Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships

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In 100 Words or Less: Most of us have been conditioned since birth to approach conflict in coercive, manipulative terms; we state what someone else should do, rather than express clearly our feelings and underlying needs. Use of this "life-alienating" language disconnects us from ourselves and others and insofar as it stokes defensiveness, it also makes it less likely that we’ll actually receive what we want. Moralistic judgments -- e.g. "he should, she needs to, you must" -- are actually expressions of unmet value judgments, e.g., a personal preference for honesty, cleanliness, or timeliness. Once we have empathized with someone, we may make specific, positive and present requests of them.

Nonviolent Communication is one of the most powerful, life-changing books I have ever read.

At first glance, the title may not resonate with you; after all, most of us don’t think of ourselves as “violent” people. However, even if we aren’t physically violent, so many of us spend a great deal of our lives in a state of conflict; coercing one another or being coerced. In the process, our actions and our words inflict tremendous, emotional pain. We have become disconnected from our compassionate nature, conditioned by our use of habitual, automatic language.

NVC is a complete reframe of the way we understand our needs and express them to one another. Alongside my work in developing mindfulness, it has helped me to become less reactive and can approach any conflict with a greater sense of clarity.

“Instead of habitual, automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

Here are my notes:

  • We have become proficient in the use of many forms of “life-alienating communication”. Thanks to a lifetime of practice, many of us unintentionally use language which inhibits compassion in and connection to ourselves and others. I really like the term life-alienating communication; it reminds me that my words and actions always have great power to inspire love or hate, hope or fear, trust or guilt; to create or destroy.
  • There are four steps in the process of NVC: observations, feelings, needs and requests. NVC entails:
    1. The specific actions or events we observe that affect our well-being. Crucially, we must develop the capacity to describe these events without evaluation or judgment. It’s important to remember that when we judge or are judged, the conversation becomes defensive and we’re less likely to get what we want; conversely, if the other person does comply, their response may originate from a place of guilt, fear or shame.

      Importantly, these analyses of others aren’t objective truths; rather, they are subjective expressions of our own, unmet needs and values.

    2. How we feel in relation to what we observe. In response to what is occurring, am I feeling happy, sad, amused or hurt?
    3. The needs, values, desires, etc. that create our feelings. What are my personal needs which are connected to these feelings?
    4. The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives. Aware of my unmet needs beneath the present feeling, I can make a specific request of the other person.
  • We must be able to articulate these four steps clearly and also to receive them when conveyed by others. Expressing this information clearly is hard work and takes practice, particularly when we are so conditioned to state ourselves in manipulative and judgmental terms.

    Receiving this information from someone else is even more difficult, particularly when they express themselves without awareness of NVC. The process requires being able to receive without judgment, without agreement or disagreement and a capacity to hear and connect with the underlying needs which are unclearly expressed.

  • “In NVC, no matter what words others may use to express themselves, we simply listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • Judgments, analyses and interpretations are all expressions of our own, unmet needs. When a wife complains that her husband is “always at work”, she may be stating that her need for intimacy is going unfulfilled.

    The problem with judgments, analyses and interpretations is that they are likely to be received as criticism and provoke defensiveness. Again, owing to a lifetime of conditioning and the well-meaning but misguided examples set by our family, friends and authority figures, we tend to think, not in terms of our needs, but of what’s wrong with other people.

    If I want my children to clean their bedrooms, I may characterize them as lazy when they don’t comply. If I observe a co-worker performing a task differently than I would, I might call them stupid for disagreeing. If a friend of mine voted for Donald Trump, I may wonder aloud what the [bleep] is wrong with him.

    It should be obvious that these judgments — and others like them — neither connect me with the people involved, nor increase my chances of getting what I actually want.

  • There is an important difference between value judgments and moralistic judgments. We all make value judgments, forming beliefs about things which serve our purpose; for example, a preference for honesty, timeliness or freedom. Conversely, moralistic judgments are a response to people and behaviors which don’t fulfill our value judgments; for example, this person “should be” honest or that person “has to” be on time, or my kids “need to” give me some space.

    Recognition of our value judgments connects us with our needs; moralistic judgments suppress compassion and create distance between us and others.

  • “Had we been raised speaking a language that facilitated the expression of compassion, we would have learned to articulate our needs and values directly, rather than to insinuate wrongness when they have not been met. For example, instead of ‘Violence is bad,’ we might say instead, ‘I am fearful of the use of violence to resolve conflicts; I value the resolution of human conflicts through other means.'” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • An expression of feeling should describe a specific emotion and not an evaluation. For example, “I feel inadequate as a writer” describes an evaluation — a thought or series of thoughts — whereas “I feel disappointed in myself as a writer” describes an emotion. This is an important distinction; the latter form is more helpful.

    Moreover, it’s better to express our feelings using precise words; for example, “I feel good” could be more precisely expressed as “happy”, “content”, “excited”, “intoxicated”, “in love”, etc. Use of vague words prevents the listener — someone else or ourselves — from connecting with the feeling.

  • We are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and actions. Denying personal responsibility is another form of “life-alienating communication”. When we attribute our thoughts, feelings and actions to external causes — insisting that we “had to” do something because of something which someone else said or did — we become dangerous to ourselves and others.

    Someone else’s actions or words may be the stimulus of a feeling, but they are never the cause.

  • There is an important difference between our needs and the strategies we use to fulfill them. Needs make no specific reference to someone taking a particular action; strategies refer to specific action taken in service of a request or desire.
  • “[If] someone arrives late for an appointment and we need reassurance that she cares about us, we may feel hurt. If, instead, our need is to spend time purposefully and constructively, we may feel frustrated. But if our need is for thirty minutes of quiet solitude, we may be grateful for her tardiness and feel pleased. Thus, it is not the behavior of the other person but our own need that causes our feeling.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • We should express our desires as requests, not demands. A demand differs from a request in that it threatens punishment for non-compliance, either implicitly or explicitly.

    A demand is, in the words of Dr. Greg Baer, distinguished by the presence of anger.

    Demands invariably stoke defensiveness and reduce capacity for compassion in ourselves and others.

    To ensure that our requests are not received as demands, we may indicate that we want them to comply only if they’re willing. We might ask “are you willing to put the laundry away” rather than state “I would like you to put the laundry away.”

  • Empathizing with “no”. When someone refuses our request, we might “empathize with their no”; attempting to understand, or even asking outright, what it is that prevents them from saying yes. Most importantly, we can communicate respect for their decision and a willingness to empathize with their needs.
  • “The relationship between language and violence is the subject of psychology professor O.J. Harvey’s research at the University of Colorado. He took random samples of pieces of literature from many countries around the world and tabulated the frequency of words that classify and judge people. His study shows a high correlation between frequent use of such words and frequency of incidents. It does not surprise me to hear that there is considerably less violence in cultures where people think in terms of human needs than in cultures where people label one another as “good” or “bad” and believe that the “bad” ones deserve to be punished.

    “At the root of much, if not all, violence — whether verbal, psychological, or physical, whether among family members, tribes, or nations — is a kind of thinking that attributes the cause of conflict to wrongness in one’s adversaries, and a corresponding inability to think of oneself or others in terms of vulnerability — that is, what one might be feeling, fearing, yearning for, missing, etc.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • Requests are best expressed in terms of specific, positive and present action. Requests should be specific (the action must be visible and concrete; the listener must be told clearly and not made to infer or guess), positive (expressed in terms of moving toward a behavior, rather than away from behavior) and present (an action to taken here and now).

    Expressing our needs in this way may actually be more difficult than it sounds, in part because we may not always be certain of what we really want!

    Often, it is helpful to ask the listener to reflect back what was said in their own words, both so that you may feel understood and to increase likelihood of receiving what you’ve asked for. When we paraphrase, we demonstrate that we understand or offer the speaker a chance to clarify what we didn’t understand.

  • Non-compliance with our requests is not rejection. It is a chance to receive — with empathy — what the other person is observing, feeling and needing themselves. Empathizing with their “no” protects us from taking it personally.
  • “We demonstrate that we are making a request rather than a demand by how we respond when others don’t comply. If we are prepared to show an empathic understanding of what prevents someone from doing as we asked, then by my definition, we have made a request, not a demand. Choosing to request rather than demand does not mean we give up when someone says no to our request. It does mean that we don’t engage in persuasion until we have empathized with what’s preventing the other person from saying yes.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • We have four options for receiving a negative message from someone else. These include:
    1. Blame others
    2. Blame ourselves
    3. Sense our own feelings and needs
    4. Sense others’ feelings and needs
  • “Blaming is easy. People are used to hearing blame; sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves — which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way — and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever — which also doesn’t stop their behavior.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • The ultimate objective of NVC isn’t to get our way; it’s to establish relationships which are based in mutual honesty, trust and compassion. The latter will eventually fulfill everyone’s needs.
  • NVC may be most powerful when turn inward, in communication with ourselves. We must learn to hold ourselves with compassion — both the self which regrets the action taken, and the self that took the action in the first place.

    Whenever we act, it’s helpful to remain mindful of the internal need each action serves or was taken in an attempt to serve.

  • A simple exercise for defusing anger. Anger arises out of judgment; it’s an emotion which travels upward from the heart into the head. Fortunately, there is a simple way to reduce its grip. Finish this sentence: “I don’t like people who are ____”; compose a list of any such judgments and then proceed through each one, asking yourself which personal needs are unmet. This will help you to reframe your anger in terms of connecting with your unmet needs, rather than pronouncing unhelpful, moralistic judgment.
  • “Rather than put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person, empathize.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

It would be difficult to overstate my appreciation for this book and all that it’s taught me. Nonviolent Communication also includes many fascinating accounts in which Marshall and the people he’s trained have used these principles to mediate violent conflict all over the world. NVC has rebuilt constructive relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, impoverished gang members and their schoolteachers, criminals and their victims and of course, husbands and wives.

If these principles can dissipate even the most dangerous and long-standing conflicts, imagine what they can do for you and I?

“As we’ve seen, all criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being. When we receive messages with this awareness, we never feel dehumanized by what others have to say to us.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicetus stated it perfectly: “People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.” Nonviolent Communication connects us to these internal views and teaches us how to express them to others — and even ourselves — in a loving, compassionate way.

In the end, this approach which makes us infinitely more likely to get what we want and promises a more peaceful life even when we don’t.

Chris Aram

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