Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life By Marshall B. Rosenberg
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg presents a method of communication free from judgments or demands, which results in more productive interactions for all parties involved. The practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) encourages connection through compassionate conversation, both with others and with ourselves, and Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication and a global educator, uses this book to introduce us to the NVC process he’s developed. Dr. Rosenberg employs techniques from his experiences dealing with conflicts around the world to share practical and sustainable strategies, giving us all the tools required to effectively communicate our feelings and needs in any situation.
Here’s what you’ll learn about in this summary:
- What is Nonviolent Communication? How can it be used to get what you really want?
- How you can practice NVC at home to connect with family and friends, and in the office to connect with coworkers, employees and employers.
- How to start on a path of emotional liberation, and what to expect on each stage of the journey.
- The importance of an emotional vocabulary, and ways to build that vocabulary through conversations with yourself and others.
“NVC helps us connect with each other and ourselves in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish. It guides us to reframe the way we express ourselves and listen to others by focusing our consciousness on four areas: what we are observing, feeling, and needing, and what we are requesting to enrich our lives.” —Marshall B. Rosenburg, Nonviolent Communication
“If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met.” —Marshall B. Rosenburg, Nonviolent Communication
“My experience has taught me that it’s possible to resolve just about any conflict to everybody’s satisfaction. All it takes is a lot of patience, the willingness to establish a human connection, the intention to follow NVC principles until you reach a solution, and trust that the process will work.” —Marshall B. Rosenburg, Nonviolent Communication
Getting what you want depends on the honest expression of your feelings and needs to others. Nonviolent Communication introduces real ways to communicate without relying on judgments or demands.
- CONNECTING WITH OTHERS AND OURSELVES
- YOU CAN’T “DO” A “DON’T”
- EMOTIONAL LIBERATION
- VOICING OUR FEELINGS
- RESOLVING CONFLICT WITHOUT COMPROMISE
- EXPRESSING APPRECIATION THROUGH NVC
1. CONNECTING WITH OTHERS AND OURSELVES
“As we keep our attention focused…, and help others do likewise, we establish a flow of communication, back and forth, until compassion manifests naturally: what I am observing, feeling, and needing; what I am requesting to enrich my life; what you are observing, feeling, and needing; what you are requesting to enrich your life…” —Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of communicating that leads us to give from the heart, allowing us to stay connected to our compassionate nature through our relationships with others. Through the practice of NVC we can stop the harmful communication patterns of defending, withdrawing, and attacking, in favor of observing, identifying, and articulating.
There are four main components to the NVC process:
OBSERVATIONS + FEELINGS + NEEDS + REQUESTS
- The concrete actions we OBSERVE that affect our well-being
- How we FEEL in relation to what we observe
- The NEEDS, values, desires, etc. that create our feelings
- The concrete actions we REQUEST in order to enrich our lives
Typically, we first observe what is happening, whether it is something being said or done, and quickly introduce judgment or evaluation — do I like or dislike this message or action? But with NVC, we practice observing without judgment.
Here’s how a conversation rooted in Nonviolent Communication would play out:
- We observe without judgment,
- articulate what that message or action makes us feel,
- identify what we need in response to that message or action,
- and then make a request based on that need.
A helpful example is the parent-child relationship. If the parent wants their child to tidy up a family living space, there are several possible ways to approach the situation. A parent who practices NVC would say, “When I see your dirty socks all over the living room (that’s an OBSERVATION), I feel irritated (that’s a FEELING) because I need more order in the rooms we share (that’s a NEED).” That parent would follow the statement of OBSERVATION + FEELING + NEED with a REQUEST: “Would you be willing to put your socks in the room or in the washing machine?”
NVC is not meant to exist as a set formula, but an adaptable communication technique to use in any situation. Dr. Rosenberg reminds us that “the essence of NVC is in our consciousness of the four components, not in the actual words that are exchanged.” Through this style of communication, we can honestly express our needs and feelings, and empathetically receive the needs and feelings of others.
- Identify and write down your responses to three recent words and/or actions from others, and note whether they are based in judgment (do I like or dislike this message or action?) or based in feeling (this action makes me feel hurt, joyful, irritated, amused, etc…).
2. YOU CAN’T “DO” A “DON’T”
“Communicating our desires as demands is yet another form of language that blocks compassion.” —Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
We have the power to communicate our desires without making demands… But when we judge, criticize, diagnose, and interpret, rather than EXPRESS OUR FEELINGS directly, people are more likely to hear criticism and invest their time in self-defense instead of communication.
To avoid this, and to maintain productive lines of communication between ourselves and others, we can practice observing without judgment.
For example, if we want to express frustration about a co-worker’s tendency to put work off until the last minute, we may be tempted to say, “Doug procrastinates.” But this kind of communication judges and criticizes Doug and fails to request a change in Doug’s behavior, proving unproductive at best and incendiary at worst. Instead, we can practice Nonviolent Communication and say, “Doug tends to prepare for his presentations the day before.” This kind of communication expresses specific concerns without judgment or criticism, and encourages a solution-based conversation.
Vague language contributes to confusion, but we can use clear, positive language to express requests without making demands.
By focusing on what we DO want to happen, rather than on what we DON’T want to happen, we can speak to our desires.
This expression of feeling can be paired with a request for action and request for reflection, to ensure that our needs and desires have been heard.
If we speak to Doug, we may say, “Doug, I don’t want you to wait until the last minute to prepare this presentation.” This is asking Doug not to do something, but provides no direction for what Doug should do.
Keep the following maxim in mind: You can’t “do” a “don’t.”
So, instead of saying, “Doug, I don’t want you to wait until the last minute to prepare this presentation” we can say, “Doug, I’d like you to have a draft of the presentation done three days before the presentation is due. Will that timeline work for you?” This is clearly asking Doug to do something, and asking Doug to confirm that he understands and will commit to the task.
This method of using positive language to express requests for action and reflection can be used when speaking to individuals, but can also be an extremely compelling way to communicate with groups.
- Identify and write down three conversations you’ve had in the past week in which you focused on the negative — when did you say “don’t”? Rewrite these comments and/or requests to make them more positive — how could you have said “do” instead of “don’t”?
- And remember: you can’t “do” a “don’t.”
3. EMOTIONAL LIBERATION
“We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to factors outside ourselves…” —Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
When we communicate in impersonal ways, we are not prepared to encounter people or behaviors we do not like or understand, and are likely to “react in terms of their wrongness.” If an employer assigns a task we don’t want to do, they are “mean” or “unreasonable.” If a family member fails to complete a household chore, they are “lazy” or “ungrateful.” Through the practice of NVC, we have the power to turn our attention away from the practice of classifying or determining levels of wrongness when we communicate with others. We also have the power to turn our attention toward what we and others need.
Dr. Rosenberg refers to this process as “emotional liberation”, and observes that most people experience it in three stages:
Stage 1. We believe ourselves to be responsible for the feelings of others:
It is easier and safer to take responsibility for others than it is for ourselves — and we all do it! — but this heavy emotional burden can be destructive.
Stage 2. We get angry and reject the burden of responsibility for the feelings of others:
Once we acknowledge this pattern of unnecessary responsibility, we get angry at the time and energy spent on things we couldn’t change. As a result, this stage is marked by obnoxious claims (“Well, that’s your problem!”) and rigid demands of our own needs.
Stage 3. We turn our attention to our own feelings, and take responsibility for our own intentions and actions:
Once we have passed the anger of Stage Two, we can start acting responsibly toward ourselves and our own feelings. These are things we can control, and in this liberating third stage, we see just how productive and rewarding our attention can be.
It is possible to pursue emotional liberation and embrace positivity by turning our focus inward, engaging in responsible exploration of our own feelings, and by avoiding patterns of communication that lead us towards blaming or judging others.
Write down your answers to the following questions:
- For whose feelings do you believe yourself responsible?
- How does that responsibility make you feel?
- Have those feelings affected how you communicate with that person? If so, how would you like to change this communication?
4. VOICING OUR FEELINGS
“By developing a vocabulary of feelings that allows us to clearly and specifically name or identify our emotions, we can connect more easily with one another.” —Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
It’s far too common to use the words “I feel…” without expressing a feeling. We might say “I feel like my work is unappreciated,” but using the phrase, “I think…” would be much more accurate: “I think my work is unappreciated.”
Through the practice of NVC, we can distinguish between what we feel (“I feel…”) and what we think about ourselves and the actions or reactions of others (“I think…”). Expressing our feelings with easily understood words and phrases can help us to resolve internal conflicts by treating ourselves with kindness, and can also help us to resolve conflicts outside ourselves by approaching others with empathy and understanding.
For example, if a college student is being kept awake by her roommate, she might try to start a conversation by saying, “I feel that it isn’t right to play music so loudly after 10:00 pm.” However, when the word “feel” is used with the word “that,” no emotions are really being expressed. Instead, the college student in this scenario is expressing an opinion. A more productive start to the conversation would include a feeling, an observation, a need, and a request: “I feel annoyed when you play music after 10:00 pm because I need seven hours of sleep before I wake up for work. Would you be willing to play your music through headphones after 10:00 pm?”
Building our emotional vocabulary is a helpful way to mentally and verbally separate our thoughts from our feelings.
Dr. Rosenberg provides examples of ways we may feel when our needs are being met, like:
…and examples of ways we may feel when our needs are not being met, like:
Building your own emotional vocabulary will help you to express yourself, and will also make it easier to interpret the thoughts and feelings of others.
- Make a list of personal “I feel…” statements and ask yourself if any of them could be presented more effectively as “I think…” statements. If any of these statements are thoughts, find a way to honestly and openly express them as feelings.
- Using the eight words above as a point of reference, brainstorm ten different “I feel…” words to expand your emotional vocabulary.
5. RESOLVING CONFLICT WITHOUT COMPROMISE
“Most attempts at resolution search for compromise, which means everybody gives something up and neither side is satisfied. NVC is different; our objective is to meet everyone’s needs fully.” —Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
The use of NVC in conflict resolution is very different from traditional styles of mediation, in which the mediator attempts to get everyone to reach an agreement as quickly as possible. This agreement is usually made without any connection between the parties involved and is therefore unlikely to last. But when NVC is used to mediate a conflict, a connection is established and, more often than not, the problem solves itself.
Dr. Rosenberg outlines five key steps for NVC Conflict Resolution…
- Express: We express our own needs. Remember to use the positive “do” language in articulating your needs, avoiding the unproductive and problem-causing “don’t.”
- Search: We search for the real needs of the other person, no matter how they are expressing themselves. This is crucial, and will require patience and listening practice.
- Recognize: We verify that we both accurately recognize the other person’s needs, and if not, continue to seek the need behind their words. This step depends on honest communication between both parties — don’t be afraid to ask for clarification! If you are willing to recognize the needs of the other party, it’s more likely that they will be willing to recognize your needs.
- Empathize: We provide as much empathy as is required for us to hear each other’s needs. This takes as much patience and practice as searching for the other party’s real needs, but a clear display of empathy will ensure that both parties feel heard and respected.
- Verbalize: We use positive language and pull from our emotional vocabulary to propose strategies for resolving the conflict. Keep the resolution grounded by making requests in present-tense language — instead of asking what can be done tomorrow or next week, ask what can be done right now.
Here’s an example to illustrate these five steps of conflict resolution:
In a workshop for married couples, a man and woman confessed to suffering thirty-nine years of conflict about money. Six months into the marriage, the wife had twice overdrawn their joint checking account and the husband took complete control of the finances. The wife said, “He obviously doesn’t want me to spend any money,” and the husband responded by saying, “When it comes to money, she’s totally irresponsible.” These comments analyze, assume, and diagnose, but do not indicate an understanding of need. A more productive conversation would have started with a clear articulation of the husband’s need, for example, “I feel scared because I have a need to financially support my family,” and would have been followed by the wife’s acknowledgment of that need, “I hear that you have a need to protect the family, and that you’re scared because you want to make sure the family is financially secure.”
If one party is experiencing a lot of pain as a result of the conflict, it is important to acknowledge this as well. The wife, in articulating her feelings, could say, “I feel hurt, and I need to be trusted to learn from past experience.” In this case, the husband would acknowledge her need by saying, “I hear that you are looking for more trust, and that you are hurting from years of not being trusted with our finances.”
Once these needs have been articulated, the pain from years of conflict can be addressed in a productive way, and positive changes can be made.
Just as individuals can express thoughts when they are trying to express feelings, they can also confuse needs and strategies when engaged in conflict resolution. To avoid confusing the two, remember that “needs contain no reference to anybody taking any particular action,” and “strategies…refer to specific actions that specific people may take.”
It is important to remember that using NVC to resolve conflict requires us to recalibrate ourselves and our communication styles. This can only be done by slowly, patiently identifying and rejecting the ways we may have been taught to communicate by well-intentioned but possibly misguided parents, teachers, mentors, and others.
6. EXPRESSING APPRECIATION THROUGH NVC
“When we use NVC to express appreciation, it is purely to celebrate, not to get something in return. Our sole intention is to celebrate the way our lives have been enriched by others.” —Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
According to Dr. Rosenberg, there are three components involved in the expression of appreciation through NVC…
- What You Did (the actions that have contributed to our well-being)
- + What I’m Feeling Now (the pleasant feelings engendered by the fulfillment of those needs)
- + Which Need Was Met (the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled)
These components can be expressed in any order, but should ALL be expressed.
Let’s say you are approaching someone who has just given a presentation on research that you admire. Your first instinct may be to say something like, “You were brilliant!” or “You’re so intelligent,” but these would both be considered judgments, and fail to identify what that person said or did that made your life better.
Instead, you might approach that person and say, “I really appreciated the part of your presentation that dealt with communication. It made me feel hopeful and relieved because I have a son who I haven’t been able to communicate with for months. I’ve been desperately searching for some direction that might help me relate to him in a more loving manner, and your presentation has provided the direction I was looking for.”
Understanding the importance of these components can also help us to better accept appreciation from others! When we are able to gracefully accept expressions of appreciation without superiority or false humility, we can build a stronger connection between ourselves and others.
- Nonviolent Communication is a lifelong practice of speaking and listening with empathy. As we develop our ability to communicate honestly about our feelings and needs, we can see that those feelings are acknowledged and those needs are met, and will be better equipped to address the feelings and needs of others.
- Take note of your own tendency to judge or evaluate.
- Make a conscious effort to use positive language (“do”) rather than negative language (“don’t”).
- Expand your emotional vocabulary.
- Acknowledge the emotional burden of being responsible for the feelings of others, and celebrate the responsibility you take for your own feelings.
Let’s close out this FlashBooks summary with one last crucial quote from the author himself:
“NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of habitual, automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are lead to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathetic attention.
In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in any given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.
As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment or criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.”
About the Author:
- Marshall B. Rosenberg (1934–2015) was most known for founding The Center for Nonviolent Communication after working with civil rights activists in the 1960s, most notably mediating rioting students and college administrators during the desegregation of public institutions. Through the Center, Dr. Rosenberg was able to provide Nonviolent Communication training to participants in 60 countries.
“It is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving communication compassionately. We have, however, learned many forms of life-alienating communication that lead us to speak and behave in ways that injure others and ourselves.”
“What others say and do may be the stimulus for, but never the cause of, our feelings. When someone communicates negatively, we have four options as to how to receive the message: (1) blame ourselves, (2) blame others, (3) sense our own feelings and needs, (4) sense the feelings and needs hidden in the other person’s negative message.”
“Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our own needs and values.”
“Each time we speak, the clearer we are about what we want back, the more likely we are to get it. Since the message we send is not always the message that’s received, we need to learn how to find out if our message has been accurately heard. Especially in a group, we need to be clear about the nature of the response we are wanting.”
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