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Interested in improving your relationships? Try Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a popular method of conflict resolution that privileges unbiased evidence and specificity. While NVC is often used in relationship counselling and political negotiation, it is also a tool for thinking that may help improve the way you communicate, whether it be with family, friends, colleagues. This post teaches you the four steps of NVC so that you can use them in your own relationships. If you learn to use it, benefits might include clarity in understanding and realising your own desires, increased compassion and empathy towards yourself and others, and closer, more meaningful relationships.

 

NVC is a process developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s, and the content of this post (including most of the examples) are taken from his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. The premise of NVC is that many of our habitual, automatic responses to other people may cause them harm. Rosenberg called this “violent” communication and believed that language encourages us to judge, compare and make demands of each other. We have all found ourselves engaging in this kind of communication at times (whether inwardly or outwardly), and adopting the four steps of NVC may provide an effective solution. We think it's important to note that NVC should only be used in situations where people have each other's best interests at heart. It isn't helpful in abusive relationships (where it might be dangerous to expose information to an abuser) or in relationships of unequal power dynamics (for example, the relationship between a CEO and their intern, where it might not be appropriate to ask for personal information).

 

The Four Steps of NVC:

  1. Observe Facts - observe the specific facts that are affecting our wellbeing, and bring them up with the other person

  2. Note Feelings - introspect about what exactly we are feeling in response to what we've observed, and communicate these feelings

  3. Uncover Desires - figure out the desires, wants and values that are creating our feelings, and explain them to the other person

  4. Make Requests - ask for concrete actions to help resolve the situation

 

When we find ourselves in a situation of conflict or distress with another person, we are often trying to express our unmet desires (which manifest as feelings) or defend ourselves against someone expressing theirs. Let’s imagine hearing someone say:

 

Felix, you always leave your dirty socks on the floor! It’s disgusting! Clean this up before you do anything else.

 

If we were Felix, we probably wouldn’t respond well to this demand. Instead, we could try using the four steps of NVC to clearly express our observations, feelings and desires, and conclude with an explicit request. Here’s an example that Rosenberg gives:

 

[1. Observe Facts] Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table, [2. Note Feelings] I feel irritated because [3. Uncover Desires] I want more order in the rooms that we share in common - [4. Make Requests] would you be willing to put your socks in the washing machine?

 

The advantage of communicating in this way is that the other person knows exactly what you want and why, without them feeling judged, shamed or threatened into changing their behaviour. Similarly, trying to identify what the other person observes, feels and desires makes it easier to work out what they might request from us.

 

Let’s examine each of these four steps in detail:

 

1. Observe facts, rather than making judgments or exaggerations.

We cannot always remain completely objective, but the first step of NVC is to separate observations (such as “the last three times that I initiated an activity, you said you didn’t want to do it”) and judgments (such as “you never do what I want”). Speaking without making a judgment, criticism or other form of analysis takes a lot of practice to do well for most people. But by leaving the judgment out and sticking to only facts, you are saying something that is both indisputable, and less likely to cause the other person to become upset or defensive. Rosenberg suggests that if we make an objective observation about a situation, it should be specific to time and context.

Delivering a judgment alongside even a valid observation may lead the recipient to resist the observation as an unfair criticism. Blaming, labelling, comparing, criticising and diagnosing all imply wrongness or badness on the part of other people.

 

2. Note feelings, rather than giving random thoughts or expectations.

The second step of NVC is to describe what emotion this specific observation makes us feel. Clearly expressing our emotions is an important step in NVC because it helps the listener empathise with us and become more receptive to our desires. When “feelings” are expressed as thoughts or expectations, they can too often be interpreted as evaluations of the other person’s actions (or lack thereof). In the English language, we frequently use the word feel without actually expressing a feeling.

Something that this exercise makes clear is that there aren’t as many words as we need to describe our emotional states. Many people use a limited dictionary of “good”, “bad”, “sad” and “happy” to describe what they are experiencing. Men may be especially socialised to mask and ignore their emotions, which could have a negative impact on their mental health.

 

3. Uncover the desires behind your specific feeling.

In Rosenberg’s model, our feelings reflect our desires and whether they are being met or not. We feel “good” when our desires for love, understanding and attention are met, for example, and we feel “bad” when these desires are not met. Very often, we don’t acknowledge that our feelings are an expression of our desires. Instead, we focus on the person or situation that made us feel a certain way.

 

The third step of NVC is to identify the desire that caused you to react in such a way to a situation and communicate it to the listener. There are several ways that we use language in these situations that can confuse this step, largely by glossing over our desires and denying personal responsibility for our feelings:

 

If we take responsibility for our feelings, it is much easier to focus on what we desire, and we can also begin to focus on what other people desire (by paying attention to what they are feeling). Women have historically been taught their ignore their own desires in favour of caring for others. Difficulty asking for one’s needs to be met out of fear of disapproval can have negative effects on everyone.

 

4. Make explicit requests based on these desires, not demands.

Once you have established and made explicit what you want, the final step of NVC is to make a request for this desire to be fulfilled. Rosenberg points out that if we fail to include our feelings and needs alongside the request, then we can sound like we are just making a demand; requests are received as demands when listeners believe that they will be punished or blamed if they do not comply.

 

Like the other steps of NVC, it is important to make requests that are specific and not vague. The clearer we are about what we want, the more likely we are to get it. When we try and do this, we sometimes realise that our expectations about how our needs can be met are unrealistic and embarrassing. You can read a poignant example of this, from a conversation Rosenberg had with a client, at the end of this post. It is important to remember that you can never make anyone do anything, and attempting this can have a negative impact on your relationship in the future.

 

Now that we have examined the four steps of NVC, observation, feelings, needs and requests, here is another example that uses these steps together:

 

Amina, when I see that you have eaten some of my food from the fridge, I feel stressed because I want my belongings to be treated with respect - would you be willing to only eat the food that you buy?

 

When we express ourselves like this, it can be challenging at first. Once you are familiar with the four steps of NVC, you don’t have to speak using the formula above for the technique to be successful. Here’s the example from earlier expressed in another way:

 

Felix, you know your socks? I found a few pairs today, and it made me feel annoyed and kind of sad. I’m sure you’re not trying to make me annoyed, but I think it gets to me because I really like order. Do you think you could put them in the washing machine instead?

 

There is no hard data we know of that proves whether NVC actually improves relationships and resolves conflict, although Rosenberg’s book provides many compelling examples that the reader will probably identify with. While we might not agree with his premise that humans are innately compassionate, the four components of NVC may be helpful when you find yourself struggling to communicate what matters to you, or in recurring situations of verbal conflict.

 

Here's a recap of the four steps of NVC:

  1. Observe Facts - observe the specific facts that are affecting our wellbeing, and bring them up with the other person

  2. Note Feelings - introspect about what exactly we are feeling in response to what we've observed, and communicate these feelings

  3. Uncover Desires - figure out the desires, wants and values that are creating our feelings, and explain them to the other person

  4. Make Requests - ask for concrete actions to help resolve the situation

 

Using these steps can make communication much smoother, even in situations where there is no obvious conflict. It trains us to pay attention to what other people (and ourselves) are perceiving, feeling and desiring without introducing biased judgments into the mix.

 

Are there ways in which you can use Nonviolent Communication in your own life?

If you want to find out whether NVC works for you, start observing which of your conversations go well and which go badly, and try out the four steps described above.

 

If you found this information useful, then you’re likely to get even more out of reading Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, which you can find on Amazon. We also offer our own free program for resolving harmful situations. It uses a different framework, E.A.R.R. (exit, alter, react or reframe) that we developed, to help you form a response to a challenging situation.

 

Here’s the example that we mentioned earlier on, which shows someone using NVC to try and identify what they want:

 

Rosenberg: What are you wanting that you are not receiving?

...

Client: I just want someone to love me. That’s hardly unreasonable, is it?

Rosenberg: It’s a good start. Now I’d like you to clarify what you would like people to do to fulfil your need to be loved. For example, what can I do right now?

Client: Oh, you know…

Rosenberg: I’m not sure I do. I’d like you to tell me what you would like me, or others, to do to give you the love that you’re looking for.

Client: That’s hard.

Rosenberg: Yes it can be difficult to make clear requests. But think how hard it will be for others to respond to our request if we’re not even clear what it is!…

Client: If I really reflect on what I’m requesting when I ask to be loved, I suppose I want you to guess what I want before I’m even aware of it. And then I want you to always do it.

Rosenberg: I’m grateful for your clarity. I hope you can see how you are not likely to find someone who can fulfil your need for love if that’s what it takes.