaluating
The first component of NVC entails the separation of observation from evaluation. We need to clearly observe what we are seeing, hearing, or touching that is affecting our sense of well-being, without mixing in any evaluation.
In Remembering the Light Within, Ron Hulnick shares his personal account of how he learned “neutral observation” — observation without evaluation.
He says it’s approaching situations like an experiment. If you see a rat pushing the lever to get the food, you cannot assume that the rat is “hungry” just because he’s pushing the lever. In neutral observation, you simply say that the rat pushed the lever and the food was delivered. End of story, or rather, experiment.
Observing means you stick to the facts and not embellish them with some made-up stories.
Marshall says that if we mix observation with evaluation, we become prone to criticizing others and thus preventing our intended message from getting truly heard and understood.
In the book, Marshall lays out examples that distinguish statements of observation with and without evaluation to help us assess this component of NVC.
Feelings, Not Thoughts
By developing a vocabulary of feelings that allows us to clearly and specifically name or identify our emotions, we can connect more easily with one another. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by expressing our feelings can help resolve conflicts. NVC distinguishes the expression of actual feelings from words and statements that describe thoughts, assessments, and interpretations.
Expressing feelings is already a challenge for many of us. And even when we do, we’re not able to express them as clearly as we want because we ourselves are confused — we mistake thoughts for feelings.
Marshall observed that we use the word feel without actually expressing a feeling.
So NVC teaches us different ways of distinguishing between expressing feelings and non-feelings:
- Distinguishing feelings from thoughts – using the word think rather than feel. Instead of “I feel you’re making a mistake,” we say, “I think you’re mistaken.”
- Distinguishing between what we feel and what we think we are – “I feel like a failure” is not an expression of a feeling. “I feel disappointed because I failed the exam” is a more appropriate way of expressing a feeling.
- Distinguishing our feelings from how we think others react toward us – Rather than “I feel unimportant to people in my work,” saying “I feel discouraged because…” is a better expression of how we feel.
Marshall counsels us to expand our vocabulary of feelings, many of which he lists in the book, and familiarize ourselves with them so we can articulate how we feel appropriately.
The Stimulus and the Cause of 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.
Marshall makes another clear distinction: what others say and do may be the stimulus for how we feel, but they’re not the cause of it — we are.
He says there are four options in how we react or respond to a negative stimulus:
- Blame ourselves – we take things personally and put all the blame and guilt upon ourselves
- Blame others – we deflect the judgment back to the other person and make them the guilty party instead
- Sense our own feelings and needs – becoming aware of how we feel and the needs behind those feelings
- Sense others’ feelings and needs – shining the light of our consciousness on the other person’s feelings and needs as they are being expressed
When we choose the latter two, connecting the feelings to needs, the more likely that we are able to communicate compassionately.
Clear Positive Request
Whenever we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return. It may simply be an empathic connection—a verbal or nonverbal acknowledgment that our words have been understood. Or we may be requesting honesty: we wish to know the listener’s honest reaction to our words. Or we may be requesting an action that we hope would fulfill our needs. The clearer we are on what we want back from the other person, the more likely it is that our needs will be met.
We are living in a “YES” Universe, meaning life doesn’t know the difference between “do’s” and “don’ts”. It responds to both.
So do we as its creatures, as human beings. Isn’t it pretty obvious? Tell someone “don’t” and they still do it. Hah! Human nature, it is.
But instead of resisting our humanness, we harness it in NVC by using positive language. “Positive reinforcement,” so to speak.
When we make a request, rather than saying “Don’t be late for dinner,” we say “I’d really feel glad if you can come home by dinnertime.”
In addition to positive language, we must also be clear with what we want from the other person so our needs may be met.
Avoid vague statements like “I want you to start showing some responsibility.” Instead, we say, “What I want is for you to do the household chores when I’m not around.”
Reframing our requests into positive ones and expressing them consciously leads to a likelihood that they will be granted. And the giver and the receiver will be both delighted as a result.
NVC to Self
NVC’s most important use may be in developing self-compassion.
When we are internally violent toward ourselves, it is difficult to be genuinely compassionate toward others.
An important area where this violence can be replaced with compassion is in our moment-to-moment evaluation of ourselves. Since we want whatever we do to lead to the enrichment of life, it is critical to know how to evaluate events and conditions in ways that help us learn and make ongoing choices that serve us.
Another Universal truth bomb: you cannot give what you don’t have.
And another one: we treat others as we treat ourselves.
We can’t expect to have Nonviolent Communication with others if our self-talk is one of hatred. We can’t offer compassion to others if we don’t have it for ourselves.
Marshall emphasizes that it is the most important use of NVC — developing self-compassion.
We develop it by evaluating ourselves in situations we are going through and have been through in such a way that enriches us. Our self-evaluation must be inclined toward self-compassion, not self-hatred.
At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Thus anger can be valuable if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up—to realize we have a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met. To fully express anger requires full consciousness of our need.
This is a tough one, at least for me, as anger has been a life lesson I’m still learning. And NVC has offered a helpful process in dealing with it.
It correlates with how we respond to the negative stimulus we have discussed earlier. Here are the steps to expressing anger via NVC:
- Identify our judgmental thoughts.
- Connect with our needs.
- Express our feelings and unmet needs.
As you can see, Marshall tells us that we are never angry because of what others say or do.
We are angry because we are in pain.
But Marshall also admonishes not to project this pain unto others as they won’t hear our pain if they believe they are at fault.
So instead of directing the anger toward the other person (the stimulus), anger wakes us up to reflect back to ourselves (the cause).
Then, we practice self-compassion.
Appreciate Just Because
When we use NVC to express appreciation, it is purely to celebrate, not to get something in return. Our sole intention is to celebrate the way our lives have been enriched by others.
Marshall says that appreciation, while it’s good, can be life-alienating in communication. What a revealing insight!
Appreciation is good… if it comes from a good intention.
However, often the case is otherwise — there’s a hidden agenda, a lurking intent to get something out of others. The subtle art of manipulation, hah!
So NVC teaches us to be conscious of our intention behind the appreciation.
It has three components:
- the actions that have contributed to our well-being
- the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
- the pleasureful feelings engendered by the fulfillment of those needs
When put in a statement, it would sound something along the lines of: “This is what you did; this is what I feel; this is the need of mine that was met.”
It may neither necessarily be in that order, nor the words be that specific, but again, more about the conscious awareness of its components.
So let me conclude by saying thank you.
I appreciate you reading this. I feel appreciated, too, for the time and effort I put into writing. I’m fulfilled knowing that in this way I’m able to serve you, as well as myself.
The awesomeness in me appreciates the awesomeness in you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MARSHALL B. ROSENBERG, Ph.D. (1934-2015), was the founder and director of educational services for the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), an international peacemaking organization. Marshall was a proud recipient of the 2006 Global Village Foundation’s Bridge of Peace Award, and the Association of Unity Churches International 2006 Light of God Expressing Award.