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NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION

"NVC is a masterwork. Nationally we talk peace. This book goes far beyond mere talk...it shows us how to TEACH peace." - James E. Shaw, Ph.D.

Be compassionate. Be caring. Be peaceful. These are platitudes that we’ve all heard, passed on by our families and teachers, and that many of us pass on to our own children. They sound wonderful…but what exactly do they mean? And how exactly do we accomplish these goals within the context of often challenging situations and relationships?

How precisely should we be compassionate in the midst of a disagreement? What is the caring thing to say when a tense subject must be raised in a circumstance full of conflict? How should we respond peacefully when someone angrily attacks us? And if we want our children to refrain from violence and confrontation, how specifically should we guide them to respond when they find themselves faced with such challenges? Furthermore, and just as importantly, how can we share our joys and hopes in ways that create the type of compassion, care and peace that we preach?

Without concrete tools and techniques to actually apply these principles, they may remain nothing more than hollow aphorisms.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) provides those tools and techniques. It is a field that revolves around ideals such as compassion, connection and peace. But unlike many fields that simply talk about such beautiful concepts, NVC backs up the talk with a concrete, structured, yet flexible methodology that teaches us how to enact these ideals through a specific way of speaking and listening that builds connection and mutually satisfying relationships. Through practicing the skills of Nonviolent Communication, these otherwise abstract principles become internalized and reflected in our lives.

Nonviolent Communication: The Book

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
by Marshall Rosenberg

One of the most important books I’ve ever read. It offers a very comprehensive account of the history, paradigm and methodology of Nonviolent Communication, complete with many stories, examples, and even simple quizzes to help reinforce key principles. Practical, inspiring and well-written, I highly recommend this book.


The Development of Nonviolent Communication

Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. came of age on the mean streets of Detroit, Michigan, surrounded by conflict and violence. As he grew up in this environment, Rosenberg began to become curious about the roots of such hostility. After entering the field of psychology – and becoming disenchanted with the limits of its pathology-based mindset – he continued his quest for understanding.

Eventually, Rosenberg came to the conclusion that the entire way that we use language in our culture - what Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael and his other works, calls the Taker culture - is tied into and supports our dysfunctional, extremely hierarchical social structure and manner of relating to each other and the world.

As Rosenberg states on page 23 of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:
“Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical societies, the functioning of which depends upon large numbers of docile, subservient citizens. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.”
Rosenberg found that this form of exploitive structure stimulates the development of defense mechanisms that lock us into extremely misguided, counterproductive strategies for meeting our needs and for communicating about those needs to others. In short, he discovered that our dysfunctional environment and culture lead to our habitually seeking to meet our needs in ways that are highly unlikely to get them met. Delving deeper, he began to pinpoint the key patterns in how exactly we most often perceive, speak and listen that generate conflict and unfulfilling oppressive power relationships.

In response to his findings, Rosenberg developed a new method of speaking and listening that seeks to generate the opposite – connection, compassion and the mutual meeting of needs, rather than conflict, exploitation and dissatisfaction.

Nonviolent Communication focuses on:
  • Accurate perception

  • Effective expression of our needs and the aspects of ourselves that alert us to those needs

  • The discovery of wise strategies to meet our needs in a balanced way with those of others

  • Recognition of the shared, universal emotions and needs that bond all of us as human beings
Its mindset has become a fundamental part of my paradigm of life, human development, and health and sustainability in general.

The Meaning of “Nonviolent Communication”

As is perhaps expressed best in the work of Derrick Jensen, there are many ways in which violent forms of communication play a role in our society. Obviously, physical force is the most visible example. And Nonviolent Communication stems from and relates deeply to an understanding of the factors that perpetuate this most concrete form of violence.

But NVC also helps us see and address the subtle, insidious ways, that, within our hierarchical society, we often attempt to use fear, shame, guilt and coercion to get what we want and need from others, without respect for their humanity or boundaries. It awakens us to the cultural assumptions by which we are conditioned into a mindset that generates violence, in its broadest sense, and in which we often violate each other in direct and implied ways of which we may not even be conscious. In this context, NVC – also known as “Compassionate Communication” and often described as the “language of peace” – provides a new mode of interaction that seeks to foster connections at the heart level that can begin to dissolve the toxic bonds that support our violent way of life.

The Methodology of Nonviolent Communication

The actual practice of Nonviolent Communication consists of speaking and listening processes, each focusing our attention on the same four communication components. The specified components chosen are those that Rosenberg found most effective in assuring the avoidance of common sources of miscommunication that underlie conflict and encouraging the explicit, constructive expression of the energies most likely to generate understanding and connection between people..

SPEAKING IN NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION

A formal statement spoken in Nonviolent Communication consists of the following four components.
  1. OBSERVATION – We begin our expression in NVC by stating the specific aspect of the world that we saw, heard, sensed, smelled or tasted that has stimulated our energy in some way. In this focus on directly expressing our specific subjective experience, this first step of NVC relates to Neurolinguistic Programming.

    Examples of Expressing Our Observation

    • For instance, if a friend says something to us that triggers pain for us, and we wish to express its impact on us, and ultimately request that they communicate with us differently in the future, we might begin our response by saying “When I heard you say to me…” and then repeating precisely what they said to us.

    • If we see our child do something for a sibling that triggers pleasure for us to witness and we wish to ultimately request that they do more of that action in the future, we might begin our response by saying “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother…” explaining exactly what we visually experienced them doing.

    Separating Observation from Evaluation

    In Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Rosenberg quotes J. Krishnamurti, the famous Indian philosopher, as stating that:
    “Observation without evaluation is the highest form of human intelligence.”
    The crucial factor in this step of the process is that we separate observation from evaluation. That means that we express only that which we have experienced concretely with our senses, rather than our subsequent judgments of what we experienced directly or of those whose actions we observed.

    This is why we begin by saying to our friend “When I heard you say to me…” and then repeat what they said, rather than saying “When you said that mean thing to me…” or “When you acted like a jerk to me…”. “Mean” and “jerk” are both evaluations of ours, judgments rather than direct observations.

    This is also why we say to our child “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother…” and explain exactly what we witnessed, rather than saying “When you did that wonderful thing…” or “When you acted like such a good boy…”. Even though these evaluations – “wonderful” or “good” - are often considered more “positive,” they are still evaluations and the unspoken message behind them is that we stand in judgment of the other person, a position that, even when used to express praise, nonetheless sets the stage for unhealthy hierarchical arrangements that underlie violent communications. In NVC, judgments of praise and criticism are both considered unhealthy reflections of a power-based arrangement.

    In addition, since we all have very different ideas about what is reasonably described by “wonderful”, “good” or any other such evaluative term, based on our own personality type, preferences, background, and experience, the use of such terms opens the door to a great deal of miscommunication and misunderstanding. By beginning our statement with a declaration of a concrete event or condition that we experienced, we acknowledge that we are speaking from our own perspective, while simultaneously referring to a triggering stimulus about whose occurrence, rather than “wonderfulness” or “goodness,” we are more likely to agree. This increases our chances of starting the communication process on the basis of emotional responsibility and common ground.

  2. FEELING – Once we have expressed our observation, the second step in the NVC speaking process is to express our feeling as it relates to that observation.

    Examples of Expressing Our Feeling

    • For instance, continuing with the example of responding to our friend’s comment, we might add “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt…”

    • In continuing with the example of our child’s behavior, we might add “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased…”

    The Universality and Power of Human Emotions

    One of the major benefits of using NVC is that it reinforces the fact that we all relate to the same universal set of feelings, which provides a foundation for understanding based on shared experience. Though any particular feeling may be triggered in one person by different stimuli than trigger that same feeling in someone else, we can nearly all relate to the simple fact of another person’s experience of any particular feeling. So when we are engaged in communications that are aimed at connecting with others or that involve delicate personal topics, we are more likely to succeed in gaining understanding by opening up vulnerably about our shared human emotions than by explaining our thoughts. While thoughts certainly play an important role in our lives and their expression is very useful in many settings, our life energy is more powerfully expressed, and human bonds more powerfully built, through feelings rather than thoughts.

    The Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Feelings Inventory: Building Emotional Vocabulary

    This universality of human emotions is evident in the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Feelings Inventory. This extremely helpful inventory offers a rather comprehensive list of the emotional states that we experience as humans. It divides them roughly into pleasant emotions, which are experienced when our needs are met, and unpleasant emotions, which are experienced when our needs are unmet. Referring to the list, especially early on in the practice of NVC, can help build and increase our facility with our emotional vocabulary, one of the most fundamental aspects of improving our Emotional Intelligence.

    Distinguishing Feelings from Thoughts

    Obviously, in order to express our feelings rather than our thoughts, we must first become skilled at distinguishing the former from the latter. Using CNVC’s list can also help reinforce the difference between feelings and thoughts. Notice that feelings in NVC nearly always consist of just one word, with a few exceptions that consist of two words. Remembering this fact can help alert you to when you are beginning to express thoughts rather than feelings.

    When expressing feelings, our statements should sound like “I feel X...” or “I felt X…” where X is a one or two word emotional experience (ie: angry, happy, melancholy, worn out, etc.), such as those on the inventory, that relates to our own inner state of energy. When we find ourselves following “I feel…” or “I felt…” with more than one or two words in this step of the process, we are likely expressing a thought rather than a feeling.

    Examples of Expressing Feelings vs. Expressing Thoughts

    • For example, if we responded to our friend’s comment by saying “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt…” that expresses a feeling. But if we responded “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt that it was the wrong thing to do…” we are expressing a thought, rather than a feeling.

    • If we responded to our child’s behavior by saying “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased…” that expresses a feeling. However, if we responded “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt you did something good and you should do more of that…” we are expressing a thought, rather than a feeling.

    In NVC, “I feel…” or “I felt…” should never be immediately followed by words such as “like,” “that”, “you”, “he”, “she”, or “they”. They should always be followed by a one or two word emotional state such as those listed on the inventory.

  3. NEED – The third step in the NVC speaking process is to express the met or unmet need to which our expressed feeling is related. As explained, usually we feel pleasant emotions when our needs are met and unpleasant emotions when our needs are unmet.

    Examples of Expressing Our Need

    • For instance, continuing with the example of responding to our friend’s comment, we might add “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt because of my need for respect…”

    • In continuing with the example of our child’s behavior, we might add “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased because I have a need for harmony…”

    The Universality of Human Needs

    As with feelings, human needs are, for the most part, shared universally, so they also offer a crucial source of common ground on which to build understanding. While various people or those in different cultures may employ vastly different strategies or use different resources to meet the same need, we all can relate to the shared needs themselves.

    The Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Needs Inventory: Building Vocabulary to Express Human Needs

    Also as with feelings, the Center for Nonviolent Communication offers a very useful Needs Inventory, which reflects this universality of human needs. Referring to the list, especially early on in your practice of NVC, can help build your vocabulary as it relates to human needs. This also greatly improves Emotional Intelligence, as well as our ability to identify and – as we will see in the next step of the process – request that our needs be met. Furthermore, it aids us in becoming more skilled at identifying and recognizing the specific needs of others, which increases the likelihood of fostering mutual satisfaction in our relationships.

    Distinguishing Stimulus from Cause

    This step in the process is key because it builds our recognition that, while others’ behaviors and events in the world may trigger our emotions through their impact on our needs, it is ultimately the met or unmet state or our needs itself that directly generates our emotions. Rosenberg refers to the recognition of this fact as distinguishing stimulus (that which we observed that triggered our feeling) from cause (the state of our needs that the trigger affected that ultimately generated our emotions). The ability to make such distinctions is utterly crucial in beginning to unravel the layers of our defense mechanisms.

    Distinguishing Strategies for Meeting Needs from Needs Themselves

    Notice that, like feelings, needs are usually expressed in one, and sometimes in two, words. When we begin to use more than this number of words in this step of the speaking process, we are likely expressing something other than our own need. This most often happens when we mistake a particular strategy aimed at meeting the need with the need itself.

    These strategies, often misidentified as needs themselves, include:

    • An outcome we perceive as a means to meet a need
    • An action we wish to take that we believe will meet a need
    • A resource we wish to obtain that we believe will meet a need
    • A behavior we desire from others that we believe will meet a need

    In NVC, needs, by definition, are not required to be met by any particular outcome, action, resource or person. They are inherent aspects of ourselves which can be fulfilled using a number of strategies. While we may perceive an opportunity for a particular person in a particular situation to meet our need, and we may request that they do so (in the final step of the speaking process), that desire for them to respond in a certain way is not the need itself, but simply a particular strategy that we imagine might meet the need. While we may desire to take a certain action, obtain a certain resource or effect a certain outcome in order to meet our need, these strategies are distinct from the need we aim to meet itself.

    Therefore, in NVC, “I need…” or “I have a need for…” should never be immediately followed by words such as “you”, “he”, “she”, “them”, “to,” “some,” “that,” “those,” or by naming a particular resource (with the exception of those resources, such as air, water or food, that really are themselves fundamental human needs). They should always be followed by a one or two word expression of a need such as those listed on the inventory.

    Practicing with the CNVC Needs Inventory will help reinforce the vocabulary with which to express the fundamental needs themselves, separate from potential strategies to meet those needs. Taking the time during this third step of the process to clarify our relevant need itself will, in turn, assist us in applying strategic wisdom in the last step of the process, when we finally request that which we believe most likely to meet that need.

    Examples of Expressing an Outcome Perceived as a Means to Meet a Need Rather Than the Need Itself

    • If we responded to our friend’s comment by saying “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt, so I need to make sure you understand how I feel…” that expresses an outcome that, if achieved, we believe would meet our need, rather than the unmet need itself underlying our hurt feeling – respect.

    • If we responded to our child’s behavior by saying “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased, so I need you two to get along better in the future…” that expresses an outcome that, if achieved, we believe would meet our need, rather than the met need itself underlying our pleased feeling – harmony.

    Examples of Expressing an Action We Wish to Take to Meet a Need Rather Than the Need Itself

    • If we responded to our friend’s comment by saying “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt, so I need to explain to you what I feel…” that expresses an action that, if we carried it out, we believe would meet our need, rather than the unmet need itself underlying our hurt feeling – respect.

    • If we responded to our child’s behavior by saying “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased, so I need to talk to you two about your relationship…” that expresses an action that, if we carried it out, we believe would meet our need, rather than the met need itself underlying our pleased feeling – harmony.

    Examples of Expressing a Resource We Desire to Meet a Need Rather Than the Need Itself

    • If we responded to our friend’s comment by saying “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt, so I need that money you owe me…” that expresses a desire for a resource that, if we obtain it, we believe would meet our need, rather than the unmet need itself underlying our hurt feeling – respect.

    • If we responded to our child’s behavior by saying “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased, so I need some more games that can keep you two playing nicely together…” that expresses a desire for a resource that, if we obtain it, we believe would meet our need, rather than the met need itself underlying our pleased feeling – harmony.

    Examples of Expressing a Behavior We Desire from Others to Meet a Need Rather Than the Need Itself

    • If we responded to our friend’s comment by saying “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt, so I need you to speak more nicely to me…” that expresses a desire for an action from our friend that we believe would meet our need, rather than the unmet need itself underlying our hurt feeling – respect.

    • If we responded to our child’s behavior by saying “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased and I need you to do that more often…” that expresses a desire for an action from our child that we believe would meet our need, rather than the met need itself underlying our pleased feeling – harmony.

    In all of these examples, it is important, during this step of the process, that we simply express our need itself – respect or harmony, for example – rather than any of the particular strategies that we believe might meet the need. This leaves room for flexible dialogue and negotiation regarding the strategy by which our need might best be met, while still respecting the needs of those with whom we are communicating. It is in the final step of the process that these ideas on how the need might be met finally come into the picture.

  4. REQUEST – The final step in the NVC speaking process is a deceptively simple one. The fact that we don’t already do it effectively more often is a testament to just how much confusion and fear exist for many of us surrounding the recognition and valuing of our own deepest needs in relation to the needs of others. We complete our expression by making a direct, concrete request for what we would like the other person to do to help meet our need and, as Rosenberg is fond of saying, help make life more wonderful for us.

    Examples of Making a Request

    • For instance, continuing with the example of responding to our friend’s comment, we might continue “When I heard you say to me [specific comment that was said], I felt hurt because of my need for respect. Next time you are upset, would you be willing to speak to me in a calmer tone of voice and tell me specifically what I’m doing that is triggering that feeling for you, rather than call me particular names?”

    • In continuing with the example of our child’s behavior, we might continue “When I saw you do [specific action] for your brother, I felt pleased because I have a need for harmony. Would you be willing to do that same action for your brother again tomorrow?”

    Making Requests Constructive and Affirmative, Specific and Measurable

    Notice that in both cases the request is constructive and affirmative. We ask not only for what we don’t want the person to do, but are sure to be clear about what we specifically do want the person to do. We don’t just ask our friend to stop using what we perceive as insults, for instance. We are sure to ask for what we’d like them to do instead.

    Also notice that both requests ask for specific, measurable actions. If our request is agreed to, we and the other person will know with great certainty whether the person does or does not carry out the action we requested. It will be relatively clear whether our friend’s voice tone is calmer and whether they told us specifically what led to their upset feelings the next time such a situation arises. It will be relatively clear whether our child repeats the same action for his brother tomorrow.

    A great deal of confusion and dissatisfaction arises from communications in which requests are made in a form that is either negative, rather than affirmative, or that is non-specific or un-measurable. If we ask a person not to do something, even if they comply, we may not be satisfied with what they do instead. We may even find the replacement behavior more troubling than the original behavior. Therefore, it is crucial to ask specifically for what we do want another person to do to meet our needs.

    Furthermore, if we ask for what we want in very vague terms - for instance, if we simply ask our friend to “be nicer” to us or ask our child to “do good things for your brother” - this leaves room for a great deal of misunderstanding. What if our friend’s idea of what is nice differs from ours due to his upbringing or cultural background? What if our child agrees to do good things for his brother, but disagrees with us about what is good or interprets this to mean that he should do good things once a year when we would prefer them done on a daily basis?

    By being specific about our desires in measurable terms, we add a precision to our communication that increases the likelihood of getting our needs met and of building trust with another person. In addition, if our requests are clear and specific, then, even if the person reneges on their agreement, it will at least give us a high degree of confidence in our ability to assess the trustworthiness of this person. We will be more sure that they actually failed to live up to their agreement, rather than that they simply misunderstood us.

    Requests vs. Demands

    Finally, notice that in this last step in the speaking process, we make a request (“Would you be willing to…?”), not a demand (“Do this for me.”). Demands are central to the very coercive, power-based mode of communication in contrast to which NVC was created. In expressing our observation, feeling and need, and then making a request, we show the other person our humanity before allowing them the choice of whether to do that which may improve our lives. But, at the same time, we respect their humanity by acknowledging their own boundaries and autonomy as we leave the choice of whether to comply in their hands and remain open to suggestions and discussion of alternative strategies to meet our need that might be preferred.

    Rosenberg points out that we can determine whether we are truly making a request or a demand not only by the wording of our expression, but by our reaction if it is denied. When an authentic request is denied, we may feel disappointed, but we fully acknowledge the other person’s “right” to make that decision because their feelings and needs are important just as ours are. However, if we begin to judge the other person because of their refusal to comply with our request, then the likelihood is that, despite any particular wording of our request, it was, in intent, a demand, not a request.
Incorporating these four components – Observation, Feeling, Need, Request – in our communications assures that we hit some of the most important leverage points for increasing the likelihood of our being understood, being empathized with and of having our request agreed to and our needs met. In addition, even if our request is denied, going through the inner process required to articulate these components helps us clarify our needs so that we can ably negotiate other satisfactory resolutions or more effectively seek their fulfillment elsewhere.

I have also found these factors very useful in troubleshooting relationship conflicts and misunderstandings. Whenever a communication in our lives is proving ineffective, it helps to ask ourselves which of these four components is either going unaddressed or is being expressed inaccurately.

LISTENING IN NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION

Marshall Rosenberg refers to the process of listening in NVC as “receiving empathically.” When we receive someone else’s communication empathically, we listen for and help draw out of the other person the same four elements that we seek to incorporate when we are speaking. We then mirror or paraphrase back to them what we can gather from their communications about these elements, asking for clarification and showing them that we truly seek to identify and understand their own observations, feelings, needs and requests.

We can apply this form of active listening regardless of whether the other person is using NVC in their speaking or not. As we reflect back one set of observations, feelings, needs or requests, more may follow, and a flow of compassion can build into a connection as we continue to mirror or paraphrase their communications. Ultimately, this process will enhance our ability to either meet the other person's needs in a satisfying way or, even if we are unable to agree to do so, actively display our compassion for their experience. When we help another person feel deeply heard and validated in this way, they are also far more likely to then be open to considering our own observations, feelings, needs and requests, in return.

While this process is useful in countless situations, and is very important in building relationships through sharing joys, it can be especially invaluable when we are faced with tense, conflicted situations. Often, others’ defense mechanisms, developed in response to earlier, perhaps long-forgotten traumas, render them unable to distinguish stimulus from cause. They may unconsciously project their blame-ridden feelings onto us in an attacking manner. In “receiving empathically,” even under such hostile conditions, we can react non-defensively, listening for the pain and unmet need behind the other person’s communication, and responding in a way that will more likely ease, rather than further escalate, the conflict. In some cases, our modeling of such a compassionate response in the face of a conflict driven by the repetition compulsion may initiate a ripple effect of change, beginning to heal a longstanding wound or trauma in the other person’s makeup and providing an example that affects how they respond to future conflict with us or with others in their lives.

Formal vs. Colloquial Nonviolent Communication

It may seem as if speaking in such a rigidly structured manner could come across as contrived or robotic. That’s true. It can. That’s why, in contrast to “Formal NVC,” in which every component must be explicitly and formulaically stated, some have taken to the use of “Colloquial NVC,” a more “street-friendly” style of applying the process.

Marshall Rosenberg is very clear that the crucial aspect of Nonviolent Communication is not necessarily in the words we say, but in where we focus our consciousness. (Hear Marshall explain that "what we say is not empathy" in this MP3 audio clip.) While the formal format of NVC is designed to help us focus our consciousness on those aspects of communication most likely to create a connection at the heart level, if we can make that same connection using different, more casual, words, that end is more important than the means. In fact, Rosenberg has even said that it is possible to fulfill the goals of all four components of NVC without saying a single word.

If you think about it, this makes sense. For instance, the look on our face or our body language can sometimes display our empathy with the feelings and needs of another person far more deeply than, for instance, repeating back what they said to us in a monotone voice. It is our energy in the relationship, rather than just our words, that speaks loudest and most powerfully signals our authentic presence.

Musicians often say that we first learn the rules so that we can then break them. It is advisable, when first learning NVC, to practice using the formal format, explicitly stating and mirroring back each of the four components. Rosenberg even tells the story of one newcomer to NVC, impressed with the process, who, until the skills became habitual, would pull out a reminder card in order to accurately practice it whenever merited by family situations. Eventually, as you become more familiar with and internalize the feel and goals of the formal NVC process, you can then become more free in how you speak, moving towards the more colloquial version, while still attaining the benefits for which NVC was designed.

If you find it very uncomfortable to practice the formal version of Nonviolent Communication with those in your daily life, you may want to start by searching within the NVC Community for others who wish to practice together. As you gain skill in using the process, you will become more comfortable using it both formally and colloquially in the rest of your life.

Applications of Nonviolent Communication

Obviously, Nonviolent Communication is extremely useful within our daily personal relationships. But it can also be used to improve communication and strengthen relationships in an almost unlimited array of contexts and environments.

Just some of the settings in which we can benefit from the principles and tools of NVC include:

    Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way

  • Parenting – Few communication settings are more challenging or more impacting than the parent-child relationship. In an often frightening world, how do we communicate with our children in ways that balance the importance of their safety with respect for their autonomy? How do we foster healthy development with minimal use of coercion based on fear, shame or guilt – tactics that may change their behavior, but at the cost of their self-esteem and sense of competence? The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers special resources for parents and Marshall Rosenberg offers his insight into this crucial topic in Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way.

    Life-Enriching Education: Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict, and Enhance Relationships

  • Schools – NVC-based techniques have been used to help schools develop effective, non-coercive, methods of administration. The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers information about its use in schools and Marshall Rosenberg shares his ideas on the topic in Life-Enriching Education: Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict, and Enhance Relationships.

  • Prisons – It stands to reason that any field focused on understanding the roots of and methods for minimizing violence would be highly relevant to the large prison population in our society. Marshall Rosenberg has done a great deal of work sharing NVC with many, including extremely violent offenders, in prison settings. The CNVC Freedom Project works to transform prisons and prisoners through education in the principles of Nonviolent Communication.

  • Mental Health – Marshall Rosenberg is himself a psychotherapist who early on became disillusioned with mainstream approaches to mental health, which too often focus on stigmatizing and pathologizing labels while overlooking the deeper underlying humanity of and mechanisms occurring within clients. Many psychotherapists and other mental health professionals have learned the principles of NVC and used them to inform and improve their practice with their clients.

  • Corporate and Governmental Institutions – As discussed, NVC is intimately tied to the notion of reducing coercive hierarchy. In our society, much of the present hierarchy resides in the great power of corporate and governmental institutions. CNVC explicitly states that one of NVC’s two main purposes is to “create governmental and corporate structures that support compassionate giving and receiving.” Its use has become an integral part, for example, of the campaign for a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace, associated with Congressman Dennis Kucinich, which holds monthly Nonviolent Communication conference calls. Rosenberg has spoken at length about how NVC relates to the role and function of corporations.

  • Mediation/Negotiations – Through its ability to help individuals and groups in conflict recognize the humanity of their “opponents” and clearly identify the central unmet needs perpetuating polarizations, NVC can powerfully impact mediations and negotiations between people or human systems of any type. Marshall Rosenberg himself has used NVC to help foster healing between groups of people in some of the most conflict-laden and war-torn regions of the world, such as Ireland, Rwanda, and the Middle East, including between relatives of victims and relatives of their killers. Such applications are among the most powerful and inspiring uses of NVC.

The Limits of Nonviolent Communication’s Effectiveness

Nonviolent Communication can help us tremendously in a wide array of settings. However, I have discovered certain circumstances and situations in which its assumptions break down and other, more specialized techniques may need to be brought in and used in conjunction with it in order to achieve a deeper resolution. Most of these challenges to NVC’s efficacy stem from the effects of extreme personality configurations and unconscious defense mechanisms that arise commonly in our culture in response to highly prevalent developmental trauma and other developmentally constraining conditions.

Relating With the Empathy-Challenged

NVC seeks to enhance our ability to create connections at the heart level by teaching us how to more effectively communicate and perceive our shared humanity with other people. By providing tools with which to more responsibly and openly express our deepest feelings and needs, along with the insight to recognize the universality of these same feelings and needs in our fellow humans, it fosters the development of empathy, the crucial linchpin of compassionate relationships. For many of us, even among those whose sense of empathy has been protectively dulled by our defense mechanisms, the powerful, authentic experience of practicing NVC is enough to safely and gently begin to dissolve those defenses and reconstitute our capacity for empathy.

However, there are those among us whose defense mechanisms have much more drastically diminished their capacity for empathy. Those suffering from personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, for instance, may maintain a psychological structure that challenges them in the area of empathy on a qualitatively different level than is the case even among others with relatively strong defenses. Meanwhile, those known as psychopaths and sociopaths, a much larger population within our society than many realize, may even be biologically incapable of empathy. People with conditions such as these may simply be unable to maintain a relationship of mutual respect and caring.

Therefore, when relating to such individuals, Nonviolent Communication is unlikely to be a powerful enough tool to consistently resolve conflicts and build a healthy connection. If they are to regain their capacity for empathy and the ability to maintain mutually respectful relationships, those with such pervasive personality dysfunctions are likely to require longer-term, deeper, far more specialized treatment.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to use NVC even when we suspect such a condition is involved in a given relationship. We may be pleasantly surprised by a person’s hidden capacity for empathy, especially once we have gained their trust through consistent active listening and validation. Moreover, even if the person does eventually prove incapable of engaging in a healthy relationship, the non-defensive approach and precise focus of NVC may help us more confidently make conclusions about the nature of the relationship with minimal conflict, all the while building our own skill in practicing empathy in even the most challenging situations.

Nonetheless, it is crucial for our safety and health that, without jumping to conclusions, we become aware, as soon as possible, if a person suffers from a serious empathy-challenging condition. This will allow us to begin to use even more specialized communication techniques designed for use with such highly defended individuals or, when necessary, to leave the relationship.

Sadly, our extremely hierarchical culture rests upon and requires the establishment of empathy-challenged individuals in positions of great power. Borderlines, narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths and others, unable to fully respect the humanity, feelings and needs of others, often take on or are given roles in institutions ranging from parental to governmental to corporate that imbue them with tremendous influence over others. When such individuals and institutions then infringe on the ability of others to reasonably meet their needs, and communication processes like NVC prove inadequate to restore balance and respect, even Rosenberg recognizes that other measures, up to and including the use of force, may be justified. However, even in these most extreme cases, Rosenberg offers us valuable insight, distinguishing the responsible and sometimes necessary “protective use of force” from the indulgent and conflict-escalating “punitive use of force.”

Thus, while NVC alone may not resolve some of the most egregious violations brought about by the empathy-impaired and the institutions under their influence, it can still help us to more clearly recognize when we are or are not dealing with such a situation, and to make sure that when we do use more extreme measures, we use them wisely and optimally.

Addictive Cycles: When Defense Mechanisms Reverse the Relationship Between Pleasure/Pain and Needs

Nonviolent Communication seems to rest on the following assumptions and logic:
  • When a need is met, it causes us pleasant emotions.

  • When a need is unmet, it causes us unpleasant emotions.

  • Therefore, we can use pleasure and displeasure to identify the state of our needs and, by seeking and requesting that which that bring us pleasure and alleviates pain or discomfort, we will more fully meet our needs, leading to a more satisfying and healthy life.
As simple and sensible as these assumptions may sound, I have found that due to the extreme prevalence of defense mechanisms in our culture, which greatly skew our emotional experience as it relates to perception of the state of our needs, these assumptions, especially in the short-term timeframe in which NVC often operates, very often prove false.

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model explains that our psyche is experienced as consisting of what may be understood as a family or tribe of subselves. Operating as if it had its own personality, each subself or “part” in this “multiplicity of mind” prioritizes certain of our needs and advocates for the meeting of those particular needs. In a healthy individual – just as in a healthy family, community or any other human system – the various parts interrelate in a harmonious balance, respecting the importance not only of the needs that they prioritize, but also of the needs that other parts prioritize, in the development of wholeness in the person. In such a state, coordinated by the wise leadership of what IFS terms the Self, NVC might be correct in assuming that a person could clearly identify needs and rely on pleasure and pain to guide them accurately to them.

However, when an individual develops in a constraining environment or experiences developmental trauma, as happens so commonly in our culture, fragmentation and polarization may emerge among the arrangement of the various parts of the personality. As important needs go unmet during sensitive periods of the maturation process, the system may cope by thrusting various parts into extreme, overly influential roles in which they overwhelmingly assert their own prioritized needs in the service of blocking out or “exiling” the parts that prioritize the consistently unmet needs. Thus, faced with the inability to meet important needs, the system may seek to avoid consciousness of the parts of the personality that would otherwise continue to painfully remind us of this deprivation and we may lose awareness altogether of the very things we need most.

This process generates the buried, unconscious aspect of the personality that Carl Jung calls the Shadow and that Harville Hendrix calls the “lost self,” and sets up a vicious cycle. As the needs perceived by the personality’s dominant rigid “manager” and impulsive “firefighter” parts are consistently met, they eventually cease to truly represent needs and their continued prioritization may no longer foster health for the individual, but serve simply to further repress our feared, mistrusted exiled parts. Despite this, because such pain is attached to reconnecting with the wounded vulnerable exiles in our system that unconsciously embody the real needs that would move us toward wholeness, these managers and firefighters may continue to generate intense immediate pleasure when their perceived needs – which are really just wants - are met. Although their temporary pleasure comes at the expense of our true needs and long-term health, these defensive subselves may continue to encourage us to seek and request that which will gratify their desires and, hence, further reinforce and polarize the dysfunctional personality structure. In this way, pleasure becomes increasingly uncoupled from our authentic needs and linked instead to the extreme wants of unhealthy repressive parts of the personality.

Meanwhile, since the needs embodied in our exiled parts may be associated with pain due to our past related wounds, any consciousness of or attempts to meet those long unmet, but authentic and crucial, needs may, especially at first, prove extremely unpleasant.

This vicious cycle of mistaking temporarily pleasing wants for needs, while further fueling the repression of parts of us that represent our truly unmet needs, leads to long term deterioration of health and is the very process and state that underlies addictive cycles of all types. And since addictions – ranging from the more visible drug and alcohol addictions to the more subtle, insidious behavioral addictions (shopping, gambling, sex, romance, eating, work, etc.) – are epidemic in our culture, this associated reversal of the pleasure/pain-needs relationship poses a quite significant challenge to the effectiveness of NVC. In most cases, the only way out of these addictive cycles, which generate such dysfunction and suffering throughout our society, is to go through a painful period of withdrawal, just one example, as in the case of exercise, where meeting our real needs for sustainable health is at least temporarily uncomfortable, rather than pleasurable.

Few people caught in this common cycle, in the process of using Nonviolent Communication, would, based on their experience of pleasure and pain, actively request that which would meet their exiled needs. After all, even becoming aware of those needs brings pain, not pleasure. Yet, since undergoing that temporary pain of withdrawal, reintegrating the Shadow, and meeting those desperately unmet needs is exactly what is necessary to regain long term health, NVC may not only prove ineffective in the huge number of situations involving addiction, but may even, through encouraging one to seek temporarily pleasurable wants rather than temporarily uncomfortable needs, reinforce the addiction further.

The lesson we learn from the instructive case of addiction and withdrawal is that sometimes what our emotions tell us we want is not only not what we need, but is actually something that will further distance us from what it is we really do need. Sometimes what we really need, at first, brings us great discomfort, even though it is ultimately a crucial step on the road to sustainable health. Therefore, as wonderful as NVC is, there are many situations that call for tools like Internal Family Systems Therapy that can delve deeper into the mechanisms underlying our experiences than can the simpler pleasure/pain indicator framework in which NVC is based. Using these more powerful methods, we can not only notice pleasure and pain, but recognize the nature and state of the particular subselves generating those experiences, assess their role within the overall system of our psyche, proactively seek otherwise unconscious aspects of our personality, and heal the dysfunctional configurations that comprise our unhealthy defense mechanisms.

When an Observation Stimulates Mixed or Conflicting Feelings and Needs

Nonviolent Communication depends upon our ability to recognize the feeling and need that stem from a given observation at a particular time. However, we have all experienced – and the Internal Family Systems model helps to explain – the fact that the very same observation may stimulate simultaneous mixed or conflicting feelings and needs within us. This occurs because of the fact that different subselves in our “multiplicity of mind” value different needs and hence experience different feelings as the same situation or event exerts its influence on their very different, sometimes polarized, priorities. Thus, it may be very difficult at times to simply express a particular feeling and need and to be clear about what request we wish to make.

This is yet another reason why, in pursuing our personal development, we would be wise to employ more powerful tools such as IFS, in addition to practicing NVC, in order to become conscious not only of our feelings and needs, but of which parts of us generate each of our various feelings and needs, which of those parts are playing healthy as opposed to extreme roles, and to proactively work to bring greater balance and harmony to our psychological system.

There are three ways, however, that we can still use NVC in an effective role even within the context of mixed or conflicting feelings and needs.
  • The first is by simply expressing or empathizing with all of the various feelings and needs stimulated by a particular observation, rather than limiting ourselves to focusing on only one of each. Once the breadth of current experience is articulated, it becomes possible to seek third-hand solutions that transcend the dichotomies posed by the conflicts between our various stimulated parts.

  • The second is by simply using NVC to express the “meta-feeling” and “meta-need” involved in the experience of being fragmented or conflicted itself. For instance, the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Feelings Inventory, in the “confused” category, lists feelings such as “torn” and “ambivalent” that capture well the experience of inner conflict. In this circumstance, such feelings may well relate to unmet needs identified by the CNVC Needs Inventory as “clarity,” “peace,” or “integrity.” While expressing such feelings and needs using NVC in this particular way may not communicate enough information to resolve their underlying causes, it can at least serve as an opening to a fruitful dialogue that builds understanding and empathy and may serve as a foundation for subsequently applying tools that require greater trust and disclosure.

  • Finally, in a very intriguing application, NVC can be used within the context of IFS. After identifying particular parts of the personality generating specific relevant feelings and needs, these parts can be guided in an internal dialogue with each other about each of their observations, feelings, needs and requests using the language of Nonviolent Communication. This process may help resolve inner conflicts and polarizations between subselves, just as it does between individuals in the external world.

The Repetition Compulsion: When Needs Really Are Dependent On More Specific People or Circumstances

Nonviolent Communication seeks to strongly discredit the mistaken perception that we are dependent on any particular person taking any particular action or on any particular situation to meet a need. It is a significant tenet of NVC that there are a wide array of strategies by which to meet any particular need. This tenet is, technically, true. In many cases, we may even come to realize ourselves that, despite our initial intense emotional experience mistakenly leading us to believe that our need was dependent on a very specific person or situation, it never really was at all.

However, there are cases in which, while not dependent on just one person’s action or on one situation, needs are nonetheless dependent on relatively specific conditions. The repetition compulsion, a concept central to much of psychology and at the heart of Imago Relationship Therapy, dictates that certain needs can only truly be fulfilled by people or in situations that resemble those present during early occasions on which they initially went unmet. The theory says that we are driven to meet such needs through a process of replaying earlier traumas stemming from deprivation in order to attain a sense of mastery by creating a more successful outcome this time around.

Thus, while still technically true, there may be an important limitation to NVC’s view of needs as broadly independent of context. Nonetheless, even if we do require a need to be met by a particular type of person or in a particular type of setting, NVC can play a role in increasing the likelihood of our gaining empathy and agreement to meet our request from that person or in that setting. Finding the required places or attracting the necessary people through which to meet needs tied to the repetition compulsion, however, may require other tools, or, as Imago teaches, a reliance on our unconscious.

Romantic Attraction

While it may seem that the caring, compassionate type of communication inherent in the use of Nonviolent Communication would be attractive to potential romantic prospects who ostensibly value a loving and sensitive partner, I have found that, often, this is not the case. Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy helps to explain why. According to the theory, our romantic attraction template – the unconscious image of our ideal partner to which we compare new potential mates, which Hendrix calls our Imago, after the Latin word for image – develops as a reflection not of a healthy desired environment, but of the environment in which we were raised. Specifically, it wires us for attraction to partners that display a mixture of both the “positive” and “negative” qualities of our original caregivers, as well as traits that were repressed in us during socialization. This process is driven by the repetition compulsion, and serves to encourage us to re-engage with partners and in situations that closely mimic the environments of our past traumatic woundings in order to give us the opportunity to master those scenarios this time around.

Given that most of us were raised in an extremely hierarchical, power-based culture, it is likely that such an imbalanced arrangement was reflected in the personality structures of our caregivers, and that, depending on the conditions of our upbringing, either very vulnerable or very authoritative aspects of ourselves were repressed. Therefore, for many of us, sometimes even in spite of our conscious wishes, our Imago is likely to drive us to be romantically attracted to those that reflect not a balanced, compassionate state, but either the rigid, emotionally-withdrawn defensive style typical of those Hendrix calls Minimizers or the more impulsive, emotionally-explosive defensive style of those that he terms Maximizers. Individuals with either of these two defensive styles, which represent complementary methods of coping with unmet needs or trauma in development, are unlikely to initially be able to consistently apply emotionally responsible communication methods such as NVC when defenses are significantly triggered.

Therefore, while the proficient use of NVC may signal precisely the type of compassion and respect that one eventually does hope to achieve in a romantic relationship, such empathetic, egalitarian-minded communication may initially fail to spark romantic attraction in those who maintain deep unmet needs and, as a result, a hierarchical personality structure that reflects their upbringing and instead attracts them to a relationship with the potential for something of a dominant/submissive power dynamic. It is for this reason that successful communication techniques designed specifically for stimulating romantic attraction, rather than focusing primarly on conveying kindness and warmth alone, often include tactics, ranging from mildly forward to, at times, crude, aimed at projecting traits typical of the moderately extreme ends of this power spectrum.

It is interesting to note that the method of NVC relates in many ways to the Intentional Dialogue method of communication central to Imago Relationship Therapy. Both are forms of communication designed to dissolve hierarchical power dynamics and restore greater equality and harmony to relationships. However, it is crucial to recognize that Intentional Dialogue’s greatest impact comes not during the initial “Romantic Love” phase, during which Imago advises acceding to the wishes of the unconscious in choosing a partner, but in the process of resolving the second phase, the “Power Struggle”, in which partners’ defenses often violently clash, and attaining the third and final “Real Love” phase of the relationship. No doubt, NVC could also be a useful adjunct during these later periods of relationship development, but its use in the “Romantic Love” stage may prove less than effective in fostering a growing erotic bond.

This is not to say that there aren’t many people who could be passionately drawn to the type of partner who practices NVC early in the relationship. However, because of the repetition compulsion, it is likely that many of us will simply not be romantically attracted by the use of this type of communication at the beginning of a relationship. According to Imago, the deep healing of a hierarchical, power-based society comes not through immediately engaging directly in egalitarian relationships, but rather by re-engaging in very specific, intimate power-laden relationships that meet partners where they are at, and in which we can gradually work through and finally resolve our wounds, only then emerging into the ability to sustain a healthy, empathetic relationship. In other words, when it comes to romance, NVC may, for many of us, not be the means to initiate relationships, but rather part of the eventual emergent result of the healing that occurs in later phases of the relationship only after working through, rather than avoiding, the Power Struggle. This circumstance may render a sustainable healthy relationship contingent, in some cases, on applying power dynamic-based attraction techniques in fostering initial romantic engagement, followed by a transition, only in the middle and late phases of the relationship, into the regular practice of more egalitarian communication methods such as NVC and Intentional Dialogue.

It should be noted that not all healing of our defenses must take place within a romantic relationship and that, as we heal, our Imago does change to reflect this. Therefore, practicing NVC in our other relationships may well help us meet more of our unmet needs, rendering our defenses less extreme and allowing us to attract a somewhat healthier romantic partner. However, according to Imago, we are unable to heal fully outside of a sustained romantic relationship. So, in that model, we are highly unlikely to initiate a romance without still reflecting some of our remaining hierarchical inner structure in our behavior.

A Life-Changing Field: The Benefits of Nonviolent Communication

Despite any such limits to its role as a revolutionary communication technique, Nonviolent Communication remains a fantastic, life-changing field, and one of the most important that I’ve ever encountered. Its practice has the potential to change how you perceive the experiences, motivations and behaviors of yourself and others. And it offers tools that can bring about - or at least set the stage for the use of other tools which can bring about - more optimal results in a wide variety of situations.

Among the many benefits of learning and practicing Nonviolent Communication are:

Personal Development

  • Through practice clarifying and articulating your observations, feelings, needs and requests, gain deep insight into your own inner process and experiences.

  • Break down cultural conditioning and unravel fragmenting and isolating defense mechanisms through practice distinguishing observations from evaluations, feelings from thoughts, stimulus from cause, needs from need-meeting strategies, and gaining an intuitive, responsible recognition of your met or unmet needs as the ultimate source of your feelings.

  • Directly and practically increase your Emotional Intelligence by building a vocabulary with which to specifically articulate your feelings and needs.

  • Set the stage for and supplement deeper work with tools such as Neurolinguistic Programming and Internal Family Systems Therapy by beginning to recognize and value the feelings and needs of all of your various subselves and becoming aware of related inner imbalances that underlie dysfunctions such as addictions and codependence.

  • Learn to make specific, affirmative, measurable requests that are more likely to get your needs met.

  • Improve strategic thinking about various alternative ways to get particular needs met.

  • Back idealistic principles with practical techniques that can turn them into lived action in your relationships, career or any other setting.

Building Connection

  • Practically develop a non-judgmental constructive attitude that supports an atmosphere of trust and understanding.

  • Through practice eliciting their observations, feelings, needs and requests, gain insight into the inner process and experiences of others.

  • Supplement related tools like Imago’s Intentional Dialogue designed to foster consciousness, safety and harmony at crucial phases of important relationships.

  • Improve skill at strategizing ways to mutually meet needs with others.

  • Become part of a community of NVC practitioners who share and are committed to practicing and living out its values.

Preventing, Troubleshooting, Resolving and Managing Conflict

  • Communicate with a precision that fosters mutual recognition and satisfaction of needs and prevents the most common misunderstandings that underlie unnecessary conflict.

  • Bolster your conflict management toolkit with a third-hand solution that transcends the dichotomy between escalating conflict through attack (fight) and tolerating simmering tension while avoiding expression of challenging feelings and needs (flight).

  • Pinpoint the absent or ineffectively expressed aspects of communication that generate and perpetuate particular misunderstandings and conflicts.

  • Respond effectively to defuse, rather than escalate, intense, and even dangerous, conflicts, by seeing beyond defense mechanisms at their surface to the key unmet needs at their core.

  • More accurately assess the nature of relationships, confidently recognize the empathy-challenged, and wisely employ more advanced communication or protective measures, including, as last resorts, refraining from contact or the protective use of force.

Promote a Healthier, More Empathetic Culture

  • Recognize how subtle, insidious forms of fear, shame, guilt, coercion, praise, criticism and demands generate an environment of disrespect and dehumanization and help dissolve the resulting oppressive hierarchical power structures through a focus on the shared feelings and needs that humanize individuals and groups to each other.

  • Serve as a model and example of how healthier communication can heal defense mechanisms and generate a ripple effect of empathetic relationships between human systems on all levels.

OTHER RESOURCES REGARDING NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION

  • Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) – CNVC is the central nexus point for NVC-related information and resources. It seeks to spread the understanding and use of Nonviolent Communication and its principles amongst individuals, families, and corporate, governmental and other social institutions. To this end it offers educational books, articles and audio clips, trainings, and links to certified NVC teachers and practitioner groups.

  • PuddleDancer Press – The premier publisher of Nonviolent Communication-related works. Offers a wide array of books and other resources by Marshall Rosenberg and colleagues regarding NVC and its use in many particular settings. Also offers an impressive and diverse array of testimonials to the power and effectiveness of NVC.

  • All of my Blog Posts Tagged Nonviolent Communication

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