I thought I knew How to Communicate Until I learned This Method
Nonviolent Communication Technique can transform your relationships.
One of the most moving quotes I read is by Rumi and says “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there”. This quote gently urged me to take an honest look at my perception of the people around me. I realized that I am too quick to label and take sides– which manifests in the way I communicate. Unfortunately, I mirror the collective human behavior; the “me vs. you” or “good guys vs. bad guys” point of view is pervasive in the news, social media, and even in our family gatherings.
Sure, we live in a world of contrast and we have moral guidelines and preferences. It seems that instead of figuring out how to make our guidelines adopted or preferences heard, we spend way too much energy in trying to “be right”. The desire to be right shows up as pushing your truth, blaming/shaming the other party for not abiding by your truth, giving in to the insatiable need for winning, etc…
I admit it feels good to be right. It is a rush of short-lived dopamine that reinforces your positive sense of self. There is a cost to it, though:
It shuts down your heart, preventing connection and compassion.
It plagues your ability to hear other perspectives, removing the possibility of finding any middle ground.
It divides us first into large groups, then tribes, and finally as lone/isolated individuals.
The result is the feeling of not being heard, not understood, or not connected — which is a feeling shared by many.
Think about your political views. Do you feel “us vs. them”? Do you feel anger, frustration, or even disgust?
Now, think about your close circle. Do you tend to resent or gossip about some members of your circle?
Let’s get even more intimate. Think about your relationship with your partner or family members. Do you feel like sometimes they are against you? Have you experienced a breakdown because you didn’t feel like you were on the same team anymore?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it just means you’re part of 99% of the population. Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, recognizing our collective inability to relate to one another and communicate effectively, dedicated his whole life to create a method called Nonviolent Communication (NVC): A Language of Life.
Dr. Rosenberg summarizes NVC as a way of communicating that leads to giving from the heart. This method helps us see the relationships under a newfound light by hearing our own deepest needs and those of others. Without marginalizing or labeling, this method creates a compassionate bridge between two sides and helps them create a solution that enhances both parties’ lives.
This book came into my life while I was seeking to learn to be a better communicator. Since, I feel much more equipped to have difficult conversations, give (adoptable) feedback to my partner and the people I work with, and find more compassion & intimacy in my relationship. Here are the 4 steps of the NVC process that can help you transform your relationships:
Step 1: Observation
The first step is to recognize and articulate which actions/words are enriching or not enriching our lives. This is a mere factual observation, not a judgment, evaluation, or generalization.
For example, my partner tends to leave his clothes around the room. My observation would be “I see that you left your jacket on the chair today.”
Notice how specific the observation is; what I saw, where, and when. Also, it doesn’t contain any judgment. See it is different than any of the following:
“You always leave your clothes around the house!” “You are so lazy that you leave your clothes all around the house” “You procrastinate and don’t tidy up”
"All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
Step 2: Feelings
Dr. Rosenberg mentions how most of us aren’t able to discern a feeling from an opinion, let alone express the specific feeling. Naming and expressing the feeling creates a few wonders:
Clarity: when we are able to pinpoint the feeling in our body and psyche, it feels as if a burden has been lifted off our chest. Now that we’ve named it, we can begin to deal with it.
Vulnerability: Expressing a clear feeling to the other person is vulnerable. But it helps them empathize and connect with us.
Ownership: Feelings happen internally, meaning they are our emotional reaction to an event. No matter how strong the trigger might be, we are responsible (not guilty) for our feelings. We are also entitled to feel however we choose.
“People are disturbed not by things, but by the view, they take of them” — Epictetus Going back to the previous example with my partner, I’d express my feelings using NVC as “When I see you leaving your jacket on the chair, I feel frustrated.”
Notice my feelings aren’t the following opinions: “I feel like you don’t care” (an interpretation, not a feeling) “I feel like you will never change” (a opinion that generalizes him) “I feel like I am unimportant to you” (an interpretation of his opinion of me)
If you have trouble discerning feelings from thoughts you can check out the list of feelings that come up when our needs are met or not met, on the Center for Nonviolent Communication website.
Step 3: Needs
Similar to feelings, needs aren’t always easy to identify and express. In the NVC book, Dr. Rosenberg mentions when we don’t know how to express our needs other than through the lenses of evaluation and interpretation, it immediately evokes self-defense in the other person.
As a result, they feel attacked, possibly indigent, and we feel unheard. Dr. Rosenberg lists the basic human needs like autonomy, celebration, integrity, interdependence, play, spiritual communion, and physical nurturance (and many sub needs under each category).
Expressing my needs in the example above would look like: “When I see you leave your jacket on the chair, I feel frustrated because I need order in my environment to feel peaceful (order and peace are part of the spiritual communion needs).
Again, it is different than interpretations/options: “Because this place looks terrible” (no need mentioned in this statement) “Because you don’t listen to me” (again, doesn’t address a specific need) “Because you should know better after talking about this many times” (my need is to be understood in this case, but this sentence doesn’t communicate that.)
Step 4: Requests
The last part of NVC is making a clear request that would enrich our lives by using a positive language. Dr. Rosenberg says that just expressing our feelings alone may not be clear in saying what we want the other person to do. Clear requests eliminate both internal and external confusion. He underlines “the clearer we are about what we want, the more likely it is that we will get it” So, what does a clear, positive request look like?
Not a demand: It is a question exploring the other person’s willingness to respond to our needs and feelings.
Expressed with needs and feelings: If we don’t couple the request with our needs and feelings, it can come across as a demand.
Focuses on positive language: Our brain is most likely to respond to the positive commands, rather than “don’t”. So, if you want the absence of a behavior/situation, try phrasing it as an affirmative.
Specific: Similar to observation, we need to be specific if we want them to accurately understand and address the request.
“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.”– Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
Going back to my example, I’d express my request as “Would you be willing to fold your clothes and put them in the closet as soon as you take them off? Notice this statement is different than: “I need you to put your clothes away” (not a question, comes across as demand) “Don’t be so messy or don’t leave your clothes around the house.” (negative statement) “Please be tidy” (vague)
Putting it all together, if I used the NVC method, it would sound like “When I see you leave your jacket on the chair (observation), I feel frustrated (feeling) because I need order in my environment to feel peaceful (need). “Would you be willing to fold your clothes and put them in the closet as soon as you take them off? (request)
This is a remarkable method, though it takes time and dedicated practice to retrain our minds to respond like this in the heat of the moment. I am certainly still learning; failing to remember sometimes, and applying it other times.
Regardless of my success rate, I do feel forever changed: I can’t just sit in the short-lived victory/release of being right, lashing out, or spewing out one-sided emotional mess while expecting the other person to adopt my views or respond to my wants/needs. I can see that a tribal, divisive, and “me” centered view is the least effective way to create the change I desire.
I tried my best to do justice to capture the essence of NVC, but I am sure I fell short. Do something great and read the entire book to dive into more real-life examples and dire conflicts to become a better communicator — the world needs more people who want to communicate from the heart.