On Nonviolent Communication

Erik Torenberg
Nov 20, 2017 · 7 min read

As the new year is approaching, I’ve been reflecting on what’s had a positive impact in my life this year, and what I’d like to do more of in 2018.

Learning more about Nonviolent Communication is near the top of the list.

Since I wrote my takeaways of the book, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I’ve been getting deeper into NVC and the NVC community, and I even hosted a couple meetups of my own (sign up here if you’d like to attend one in 2018).

For those who haven’t read the book, here’s a primer on NVC and some reflections on why I find it so valuable.

First: What is NVC?

Nonviolent Communication is hard to summarize. Some people call NVC “Compassionate Communication”. Others call it a form of communication that enables you to get what you want while meeting everyone’s needs. I’ve heard one person call it “Conversational Buddhism.”

Here’s my take: NVC is a communication framework that eliminates or reduces friction — friction here meaning any communication that leads to conflict.

What’s so game changing about it?

Let’s use a startup analogy (I know, I know): Reducing friction in consumer products usually enables enables people to live in more effective and efficient ways. For example, when Uber reduced friction to order a ride, people started ordering rides more. Indeed, initially, Uber was compared to any taxi market, but because of the emergent behavior Uber enabled, Uber became 3x bigger than the entire taxi market combined.

Also, because a new behavior emerged, there were additional second and third order effects. Some people went so far as to use the Uber app instead of buying a car of their own. Others started carpooling more, which saved gas and thus decreased environmental pollution.

[To be sure, take these paragraphs less as a definitive analysis of Uber’s impact and more as a testament to the power of reducing friction and enabling new behaviors…]

Similarly, NVC reduces friction, making it easier to communicate and less likely that we’ll have conflict. Similarly, the impact is huge, and hard to fully grasp: What new behaviors might emerge from this reduced friction? How many conflicts might be avoided entirely? What type of relationships and connections can emerge in its wake?

Here’s a summary of the NVC Framework:

The NVC framework is Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests (OFNR).

Observations: Specific, clear, measurable observations about what happened.

Feelings: Emotional responses to those observations.

Needs: Needs and personal wishes that cause those feelings.

Requests: Specific requests to other people.

Added together the framework is:

State clear observation
Express feeling
Take ownership of feeling by expressing a need
End with a request

For example:

When I see people speaking this way
I feel extremely happy and excited
Because I want to have deeper connections with people
So please learn this framework and, if resonates with you, please use it

NVC has a specific framework, but it’s less about the specifics of following the pattern and more about what the patterns represent. Indeed, just matching the pattern is not enough….If you fill the details with same language of judgement, you’ll mistakenly think you’re using NVC and you’ll be no better off.

For example:

When I see you acting like a turdface
I feel…like you’re a turdface!
Because I really need you to stop being a turdface…
Would you please be willing to, um, stop being such a turdface — or else?

As shown, it’s not enough to match the pattern. The above seems like the Observations-Feelings-Needs-Request framework, but instead it’s the opposite: a Judgements-Interpretations-Strategies-Demands framework.

Let’s specifically differentiate between what NVC is and what it isn’t.

NVC recommends observations….and not judgements or evaluations

“Observing without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence.” — J. Krishnamurti

NVC doesn’t mandate that we remain completely objective and refrain from all judgements, just that we make a separation between our observations and evaluations, and, when we make judgements, make them specific to time and context.

Examples:

Judgement: Carmelo Anthony is a ball hog who doesn’t care about his team and will never win a championship

Observation: Carmelo averages two assists a game. He currently has not won a championship.

NVC says judgements are tragic expressions of unmet needs — “tragic” because they reinforce the label you’re projecting onto them.

Other forms of judgements include diagnoses, moralistic judgements, comparisons — any language that implies blame towards the other person.

NVC recommends that we communicate feelings….and less interpretations of feelings.

Feelings are about what’s alive in us. Interpretations of feelings are about how we perceive the other person and how they’ve wronged us. They’re more likely to to be heard as criticism than as invitations to connect with our feelings, and don’t address the core feeling underlying the interpretation.

Examples of feelings: sad, angry, frustrated, annoyed, scared.

Examples of interpretations of feelings: misunderstood, manipulated, betrayed, disrespected, neglected…because YOU did X thing

Here’s an example:

Feeling: I’m sad because I value the community I get from seeing the Knicks win.

Interpretation of feeling: Carmelo Anthony has betrayed me, manipulated me, and personally disrespected me. He is an abomination to Knicks fans everywhere and I hate everything he stands for.

Another example, this time from a romantic relationship:

Feeling: I’m sad because I’m wanting connection in our relationship and am fearful about our disconnection.

Interpretation of feeling: I feel misunderstood, neglected, and manipulated . The only reason I’m still in this relationship because I want to believe you are capable of becoming a good person. You’re welcome.

NVC recommends needs….and not strategies

We all have core needs in common — needs for connection, respect, happiness, celebration, fairness, self-expression, etc.

What we often do is confuse our needs for strategies.

We confuse our need for connection with a desire for being liked by everyone, our need for respect with a desire for career success, our need for celebration with a desire for external awards/credit, and our need for fairness for a desire of a political outcome.

When our strategies for meeting our need don’t work, often we’re distraught. NVC posits that there is a better way: recognizing the difference between strategies and needs, and recalibrating strategies when they haven’t worked out or are no longer feasible.

Other thoughts on NVC Philosophy

My personal belief is that there are infinite ways to have great communication, in and outside of NVC. NVC is not a panacea to all problems (certainly not macro, systemic, problems) and, even on a micro, individual level, you don’t have to believe all of NVC to get value from it — you can pick and choose from NVC whatever, if anything, works for you.

NVC sounds simple, but some of its tenets are radically different from what we do today. I’d like to point out some of these tenets, or overarching philosophies that are at the root of NVC.

1) We are responsible for our feelings.

In Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal, was asked, “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people to their death?”

And Eichmann answered very candidly, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.”

His interviewer asked what that language was, and Eichmann said, “My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache — ‘office talk.’”

When asked for examples, Eichmann said, “It’s basically a language in which you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, ‘Why did you do it?’ you say, ‘I had to.’ ‘Why did you have to?’ ‘Superiors’ orders. Company policy. It’s the law.’”

In an NVC world, this doesn’t happen, because NVC forces us to take responsibility for our feelings and decisions. According to NVC, no one else can make us feel or do anything without our consent (unless they are holding a gun to our head or some metaphorical equivalent…)

This sounds weird at first. If someone cuts me in line, or calls me a name (or does something far worse), I’m likely going to get annoyed immediately as a response. How are they not causing it? Here’s how: If someone cuts me in line, I might be annoyed. But if they’re cutting you in line, you might be relieved, because you didn’t want to be on line in the first place. Or you might feel dejected, because it’s yet another example of unfairness in life. The same person could have different feelings from the action at different times

How could one person have the power to single handedly cause different types of feelings in people — or different feelings within the same person — by one action? Improbable.

Of course, people can help us help ourselves get angry (or worse), and NVC isn’t trying to downplay how other people’s actions effect us — rather, NVC is trying to empower us, through our language, to be more in control of our lives. NVC helps us match our language to the reality that we have (some) agency in how we respond other people’s actions.

2) NVC doesn’t use the language “right” and “wrong” — not because it ignores morality (it doesn’t), but because using the words “right” and “wrong” often doesn’t get us our desired outcome. Even if someone is doing something truly wrong, framing it as such usually lead to defensiveness and argument about who’s right and who’s wrong, and often encourages reactionary behavior. Rather than judging people and actions as good/bad, right/wrong, NVC frames behavior as people’s strategies to get their needs (like love, respect, self-worth) met. People who feel listened to usually don’t troll online forums, the logic goes.

NVC posits that while we may have conflicting philosophies & strategies, we all have complimentary core needs (respect, stability, peace, etc).

The Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

3) Be strict in what we send, but open in what we receive. The goal is not to tone police everyone in your life and make sure they are applying NVC.

The goal of NVC isn’t to get other people to be nice to you. The goal is to figure out what need of theirs isn’t being met when they’re not being nice to you!

NVC is a communication framework that makes our own speech less harmful and more clear, but it’s also a listening framework that enables us to make better sense of of what we hear from others. We can use whatever structure others give us, and locate and tend to their observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

***

I hope you enjoyed this primer / high level description of NVC and some of its tenets.

If you’re curious for more, I’d recommend any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg, and if you’re in SF and want to learn in person, check out Newt Bailey’s Communication Dojo. I’ll continue to share reflections as I read and learn more.

Also, here’s a great talk by Isaac Schlueter on building compassionate communities in tech.

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