The Nonviolent Communication Process: A Synopsis
by Penny Wassman CNVC Certified Trainer
based on the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg,
author of “Nonviolent Communication a Language of Life”, and
founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication(CNVC)
This is an in-depth synopsis of Nonviolent Communication designed to support people interested in a more complete understanding of the process. If you’d enjoy a simpler, more concise version, refer to the NVC at a Glance page…
Though it is natural for humankind to connect in a way that nurtures compassionate awareness of our own and other people’s needs, most of us have been immersed in a belief system learned over many generations that makes such connection difficult. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) assists us to shift consciousness from habitual behaviours that disconnect us from our natural compassion to behaviours that serve life.
To assist people to develop awareness of these habitual behaviours, I have chosen to include them in a list sometimes referred to as the “Four ‘D’s of Disconnection.” When we adopt one of these behaviours, we disconnect ourselves from the opportunity to be clear about our needs or to connect with the needs of other people:
The Four D’s of Disconnection:
1. Diagnosis: including evaluations, analysis, criticisms, comparisons, labels, moralistic judgements (ideas of rightness/wrongness, goodness/badness, diligence/laziness, appropriateness/inappropriateness, etc). In using communications similar to the above, we are using static language to diagnose what we think people are instead of communicating what is important to us. The response to such language increases the likelihood of defensiveness, argument or returned criticism and lessens the likelihood of understanding and connection.
As we are culturally conditioned to this type of thinking and dialogue, I believe we experience great difficulty in understanding why ideas of rightness and wrongness may not serve life. And yet, the moment we deflect focus away from that which is most important to us (our inherent needs) to ideas that incorporate moralistic judgements of ourselves or other people, we decrease own clarity and therefore opportunity to choose strategies that will most fully serve us.
2. Denial of Responsibility: including words like “should”, “ought” “must” “can’t” “have to”, attributing the choices we make to “company policy” or “superiors orders”, or attributing the cause of our feelings to other people or extrinsic situations (“You make me feel frustrated!”).
When we use language or incur thoughts either consciously or unconsciously that imply that our choices are the result of someone or something extrinsic from ourselves, we lessen connection to our own empowerment and awareness. Words like “should” “must” and “can’t” imply our present choices are beyond our control. Such words, though often expressed, do not provide clarity or insight into the needs we are serving by making the choices we do. As we begin to notice such words or thoughts, however, we can utilize our new awareness to link to (or take responsibility for) our needs. As needs become forefront in our consciousness, we are then empowered to choose strategies that may better support them. So the question that may serve when thinking words like ‘should’ is: “What do I need in this moment?”
3. Deserve-orientated language. This language or belief system includes ideas of punishment and reward as motivators and often implies that either reprimand or praise is due. A question we might ask ourselves to shift to a consciousness more mutually empowering and supportive of our intrinsic values might be as follows:
“Would we like our children or others in our lives to be self-motivated, excited and intrinsically inspired to learn, evolve and grow because they are connected to and inspired by their own needs and values? Or would we prefer that this motivation is derived from rewards if they comply with our ideas for learning and evolving… or punishments if they do not comply?”
4. Demands (instead of Requests)
When we demand something of another person, that person may agree. However, compliance most often evolves from fear or worry that the other will be blamed or punished if s/he does not agree, often contributing to their depression or anger. If s/he chooses not to succumb to our demand, we may experience rebellion and non-compliance to future requests. I believe we are more likely to have our needs met, if meeting them is not linked to an agenda or a demand. In other words, requesting an action of another person, without attachment to outcome and with a consciousness of connection to both our own and the other’s needs is most likely to produce an agreement that meets our present needs (as well as those of the other person) and contributes to future harmony.
The Two Parts and Four Components of Nonviolent Communication:
Nonviolent Communication is a simple process incorporating four components - observations, feelings, needs and requests - and two parts, honest expression of our own needs and empathic receiving of the needs of others. As we learn to express ourselves clearly and in harmony with our own needs and values, we also learn to receive or listen to other people’s needs with a similar compassion.
A. Honest Expression through the Four Components of NVC:
1. Observations: It is challenging for many to differentiate between clear observations of people’s words or actions, and moralistic judgements of them. If you wish to increase the likelihood that what you are expressing will be understood, the following information may be helpful:
(i) Clearly state what you are seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, smelling or tasting.
(ii) Be specific as to time and context…. When and where did this occur? What specifically did you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell? If you heard something, what were the exact words that were stated? If you saw something, what did you see?
(iii) Separate your observation from any evaluation. If you express what has been observed as a statement of evaluation or moralistic judgement, the listener is likely to hear criticism. If the observation is something you heard or saw, you can assist yourself to discern the difference by asking yourself : “Is my observation something that could be seen or heard by a video camera?”:
2. Feelings: Many words commonly used to express feelings more accurately express thoughts. These thoughts either evaluate ourselves or project ideas about what we believe others may be thinking or doing. We gain clarity and connection if we develop awareness of such words or phrases and take the time to look beyond them to our actual feelings. For example:
(i) A common habit is to follow the words “I feel” with words such as “like”, “that”, or “as if”, or a personal pronoun such as “you”, “she”, “he”, or “they”, or names or nouns referring to people. When we do this, we are not expressing feelings. Instead, we are expressing thoughts. By noticing such phrases and taking the time to process underlying feelings, we assist our communication and our understanding.
(ii) Individual words that describe how we think others have impacted us:
Examples: abandoned, abused, betrayed, bullied, cheated, coerced, disrespected, cornered, diminished, ignored, intimidated, let-down, manipulated, mistrusted, misunderstood, neglected, overworked, patronized, pressured, put down, targeted, trapped, tricked, unappreciated, uncared-for, unheard, unrecognized, used, unsupported, unwanted, unwelcome
For example, we might say we “feel manipulated”. This is really an idea we have that someone is doing something to us…it’s very useful information because it provides us with an opportunity to get in touch with unmet needs underlying our thoughts. Perhaps the underlying need, in this situation, might be consideration. If our need for consideration is not met, we might be feeling irritation. So it helps us to connect with what is really going on if we are clear: “I feel irritated and need consideration for my own point of view” instead of “I feel manipulated”.
(iii) Individual words where we label ourselves:
Examples: clumsy, dispassionate, inconsiderate, ignorant, inadequate, inefficient, incompetent, purposeless, ridiculous, stupid, unaffectionate, uncreative, unreliable
For example, we might say we “feel inadequate”. Perhaps our need, if we stay in touch with our thought of inadequacy might be “contribution”. If we have a sense that we’re not contributing as we would like, we might be feeling “discouraged”. So instead of “I feel inadequate” shifting to a phrase like, “I feel discouraged because I would like to contribute” assists us to gain clarity of the needs underlying words like those above. With this clarity it is much easier to link to strategies that might support us.
We often deny responsibility for our own feelings by implying that others are the cause of our unsettled feelings. Instead, we can enhance life by taking responsibility for our own feelings by linking them to our needs:
Other people may be the stimulus, but never the cause of our feelings. Our feelings are caused by needs that are either met or unmet in any given moment and the related thoughts we are experiencing at the time.
Needs (or values) are the heart of NVC. When we are able to identify needs instead of blaming ourselves or other people, we are able to contribute to harmony, peace and connection in the world. Some examples of needs are: Understanding, consideration, communication, safety, shelter, clarity, honesty, reliability, inclusion, choice, stimulation, beauty, freedom, meaning, community, friendship, family, love, ease, peace, support, rest, mutuality, creativity, purpose, order, respect, trust, creativity, authenticity, companionship, integrity, and play.
Needs are universal. Needs are common to all cultures, genders, races and countries.
When we experience a situation that is challenging for us, we can assist ourselves if we are aware of the difference
between behaviours that are likely to alienate life and behaviours that are likely to enhance life and our option to choose.
The following question may be helpful: "What is my intention in this moment? Am I choosing connection or disconnection?"
Life-Enhancing Behaviour (Connection):
Life-Alienating Behaviour (Disconnection):
If the words we communicate and the actions we choose incorporate life-alienating thoughts and beliefs, we are unlikely to experience the connection and understanding we would like. As we begin to open fully and authentically to needs awareness, we free ourselves to explore solutions that support ourselves as we support others. With this awareness, we increase our chances for connection, understanding, contribution and meaning. As we begin to empty ourselves of life alienating thoughts and behaviours, and become increasingly mindful and supportive of our own needs and those of others, we nurture the seed of compassion in all humankind.
A common challenge for people new to NVC is to differentiate between a need and a strategy. For example I might having a conversation with another person and suddenly hear myself say, “I need a cup of coffee”. In this instance, I am not expressing a need. Instead I am focusing on a strategy that may meet a particular need. If I take the time to process my underlying need in this moment, I might be aware that I am feeling fatigued and need more meaning and connection with this person. Therefore the strategy of “coffee” came to mind. If I’m in touch with my needs, other strategies might serve me just as well like five minutes outside in fresh air, or a shift in the nature of the conversation that would more fully meet my needs for meaning and connection.
Sometimes it may seem impossible to identify our needs or anyone else’s when we are experiencing challenge. However, if we develop a mindfulness of our intention in the moment, we can use that awareness to support ourselves before we speak. Let’s look at this further, using an example:
Jocelyn says to her partner, Luke: “I’ve been waiting over a half an hour…as if you cared!”
If Luke shares his thoughts (left column) with Jocelyn, he is unlikely to experience the understanding he would like. His thoughts are not “bad”…they are simply an invitation to dig a little deeper and find out what is going on. If he is willing to check his intention as he experiences these thoughts (taking a deep breath helps), he would realise that he is in blame mode. Then, if he takes the necessary time to connect with his unmet needs (right column) before he speaks, instead of communicating blame, he will be able to express himself in NVC using words that Jocelyn might hear more easily, such as:
“When I hear you say you’ve been waiting a half an hour, I feel frustrated and regretful. I wish I’d phoned you to say I would be late. At the same time, I’m going through a tough time at work and I’d like understanding and support around that. Would you be willing to sit down with me now and tell me about any feelings that have come up for you as I’ve shared this?”
4. Requests: If we desire to connect compassionately with other people, it is important to immediately follow our expression of observation, feelings and needs with a clear request. . If we are not clear what we are wanting from another person, we are unlikely to be fully connected to our needs and may be holding some disconnecting thoughts of ourselves or the other person like wrongness, blame or criticism. It may be helpful therefore, before beginning to express ourselves to another, to ask ourselves the following questions:
Example 1 (needs expressed without request): "When I realize that the report promised
today is delayed until Tuesday, I feel dismay because I value commitment and efficiency."
Example 2 (needs expressed with request) "When I realize that the report promised today is delayed until Tuesday, I feel dismay because I value commitment and efficiency. Would you be willing now, to share your ideas about how we might meet future targets with more ease?"
In the first example, the listener is unlikely to be clear about what is wanted of him. He may even interpret that the speaker is implying that he is being judged for a perceived lack of commitment and efficiency. In the second example, the listener immediately has clarity as to what is requested. This increases possibility that he will understand the speaker's needs and the likelihood that he will respond affirmatively.
It is also helpful to understand the difference between making a request and making a demand. If your objective in asking someone to do something is to change that person or to get them to agree to do what you ask, you are making a demand. You are making a request if you are clearly connected to your needs and willing to listen to the needs of the other person if he or she says “no”. In the example in section 3 relating to needs, the request Luke asks Jocelyn is, “Would you be willing to sit down with me now and tell me about any feelings that have come up for you as I’ve shared this?” If Jocelyn, says “no”, Luke’s response to that will indicate whether he is making a request or a demand.
It is important to distinguish between specific language and vague or ambiguous phrasing:
Remember to use positive action language by stating what you are requesting instead of what you are not requesting:
Use a time frame where possible:
Types of requests: There are two types of requests, those that ask for a specific do-able action and those that invite further rounds of dialogue. The latter are called “connection requests”.
(i) Connection requests: (help us to understand others or determine if they understand us)
Example 1 (the request is highlighted in bold): “When I see last night’s dishes in the sink this morning, I feel frustrated because I value cooperation and shared responsibility. I’d really like to know that I have been clear. Would you be willing to tell me back what you heard me say?” This type of request lets us know whether or not the listener has understood our needs. If we hear back something like, “Quit picking on me”, we know we’ve not had the connection we would like. So we can choose to express our feelings and needs again. The second attempt might sound something like, “Thanks for telling me what you heard. I would like to express myself more clearly. I’m feeling frustrated and would like cooperation and shared responsibility. Would you tell me what you are hearing this time?” When we ask another to repeat back what we say, we are asking them to communicate that they understand our needs. If this is clearly not happening, then example 2 (below) is another connection request we might consider:
Example 2 “Would you be willing to share your feelings as you hear me say this?” This request gives us the opportunity to understand the feelings of the other person. So incorporating this idea with the above situation might sound something like, “When I see last night’s dishes in the sink this morning, I feel frustrated because I value cooperation and shared responsibility. Would you be willing to share the feelings that come up for you as I say this?” Now we are asking for the other person to express her feelings. So if we hear back, “I feel pissed off… you’re always telling me what to do”, we now have the opportunity to empathize with her. That might sound something like, “So you’re wanting to have some choice about how you would like to contribute around here?”… and, with this, we are setting up opportunity for the dialogue to continue until the needs of both sides are voiced and understood.
(ii) Action requests: An action request asks a specific, do-able action we would like of the other person and often results in a simple “yes” or “no” response. Be sure to include a time frame when applicable.
Example: “Would you be willing to pick up the kids on your way home tonight?”
B. The other part of Nonviolent Communication – Empathy
1. A Look at the Empathy Process
In the example in section 3, Luke is integrating the first part of NVC, by expressing himself honestly with all four components: observation, feelings, needs and request. He says to Jocelyn:
“When I hear you say you’ve been waiting a half an hour, I feel frustrated and regretful. I wish I’d phoned you to say I would be late. At the same time, I’m going through a tough time at work and I’d like understanding and support around that. Would you be willing to sit down with me now and tell me about feelings that have come up for you as I’ve shared this?”
If Jocelyn says “no” to Luke’s request, he may decide to express Empathy, the second part of NVC, by being attentive to the feelings and needs that are alive for Jocelyn. So he might ask, “Are you feeling irritated because you would have liked some communication and consideration?” And so begins the dance of NVC…. if Jocelyn has a sense she has been understood, she may now be able to hear Luke relate what’s going on in him. If not, he might decide to express another round of empathy.
Empathy does not imply that you are a “doormat” for another to step on. It is paramount that you are cognizant of and respectful of your own needs. It can be enormously challenging to support another person if you are not compassionate with yourself… So take time to process your own needs before you extend to another. The mindful attention you offer yourself will infinitely enhance your empathic contribution to another human being.
Empathy, like most things in life, is always a choice. If you choose to give empathy, you are making a conscious choice to be fully present to the other person. You may not enjoy the other person… you may not agree with the strategies he or she is choosing. You are simply willing to be present for that person’s feelings and needs in that particular moment. The giving of empathy is all about shifting consciousness away from yourself in any particular moment to complete presence for the feelings and needs of the other person. Empathy is about being with someone, not doing to someone. Empathy can be chosen to celebrate joys or to assist the other person to uncover unmet needs behind disappointments and pain. When people become clear of the needs behind their pain, their clarity will assist them to explore solutions or strategies that might better support themselves and ultimately, other people as well.
Empathy can be effective even when it is silent. Sometimes the other person is not ready to talk, or holds the idea that he will never be understood. In such times, quietly imagine the feelings and needs behind his pain. Even if you are not able to connect verbally with him, the compassionate energy you are sustaining sets the stage for future connection and understanding.
2. Seven tips to remember when you choose to offer empathy to another person:
(i) Pause and breathe.
(ii) If the other’s statement is painful for you to hear, think: “This is not about me.”
(iii) Ask yourself, “Am I sufficiently connected to my own needs to be able to be fully present to the other person in this moment? If you are aware that your own unresolved pain might impede your ability to contribute empathy, take time out to be with what’s going on with you (your own feelings and needs) before committing to the steps outlined below.
(iv) Begin with an intention to connect: What might the other person be feeling.... be needing? It may be helpful to imagine a flow of heartfelt energy between yourself and the other person.
(v) If you use words, be conscious of and responsive to the energy of the other person.
(vi) Stay in the flow of empathy until you feel a bodily relaxation or release in the other….or you may notice that the person has become quiet. At this point, ask if he or she has anything more he would like to share.
(vii) If the other has indicated that she has nothing further to share, it may be beneficial in many instances to offer a post-empathy request. This can be a very powerful opportunity for the person with whom you are empathizing to connect with any needs that may be unmet and to consider choices that may support those needs. Possible requests might be:
or something specific and do-able like:
Sometimes the other person needs time to absorb what he has discovered and may decline the offer of a solution or strategy. Be aware that the best support you can offer in this situation is space for her to explore strategies or solutions when she is ready.
I’m reminded of an incident with my then teen-aged daughter during my early days with NVC. My partner had photographed her receiving the winner’s trophy at a sporting event. Thinking she would be delighted, he had enlarged and framed the photo and placed it on a table in our entrance hallway. I was relieved he wasn’t home when my daughter first saw it. She took one look at the photo and exclaimed, “Who took that photo?… it’s crap!”.
Perhaps you can imagine what might have been going on in my mind at that moment. Thoughts like “how ungrateful!… how selfish can she be?!… doesn’t she realize the love that went into creating it?!” I even wondered what kind of mother I was to bring up such a “selfish child”.
Luckily, I’d attended one of Dr. Rosenberg’s introductory workshops the night before. I remembered his words, “All violence is a tragic expression of unmet needs.” I was certainly experiencing her words as violent… but what were the needs underlying her words? I remembered hearing that one important need for teenagers (for everyone for that matter) is “choice”. I also remembered that, no matter what was being said, her outburst was “not about me”. I remembered the instruction to “take a deep breath”. I actually took two. I used that time to get in touch with my own need for recognition of her father’s love in putting the picture together. And then, feeling somewhat bewildered, I asked my daughter, “So you would really like to choose the pictures that are displayed of you?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Dad should have asked me first!. It’s a stupid picture!” Taking another breath, I decided to stay with empathy. “So I guess you’re really frustrated and having choice is important to you?” I was so new to NVC, the only need that came to my mind was “choice”. I guess I was somewhat on track because I heard her mumble, “Uh-huh.” She looked down at the table, silent, her shoulders sagging. Still feeling confused, and wondering about next steps, I asked her if it would be okay if I put the photo in her Dad’s office and she agreed.
When I returned to the table where we had been having the discussion, I discovered my daughter with her head in her arms, sobbing. Between sobs, she looked up at me and said, “It’s not about the picture… it’s about…” She began to tell me about a work experience she had endured that day that had been very painful for her. I listened quietly, feeling immense gratitude for my fledgling knowledge of NVC.
Imagine what might have happened if I had reacted by expressing my earlier thoughts to her when she was already feeling so raw and tender… imagine if I told her she was “ungrateful and selfish”? Instead, because I had been willing to stay with the needs behind words I had initially found so challenging, I had a treasured opportunity not only to support her through her difficulty (with more NVC empathy…this time her needs were easier to discern), but also to deepen connection and respect in our relationship.
After my daughter had recovered, she asked me, “Where did you put the picture?” I told her it was in her Dad’s office. “Oh,” she replied… “let’s put it back in the hallway… it’s really okay.” The photo has been proudly displayed ever since.
3. Impediments to Empathic Connection
Most of us naturally want to help those in pain, especially those most dear to us - our children, partners, friends or relatives. Sometimes, the strategies we choose to assist others actually impede empathic connection. Instead we may attempt to fix the situation, offer advice, educate, explain, or ask questions we think might be helpful. While some of these may be beneficial after empathy is complete if the person is open and receptive to that manner of support, these offerings should not be confused with empathy. Empathy requires only that you stay fully present for the feelings and needs of the other person.
Sympathy is often confused with empathy. Sympathy, however, is really all about yourself and your own feelings, not those of the other person. An obvious clue if you’re wondering if you are sympathizing or empathizing is if you hear yourself using the word “I” throughout your conversation. Instead, NVC empathy would sound something like, “Are you feeling _______ because you need _______”
I’m including a list of actions I consider impediments to empathic connection below:
(i) Advice, Fixing, Educating
(ii) Explaining or Correcting
(iv) Evaluating or Analysing
(vii) One-upping or Telling a Story
(ix) Shutting down
4. Building NVC Consciousness is an Ongoing Process
I believe it takes time and infinite practice to develop NVC consciousness. Initially, we may begin to notice our own thoughts and actions more, wondering about the needs underlying our choices and our feelings. From our deeper noticing, we may choose to construct a new mindfulness of intention, an awareness of non-attachment to particular strategies, a consciousness of openness, mutual empowerment, partnership and possibility. We may become more willing to consider others’ needs within the context of our own needs (which we see as equally important) and more creative in structuring opportunity so that everyone’s needs are met.
In the beginning, people tell me they are not able to come up with words that adequately express their new NVC knowledge, but that they are reacting less and noticing their thoughts and language more… that often they retreat to silence to gain some clarity before attempting to express themselves or before offering empathy to someone. Often people tell me that their deepest learning has been derived from times when they are sharing NVC with others. I know this is true for me. I also believe that NVC is an ongoing process… that, for me and many others, it is about continual learning and growing fueled by a deep desire to connect with other people, to contribute to them and to all life on this planet….essentially to know that what we do matters. I believe that as we learn to honestly express our own needs and remain open and empathically present to the needs of others, we begin to construct a foundation of trust, mutual respect and understanding that will significantly enhance all relationships and all life. For this awareness, I am continually grateful to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and my CNVC colleagues and friends with whom I share, and learn and grow.
Copyright © 2005 Penny Wassman