Dr. Marshall Rosenberg created one of the best communication tools that I have come across to date called Non-Violent Communication. Since I started using it about a decade ago it has completely changed my world. In this journey I have also had difficulty with NVC. I have met people who really struggled with it and got discouraged from using it and some for whom it worked very well for. On my journey, I identified a collection of pitfalls and terminology misunderstandings in NVC usage people often find themselves in. Below is a collection of “rules of thumb” that have helped me use NVC in more connecting and effective way.
First, here’s a quick “101″ overview of the four essential NVC steps:
1 – Make clear observations of behaviors (instead of evaluations) that do or don’t contribute to my wellbeing
2 – Express feelings (rather than thoughts)
3 – Identify needs (instead of strategies, preferences or actions)
4 – Make clear requests – #1 What do I want the other person to do in positive action language? #2 What do I want the other person’s reasons to be for doing what I want them to do?
Here are my “201” guidelines that are meant to complement the steps above.
- The four steps are just the beginning
The four steps above mainly help you gain understanding of yourself. Many people think that by figuring out those four things, others will easily understand them too and problems will start getting solved. Not true. And not likely. In fact, the work to connect with others only starts now that you have completed these four steps. You still need to find your own unique way to successfully connect and communicate with others and support them in figuring out their four steps. Then you can start building mutual support toward getting each other’s needs met.
- Communicating our own behaviors before the other person’s behavior
As Dr. Rosenberg points out, objectively expressing and communicating other person’s behavior, which is the stimulus to our unmet needs is an essential step. However, we have to be careful how we communicate this piece of information and also how we assign our unmet needs around this person’s behavior. Usually the NVC guideline is to express the behavior as objectively as we can to the other person and then express the need. I usually like to start with talking about my own behaviors, directly linking them to my unmet needs.
The first reason for doing this is that this way I take direct responsibility for my actions around my unmet needs. The main reason for our needs being unmet is not because of the other person doing their behavior, but because us letting their behavior happen and continue to happen.
Secondly, it is unlikely for the other person to connect to and understand the difference between their behavior being a “stimulus” to our unmet needs instead of a “cause” (both NVC terms). They are more likely to react and conclude that it is their fault that our needs are unmet due to what they did and then we have to do extra work of correcting after that misunderstanding. It’s a good idea to avoid talking about their “stimulus” behavior and go straight to the “cause” behavior, which is our own behavior. You can also talk about the behaviors done on both sides and emphasize that your needs were unmet because you didn’t do something about it and that now you are wanting to meet needs (nut just yours but everyone’s) by taking action.
- Be able and ready to attend to the other person
When talking to someone I prefer to cover the above four points on my own first so that I am not dependent on the person that I am talking to to give me empathy. Especially if I know that I am unlikely to get empathy from them in the first place. NVC guides you to find out “what you want the other person’s reasons to be for doing what you want them to do”. You can’t easily achieve this if you start a conversation by drilling your observations of their behaviors, your own feelings and needs and your requests. Usually we make the mistake of getting caught up in focusing on our own four points without attending to the other person at all. The order of what we bring up is very important and the point above is the last in the list of the four steps. Their reasons to be motivated to act are based on their own feelings and needs and before you dive into talking about yourself, you need to connect to the other person first. This process can for example be started by simply asking someone: “how come you haven’t wanted to do this (the specific behavior)?” or: “Is there anything going on for you around this specific issue?” And then, just listen. Connecting empathically needs to come first.
Us figuring out what we want is our job and we can’t expect the other person to hear all of what we are going through before they have gotten our empathic connection first. Often it is a bit of a “chicken and egg situation”, since we can’t hear the other person before we are being heard ourselves, and vice versa. People usually want to be heard out, not realizing that the other person is reacting and being triggered as well, which makes them incapable of listening to each other. Both people need empathy. That’s why it is important to have a good support system in our life that doesn’t include just the person who we expect to always listen to us. Having multiple sources of support will help us know ourselves better and then be ready to attend to the other person.
If we know that the other person is not interested in being a team player, at least the process of taking care of our “four steps” can put us in a non-angry mode in which case the strategies that we will take in order to get our own needs met are not mixed in with disconnected, punitive energy.
- Feeling is a good thing
Many people would prefer to skip the feeling step. It’s ok to feel, don’t worry, you won’t get lost in some big depression or anything like that. In fact it is when people open up and become vulnerable in the wrong environment and around wrong people who emotionally dismiss them that extra hurt and pain can pile on top. Feelings in and of themselves, when properly attended to can only heal. Without feeling, there is no empathic connection. There can be intellectual connection and perhaps kinesthetic connection in one’s life which are all rewarding and important but to have empathy, one needs to allow feelings to come out. Just remember to be clear on your boundaries and know who it is safe to open up to.
- We don’t necessarily need to express feelings at all
This tip is if you are quite used to working with NVC and is my personal take on feelings. I find that it is far more important to feel a feeling than to express it. And when listening, to listen and empathically connect rather than to express the feelings, unless the other person is unable to connect to their feelings and needs our support to name feelings in order for them to find the right one. Additionally, I find it much more effective to talk about needs, as they are directly linked to a specific feelings and when a need hits the right “nerve”, then we just become present with the person rather than spoil the process by talking about and verbally “dissecting” feelings. Just make sure to take the time to go within, no words necessary.
This shouldn’t be mistaken with having a solid vocabulary of feelings. Not wording feelings is a good idea once you are very familiar with your feelings and can connect to them pretty well. It’s analogous to playing an instrument, once a musician is comfortable with scales and music theory, they can just play music, without needing to scrutinize all the mechanics of playing.
- Don’t bail on your own strategy because the other person is reacting emotionally
Don’t forget that being ready to talk about your requests around the issue needs to still happen even if you are prioritizing empathizing with the other person. Many people get intimidated by the emotional response of the other person and then decide that they would rather not attend to their own needs in order not to “cause” more unnecessary emotional suffering. Again, just like your own feelings are a natural, healing process, so are are the other person’s. Even if it may seem that they are in a lot of pain, giving them empathy while honoring yourself is the most loving act you can do. Backing up from your needs can easily create a dynamic where you are allowing their emotional outbursts to control your behavior.
In fact, knowing how they feel is of essence to connect. If you are struggling with empathizing with someone, then verbalizing feelings and expressing needs is important. One can’t read people’s minds and in order for you to have a supportive relationship with someone, you need to know what is going on for them and if they have unmet needs, you need to figure out what they are together.
Also, just because you empathized with someone doesn’t mean you yourself don’t still need empathy. Usually, an emotional talk can trigger new things in you. Make sure you find ways to get those covered too, with the person you’re talking to or later with someone else.
- Never tell someone: “that’s not a feeling/need” – this shows your own inability to use NVC properly
When a person says “I feel like you insulted me” and you say: “insulted is not a feeling”, you have failed to empathize. Instead, you are evaluating what they are saying and in the process disconnecting yourself from them further. It is a losing game. Instead, read between the lines and think about what unmet needs that person has (respect? acceptance?) and how they might feel (hurt? upset? embarrassed?). The heart of NVC is empathy and that’s where we all need to start and if you are unable to empathize in the moment, then you might need to postpone the conversation so that you can first get empathy yourself.
- Certain needs and feelings can be paired down into other more core ones
If possible, I always like to pair down and get specific with language. Some needs and feelings can usually be broken down into more concrete and simpler ones that are even easier to connect to. For example, I like to express the need for respect as a combination of acceptance, acknowledgment, recognition, etc. And a feeling like jealousy I like to think of a combination of fear, anxiety, frustration, etc. If you are having a difficulty connecting to a need or a feeling, see if you can dig a bit deeper until you reach ones that are very straightforward to understand and connect to.
- We feel high feelings when we discover an unmet need
We can feel very encouraged and enthusiastic even when our needs are unmet. In fact, my personal take on needs is that we actually end up feeling high feelings as a result of identifying an unmet need. The process of identifying can be very low but highs follow right after. For example, once we know we are thirsty, we will still feel thirsty but we get the motivation to find something to drink. Many people go through life not attending and not knowing many of their needs at all. This is important to understand because people might think they’ll never feel better because they deem their situation to be so unresolvable and that they are miserable because some needs of theirs are going to just stay unmet. The good news is that the mere process of identifying needs is usually very rewarding. You get to know yourself and what is important and missing in your life. Our needs can sometimes be unmet for a long time before we get to a point when they are fully met. And sometimes they can come and go. We can keep thriving toward meeting them with different strategies, no matter how long it takes. Any successful social movement is driven by this understanding.
I’ve seen many people get cynical about NVC merely after hearing the statement: “you can get all your needs met”. I’d like to rephrase that statement to: “you can become aware of all your needs and then thrive toward getting them met with the support of close, trusting people in your life”. No need is ever “met”, just like thirst is never “met”. Getting the need for thirst met is a life-long process. For example, I actually know a friend that realized she would work all day without drinking any water and then report exhaustion, headaches and irritability. She fixed that one quite easily once she realized what was missing.
- Stay clear of mechanical talking
This one is probably the most common thing that gets people frustrated with NVC. People can get furious when someone says something like: “I can see that you are feeling sad because your need need for acceptance is not met. Could you please repeat back to me what you’ve heard me say?” I have encountered many people that were discouraged by NVC and thought it of an overly “rigid” and “mechanistic” approach. I think this happens for two reasons.
– One reason is that, just like anything else, a new way of communicating needs to be learned. If someone were to play a composition on an instrument, it would sound very differently depending on how skilled a musician is, what the musician is wanting to convey and in which way. Trying to play something for the first time will sound sloppy. And even a skilled musician can come across soulless if their musical approach is just focused on technical execution. What is important is to keep practicing and it will get more fluid and less mechanical over time; and always stay connected to the intention. Find a community who understands and accepts what you are doing and first practice with them before bringing it up in more difficult circumstances. Eventually all these NVC expressions will become more embedded into your regular language where you will be able to express needs in your own words, casually talk about feelings and know how to navigate emotionally high-risk situations.
– The other reason is that it can be very challenging and intimidating to navigate through all these steps and which one to use first. Your aim needs to be the desire to connect with the other person. If you don’t have that sorted out, you will likely struggle with NVC no matter how good you are with its terminology.
I hope this list helps further clarify the NVC method.
P.S. Here is another past posting about my NVC explorations if you’d like to keep reading on the subject: Principled Negotiation Method and Nonviolent Communication and also, check out this insightful article on pitfalls of using NVC.