Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

by Marshall B. Rosenberg

We all desire to improve the quality of our communication so that we can enjoy deeper and more enriching relationships. Unfortunately, for centuries we’ve been taught to communicate in ways that encourage conflict and pain. In Nonviolent Communication, you’ll learn how to speak and act in ways that generate empathy, strengthen relationships, build trust, and heal pain. Using insightful stories and practical exercises, you’ll gain the skills you need to prevent conflict and create peace—one interaction at a time.  

Summary Notes

Giving From The Heart

“Let’s shine the light of consciousness on places where we can hope to find what we are seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart”

At our core, we all know that we have a compassionate nature within us. Yet everywhere you look, you see all kinds of violent and exploitative behavior. You see people rushing to make moralistic judgments and unfair comparisons just because someone doesn’t act in harmony with their values. So, what makes us disconnect from our compassionate side? Why do we resort to making demands on others and punishing those who refuse to comply with them? The answer may lie in the way we communicate.

The words you use play a major role in how compassionate you are with yourself and others. It is the way you communicate that determines whether your connection to others is empathetic or inconsiderate. Most people wouldn’t consider their language to be violent, but the reality is that the words we use can cause pain and hurt in those we’re speaking to. Therefore, the best way to communicate compassionately is to use Nonviolent Communication (NVC). NVC is an approach that helps you express yourself and respond to others in a conscious way so that you can have your needs met.

Keep in mind that for compassion to flourish, the person you’re communicating with should have their needs met. Therefore, you’re to also observe and empathize with the other person as they speak so that you can help them meet their needs. 

NVC is a heart-based form of communication that can be used in diverse situations to nurture deeper relationships and resolve conflict. Whether it’s in families, school, romantic relationships, politics, or business negotiations, the goal is to listen deeply, act respectfully and become more empathetic to the desires of others.

Actions to take

Separate Your Observation From Your Evaluation

“For most of us, it is difficult to make observations, especially of people and their behavior, that are free of judgment, criticism, or other forms of analysis.”

The first element of nonviolent communication is observing. But unlike most of the observations you make, this kind of observation is devoid of any kind of evaluation or judgment. When you observe a behavior and judge it as right or wrong, you increase the likelihood that the other person will reject your message. But this doesn’t mean that you totally abstain from evaluating every situation that arises. NVC simply requires that you separate your observations from your evaluations. It encourages you to frame your judgments in the appropriate context.

For example, if you see a man sleeping on a park bench as you go to work, you may judge him as a lazy bum who refuses to get a job. But he may simply be tired or easy-going. If you see someone in a kitchen stirring ingredients in a pot, you may label them as a cook. But what if they’re just filling in for someone and that’s not their actual job? Separating observation from evaluation is not easy because we’re accustomed to combining both. We’re so quick to evaluate people’s behavior based on generalizations instead of identifying the specific things they’ve said or done that are aggravating us.

Think of someone you know whom you consider a big mouth. Yes, that guy or girl who you think always talks too much and hogs every conversation. You see the problem with this description? It is full of generalizations. It doesn’t point out any specific behavior that bothers you. Calling them a “big mouth” doesn’t tell us anything. Saying that they “always talk too much” or “hog every conversation” is an exaggerated opinion because that same individual may be quiet and reserved on other occasions.  

NVC requires that you be specific in identifying the actions or words they have used that you find annoying. For example, tell the person that you prefer not to hear their stories about the time they went on holiday to the Bahamas. You should also avoid using terms such as “always,” “never,” and “ever” as these create generalizations that provoke defensiveness instead of compassion in the other person. 

Remember that when someone feels judged, they won’t listen to your needs much less agree to your requests. Therefore, learn to make your observations without mixing in any evaluations.

Actions to take

Identify and Express Your Feelings

“Our repertoire of words for calling people names is often larger than our vocabulary of words to clearly describe our emotional states.”

What would interpersonal communication look like without our ability to express our emotions? And yet throughout our lives, we’ve been told that the most important thing is the way you think and not how you feel. We often spend our time in our heads, wondering about saying or doing the right thing to please others. As a result, we’ve lost contact with ourselves and we struggle to connect with how we truly feel.

Imagine being kept awake by a roommate who blasts loud music every night. When asked to express how you feel about this disturbance, you say “I feel that it isn’t right to play loud music all night.” Notice that this statement is more of an expression of your opinion rather than your feelings. Though you definitely have strong feelings about the nightly disturbance, you’re somewhat unable to become aware of and express them. This is a common challenge for many, especially those in careers that discourage emotional expressions such as the military, police, lawyers, and engineers.

In one Swiss corporation, workers in every department refused to interact with those in the technological department. When questioned as to why they were avoiding their tech colleagues, they said that they didn’t enjoy talking to machines. The tech employees had to be trained on how to show more emotion and vulnerability when communicating with coworkers from other departments. Expressing vulnerability enables you to connect with others more deeply, and though it can often be intimidating, it can help you resolve conflicts.

It’s also important to develop your vocabulary of feelings. Using specific and descriptive words in your vocabulary helps the listener connect more with what you’re feeling. You should also learn to differentiate feelings from thoughts. For example, when you say “I feel like a failure” or “I feel my boss is being manipulative,” you’re referring to your thoughts and not feelings. When you use nonviolent communication, your focus is on expressing your actual feelings rather than making statements that only describe your personal interpretations.

Actions to take

Take Responsibility For Your Feelings

“What others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings”

The world is full of people with diverse characters and behaviors. At some point, you’re bound to encounter someone who speaks or acts negatively toward you. At that crucial point when they’ve said something negative, you have a choice to make on how to respond. There are four ways in which you can receive their message.

The first way is to take it personally and blame yourself. For example, if they accuse you of being self-centered, then you may accept their judgment and tell yourself that you should be more sensitive. Unfortunately, this option may chip away at your self-esteem and lead to guilt, shame, and depression. 

The second option is to blame them. You may snap back at them and accuse them of being the one who’s self-centered. This response may lead to both of you getting increasingly angry. 

The third option is to connect to your feelings and express your needs to the other person. For example, you can say “I feel hurt when you say I’m self-centered. I’m doing my best to be considerate of your preferences and I need you to recognize that.” 

The fourth option is to sense the feelings and needs behind the person’s negative message. You can ask them “Are you feeling hurt because you need me to show more consideration for your preferences?”

Nonviolent communication requires us to accept responsibility for our feelings instead of blaming the other person. One sneaky way that we avoid being accountable for our feelings is through speech patterns. We make statements such as “I feel hurt because you didn’t call me on my birthday” or “Mommy is disappointed when you don’t clean your room.” 

Such statements focus only on the actions of others and not our own. We also tend to add personal pronouns right after we express our feelings to avoid accountability. For example, “I feel hurt because you said you don’t like me” or “I feel angry because my boss broke his promise.”

These are examples of alienated expressions of your needs. This means you’re disconnected from your own needs and that’s why you’re unable to directly express them to the other person. You resort to blaming, judging, and criticizing others, which makes it more difficult for them to respond with compassion. 

Sometimes the person you’re blaming may accept that responsibility and as a result, you may think they care about your needs. But they are simply doing what you want out of fear or guilt and not from their heart.

Nonviolent communication increases your awareness that you are ultimately responsible for the way you feel. It also helps free you from emotional slavery i.e. taking responsibility for other people’s unmet needs. NVC enables you to build relationships where everyone clearly expresses their unmet needs and responds to the needs of others out of compassion rather than fear, shame, or guilt.

Actions to take

Request For Your Needs To Be Fulfilled

“Vague language contributes to internal confusion”

Once you have expressed your unmet needs and values without resorting to blaming others, the next step is to make a request to have your needs fulfilled. You can express your request in a way that inspires others to willingly respond in a compassionate way. But this is often easier said than done, and here’s why.

We have a tendency to express our needs in negative rather than positive ways. Instead of saying what we want in life, we often talk about what we don’t want. For example, when you’re watching a TV show, you probably say things like “If I was in their position, I would never say that” or “I would not let that host make a fool of me like that.” 

When you express your needs using negative rather than positive language, anyone listening to you speak won’t have a clue about what you do want. And when you do use positive language, you should be clear about the exact actions you want the other person to take to meet your needs.

Imagine you’re in the kitchen and your husband is watching TV in the living room. You realize there are some important ingredients missing so you yell out, “You forgot to buy the onions and butter that I asked you to pick up for dinner.” Whereas you’re asking him to rush to the store to grab those items, he’s on the couch thinking you’re just criticizing him. When you fail to make a clear and conscious request, you create confusion in the mind of the listener and are thus unlikely to have your needs met.

If you want to make sure that your message has been heard and understood, you could ask the listener to reflect back your message. After you make your request, ask them whether they understand what you’ve just said. If you suspect that they didn’t get the full message, ask them to repeat it back to you. 

This gives you a chance to address any discrepancies between what you said and what they heard. Do this in an empathetic way so that the person doesn’t feel like you’re chastising them or accusing them of not listening. It’s also a good idea to ask the listener for feedback about your request. This presents you with the opportunity to know what they think and feel about your request.

Actions to take

Listen to Others Empathically

“Empathy with others occurs when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about them”

When it comes to practicing nonviolent communication, you start by expressing your needs honestly and making requests to enrich your life. However, you also have to consider the opposite side of the coin. You need to listen to other people’s needs and receive their requests empathically. Empathy means respectfully understanding the experiences of others and responding to their needs. This may seem like an obvious step in the communication process but the truth is that we often struggle to truly empathize with others. Why is this so?

The simple answer is that our urge to offer our opinions, reassurances, or explanations tends to override our ability to empathize with others. For example, when someone tells you how sad they feel, you feel the need to offer some advice on how to feel better. When your younger sibling tells you about their failed business, you take it as an opportunity to educate them on how to turn failure into a positive learning experience. Common behaviors such as consoling, sympathizing, explaining, and correcting others may seem noble but they prevent you from being present and truly focusing on the other person’s needs.

To truly empathize with someone, you need to give them time and space to express themselves as you quietly tune into their words and emotions. You have to be wholly present to listen to their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Once you have heard their request, you can choose to reflect back what they have said to reassure them that you’re on the same page. You can do this by paraphrasing their message in the form of a question. This gives the speaker the chance to correct you in case you didn’t understand what they said. Make sure that you use the right tone of voice when paraphrasing so that you don’t come across as sarcastic or judgmental.

At the end of the day, you cannot give out what you don’t have within you. To show others empathy, you first need to cultivate empathy for yourself. Take time to connect to yourself before you engage in helping others resolve their problems. If you’re in pain, speak your pain instead of holding it inside. By fulfilling your need for empathy, you’re better prepared to empathize with those who come to you to have their needs met.

Actions to take

Connect Compassionately with Self

“When critical self-concepts prevent us from seeing the beauty in ourselves, we lose connection with the divine energy that is our source. Conditioned to view ourselves as objects—objects full of shortcomings—is it any wonder that many of us end up relating violently to ourselves?”

Nonviolent communication is an effective tool for showing empathy when communicating with others. However, its most crucial application may be in the way we treat ourselves. Most of us are not as compassionate with ourselves as we could be, especially when we make a mistake. We’re quick to judge or label ourselves, often using violent language to describe our actions. We make statements such as “How could I be so stupid?” We fail to realize that moralistic self-judgments hinder our ability to learn from our errors, and even if we do learn a lesson, we’re doing so from a position of shame or guilt. As a result, whatever lesson you learn is based on self-hatred rather than joy.

The shame and guilt you experience is often the result of the language you use when speaking to yourself. This can be seen in the way we use the word “should.” For example, when you tell yourself, “I should exercise more,” you’re implying that you don’t have a choice. You’re engaging in internal tyranny, and since humans don’t like having their autonomy threatened, you end up doing the opposite. 

Words like “must,” “have to” and “supposed to” also lead to self-judgment because they place a demand on you. If you succumb to the demand, then you’re only doing so out of fear, shame, or guilt. If you don’t yield to the demands, then you’ll perceive yourself as a bad person, thus triggering more shame and guilt.   

Self-judgment is an expression of an unmet need. Through nonviolent communication, you learn how to recognize your self-critical mental conversations so that you can dig deeper to uncover your underlying needs. Once you’ve connected to the underlying need, you can engage in a process of self-forgiveness. Think of the action you took that led to the current feeling of regret and show yourself some compassion. Remember that nobody is perfect and you were simply trying to meet a need, even though you fell short.     

Self-compassion means servicing your needs and those of others purely because you want to contribute to life.  Doing things out of a sense of obligation, for extrinsic rewards, or as a way to avoid shame or punishment sucks the joy out of your life. Once you realize that you always have a choice, every decision you make will be based on choosing rather than having to do it. This way, you consistently act according to your needs and values and begin to see life as an experience worth cherishing.

Actions to take

Fully Expressing Your Anger

“We are never angry because of what someone else did. We can identify the other person’s behavior as the stimulus, but it is important to establish a clear separation between stimulus and cause.”

The major difference between NVC and other forms of communication is in the expression of anger. While other communication styles encourage superficial expressions of anger, NVC advocates for a more wholehearted way to express this emotion. However, don’t be fooled by the nonviolent tag. Nonviolent communication does not mean stifling your anger or accepting the status quo. It simply encourages you to express anger fully without resorting to physical or emotional harm. 

The first thing to do is to take responsibility for your anger rather than blame the other person. Blaming someone blinds you from seeing the real cause of your anger. It may even cause you to try to punish them. You do this because you’re confusing the trigger with the cause of your anger. This behavior is a result of living in a culture where we use guilt as a way to control people. For example, a parent who wants to control their child will tell them, “Daddy is hurt when you don’t get good grades.” Thus the child grows up believing that an individual’s emotional state is the result of the actions of others rather than their own.

Yet the true cause of anger is judgment of others. You are fault-finding because you’re stuck in your thoughts instead of connecting to your unmet needs. For example, if your business partner is late for an appointment, you can get angry and start venting. However, if you wanted an extra 15 minutes to relax before the meeting, you won’t get angry and may even relish their tardiness. Instead of getting angry, you use that energy to identify and meet your needs. If possible, enquire about the other person’s needs and feelings as well.                 

As long as you’re focused on classifying people as moral versus immoral, you’re adding to the violence in the world. Yes, there are those who murder, rape, and steal. However, if we focus on attending to our underlying needs, life will get better. We can channel that energy of righteous indignation to connecting empathically with the needs of others as well as our own. 

Adopting this perspective of life takes a lot of time and practice. It requires you to consciously stop yourself when you feel angry so that you can connect to your unmet needs, empathize with the other person, and then express your needs in a healthy way.

Actions to take

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