Man! Communication issues. Am I right??
Don’t you wish there was a way to express your needs that actually helped you get them met? And how about a way to hear what other people need in a way that actually helps you meet them?
What if this method could also serve to help both you and your counterpart feel deeply seen and heard? And why not throw in a capacity to solve world peace while we’re at it?
There actually is a thing for all of this. It was developed by the late, great, Marshall Rosenberg, and he called it Nonviolent Communication. It’s also referred to as NVC, as well as Compassionate Communication.
A practice and a philosophy
The name was inspired by Ghandi’s nonviolence movement. NVC calls for eliminating the use of an objective morality, which creates divisiveness (“us vs them”). Such opposition has a strong tendency to open the door for dehumanization, which precipitates violence.
By owning our opinions and preferences, and allowing others to do the same, we leave no cause for violence (except in rare instances of swift defense or protection from immanent real danger).
❧ NVC is based on two main premises.
- One – that all of our feelings are caused by our needs being met or not being met. (A few examples of feelings: happy, sad, hurt, angry, frustrated, nervous, anxious, excited, eager, pleased…)
- And two – that all of our actions and behaviors are strategies for getting our needs met. (A few examples of needs or values: safety, security, nurturing, acceptance, connection, appreciation, expression, autonomy, growth, beauty…)
❧ NVC has three core tenets.
- Empathy, which is the recognition, understanding, and allowance of one’s (own or another’s) feelings and needs. It’s not about saving someone from their experience, but connecting with them in it.
- Nonjudgment, which involves relinquishing the use of an objective morality for discerning good and bad, and instead, assessing things in terms of alignment with values and goals. It generates an acceptance of all unique perspectives.
- Personal Responsibility, which empowers everyone to own their opinions, their preferences, and their triggered feelings. We are each responsible for ourselves and accountable to each other. We are NOT responsible for each other’s feelings.
The idea is that we all share from the same bucket of feelings, and the same bucket of needs or values, though we each prioritize them differently, and in different contexts.
We all get triggered by events, but our triggers are our own, based on our own stories, and inextricably tied to our own values.
While we are not responsible FOR one another, as social beings who thrive in community, we are each accountable TO one another, with a reasonable effort to employ tact.
The benefits of adopting this perspective are vast.
❧ NVC is applied with a basic formula.
Before engaging, we need to take a moment to give ourselves some empathy by checking in with which feelings we’re experiencing, and which needs aren’t getting met. This not only gives us insight, it’s also surprisingly soothing to feel heard and seen by ourselves!
From there, we have a bit more access to compassion for a quick estimation of our counterpart’s feelings and needs. This can help us gain a better understanding of their behavior, and enables us to approach the situation empathetically. But since all we can do is guess at their internal state, we will also want to check in with them.
The simplified process for expressing our needs is stated as “Observation – Feelings – Needs – Request” (OFNR). It can feel kind of insensitive, though, to follow it robotically. In essence, you do want to hit all the points.
Communicating our feelings and needs
We preface the issue by stating the situation as a purely objective observation, with NO interpretation, assumptions, or judgments.
“You left a mess in the kitchen!”
>> “I noticed that several dishes were left on the counter with food on them.”
When we communicate our feelings, we state them as a response to the situation, using names of emotions, rather than (again) any interpretations, assumptions, or judgments.
“It feels like I get no consideration around here. I feel deeply disrespected.”
>> “Seeing that, I feel hurt, discouraged, and frustrated.”
No one can argue with pure emotion. Anytime we follow “feels” with “like”, we’re interpreting and not naming emotions.
Even stating our feelings with words like “disrespected”, we’re assuming and implying a state of mind outside of our own. Respect is a need. If a need isn’t getting met, address it separately.
When we mix expressing our feelings with interpretations, assumptions, and judgments of the other, we instantly put them on the defense. This is highly counterproductive to our goal of being heard, as it shuts down their capacity to listen and hold space.
Our feelings then get connected to our unmet needs in a statement of fact, without personal blame.
“If you gave a shit about me, you would keep the damn kitchen clean!”
>> “I feel this way because I value cleanliness, and dirty dishes conflict with my need for physical safety. I also value consideration, and messiness conflicts with my need for appreciation for my time and energy.”
Asking for change
Once our position is clarified, we can then make a request for a change in behavior that is NOT a demand or an ultimatum.
“If you want me to stick around, you’re going to have to start cleaning up after yourself.”
>> “Would you be willing to always either wash your dishes right away, or at least rinse them and set them in the sink if you’re short on time? Or can we explore some other alternatives that might meet both of our needs?”
The key to this whole process, is utilizing it as a conversation STARTER. It is meant to serve as a communication opener to then start clarifying the other persons needs that they were meeting by the behavior that conflicted with ours. (Perhaps they were prioritizing a need for efficiency in that moment.) This way, we can find a way to get both our needs met. (Maybe it’s time to buy a dishwasher!)
The main goal of NVC is to create win-win situations where everyone’s needs can get met.
As stated previously, the premise here is that all behavior is a strategy for getting needs met. When we break the unfortunately common habit of swapping responsibility (where you’re responsible for my feelings and I’m responsible for yours), we step into a new realm of empowerment.
Responsibility is often thought of in contrast to freedom, but the reality is that they go hand in hand. It’s our ABILITY to RESPOND. The more responsibility we offload onto others, the more control others have over us. Conversely, the more responsibility we claim for ourselves, the more freedom we have to choose our own way.
Specifically, when we claim our response-ability for our emotional experiences by tying them to our personal backgrounds and values (instead of other people’s behavior – “you made me feel this way”), we are empowered to create the dynamics in our life that are most aligned with our values and goals.
And from there, we can get creative with our strategies for meeting our needs, and collaborate with others on win-win synergies, with no values compromised.
The beauty of this form of communication is that it can be used to resolve all kinds of conflicts.
In fact, the founder of NVC, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, successfully resolved several disputes in the Middle East by sitting down with representatives and employing these techniques. As a result, everyone got a chance to be heard and all needs were brought to the table to reveal synergistic strategies.
If it can bring peace to warring factions, you know it can do the same for two individuals who love each other.
(Updated March 17, 2021)