On Nonviolent Communication

The below are my takeaways from the book, Nonviolent Communication. You can find the book here:

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I posted the following status on Facebook last week:

“Nonviolent Communication is the most impactful book I’ve read all year.”

Some people asked me in private: “Are you violently fighting with someone?” At first I was surprised by their question, but then I understood. If I posted “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book is the most impactful book I’ve read,” some people may ask me when’s the next AA meeting.

Some friends I told about the book also admitted to have reading it — as if it were a confession — but hadn’t met anyone else who had. Because of the title’s implications, they were shy about sharing how impactful the book was for them. For this reason, I’ve argued that the title should be rebranded to appeal to a wider audience. Perhaps “Compassionate Communication”.

At the same time, however, by calling the book “Nonviolent Communication,” Marshall Rosenberg forces us to realize how violent we are in our daily communication with each other.

The book has had a surprisingly profound impact on me — on my relationship with myself and others — and I’m writing this piece to encourage other people to read and practice it.

The book, Nonviolent Communication, 3rd edition.

Before I get into it, here’s a quick summary:

Non Violent Communication — NVC — is a framework of communication for speaking and listening that helps us get what we want in ways we are proud of and meet everyones needs.

Below I show 17 takeaways from the book. Have patience while reading — some things sound cliche but the implications are profound. Consider the phrase “Take responsibility for your thoughts, actions, and feelings.” That sounds trite on its own, but in NVC, it isn’t, because the implication is that we have to change how we communicate in ways that are difficult. For example, below are examples of things we say everyday. The parentheses following the statements indicate who or what we deem responsible for the actions (instead of ourselves).

“I cleaned my room because I had to.” (Blames Vague impersonal forces)
“I drink because I am an alcoholic.” (Blames Our condition, diagnosis, or personal or psychological history)
“I hit my child because he ran into the street.” (Blames The actions of others)
“I lied to the client because the boss told me to.” (Blames The dictates of authority)
“I started smoking because all my friends did.” (Blames Group pressure)
“I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s the school policy.” (Blames Institutional policies, rules, and regulations)

What’s the big deal, you may be thinking. What’s so profound about this?

The language we use shapes our perception of reality. Literally, the words we use determine how we view the world. If we don’t use certain phrases, we won’t see certain things. For example, if you say your boss “makes you crazy,” you will indeed think someone else is “making” you crazy. If you instead say “I am frustrated because I am wanting stability and consistency in this relationship,” you will see yourself as having control over your feelings and clearly address what you want. This is NVC: Getting what we want in a way that we are proud of and meets everyones needs.

To actually take responsibility for our thoughts, actions, and feelings, NVC asks us to adopt the following language framework. If you remember one thing from the book or this post, it’s this framework:

  • Observation — specific facts/data, no evaluation/judgment
  • Feeling — state how we feel
  • Need — the need underlying this feeling
  • Request — must be specific action to address need

Used in a sentence it looks like this:

“When ___, I feel ___, because I am needing ___. Therefore, I would now like ___.”

OK. Below are the biggest lessons I learned while reading NVC. Again, while some of these may sound obvious, the ways in which NVC asks us to change our language are quite profound, and difficult.

1) Observe without Evaluating

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

This is one of the biggest ones for me. I now notice that in nearly every conversation, someone is mixing observation and judgement.

We create many problems for ourselves by using static engage to express or capture a reality that is ever changing — by mixing evaluation and observation.

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, because people are apt to hear criticism. For example:

Judgement: You’re always busy.
Observation: The last few times we’ve tried to hang out, I haven’t been able to get on your calendar.
Judgement: Carmelo is a ball hog who doesn’t want to pass.
Observation: Carmelo averages two assists a game
Judgement: She just doesn’t care about me. She’s seeing someone else. We’re over!
Observation: She hasn’t responded to my text message in 14 minutes.

2) All judgements are expressions of unmet needs. Connect them to feelings and needs.

For example, If I ask a question about what someone has just said, and that person responds, “That’s a stupid question,” I choose to sense what the other person might need as expressed through that particular judgment of me. For example, I might guess that a need for understanding was not being fulfilled when I asked that particular question.

Or if I find myself judging someone by labeling them as selfish, I would ask myself if my own need for stability and self-care is being met, or if it’s something I’m insecure about.

When I get stuck in my head thinking about the wrongness of others, I try to connect my judgements to my feelings and needs. If I‘m judging myself (“Look, you just messed up again!”), I stop and ask myself “What unmet need of mine is being expressed through this moralistic judgment?”

Here’s an example from the book:

“That was a racist thing to do.” That is not hard for me to say at all. I kind of like saying that. But it’s really scary for me to get down to what’s behind that feeling, because feelings for me are so deeply related to racism that it’s scary — but that’s fully expressing the anger. So then I might open my mouth and say to the person, “When you came into the group just now and started to talk to others and not say anything to me, and then when I heard the comment about ____, I felt really sick to my stomach and really scared. It just triggered off all kinds of needs on my part to be treated equally, and I’d like you to tell me how you feel when I tell you this.”

3) Judgements become self-fulfilling prophecies

This is one of the ones that seems obvious, but it’s actually quite hard to change your behavior.

From the book:

“I feel like I’m married to a wall.” A husband hears himself criticized for behaving like a wall; he is hurt and discouraged and doesn’t respond, thereby confirming his wife’s image of him as wall.
A wall

4) Differentiate between triggers and causes.

NVC posits that people are disturbed not by things, but by the view they make of them. In other words, what others may say and do may be the trigger, but never the cause, of our feelings. Our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, and our particular needs/expectations in that moment.

This is easy to say, and hard to do. NVC suggests we internalize this by changing our language — replace language that implies lack of choice with language that acknowledges choice. Let’s look at another example:

Example 1: “You made me crazy last night.”

Example 2: “I was frustrated because I was having difficulty communicating with you and I want you to know what’s going on for me.”

First one blames the frustration solely on the other. Second one accepts responsibility for feeling by acknowledging the thought behind it.

5) If you want to be miserable, compare yourself to other people.

In his book How to Make Yourself Miserable, Dan Greenburg suggests that if readers have a sincere desire to make life miserable for themselves, they might learn to compare themselves to other people. For those unfamiliar with this practice, he provides a few exercises. The first one displays full-length pictures of a man and a woman who embody ideal physical beauty by contemporary media standards. Readers are instructed to take their own body measurements, compare them to those superimposed on the pictures of the attractive specimens, and dwell on the differences.

Or another example, this time in the realm of human achievement. Think about what Mark Zuckerberg, Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps, or any number of people had achieved by 25 — or what Mozart had achieved at age 12 — and then dwell on the differences between you and them. You get the idea. Comparison is another form of judgement, which is an expression of an unmet need.

6) Distinguish between feelings and interpretations of feelings.

I sometimes think I’m expressing my feelings when I’m actually expressing my thoughts around who I am, or how others are interpreting me.

NVC proposes that we don’t use words like “misunderstood” because, according to NVC, that’s not a feeling as much as it is an analysis of whether the other person has understood us. If we think somebody has misunderstood us, sometimes we can be angry, frustrated — it could be many different things. Likewise, we don’t use words like “manipulated” or “criticized”, or words that imply wrongness on the other person because they are more likely to be heard as criticism than as invitations to connect with our feelings.

Interpretations often have feelings underlying them.

Examples of interpretations: I feel “unimportant” , “neglected”, “ignored” “betrayed“ because YOU did X thing.

Examples of feelings: I feel “frustrated” “angry” “upset” “scared” because I am wanting Y thing.

7) Make Requests, not Demands

Our requests of other people should be specific, concrete, and actionable. The clearer we are about what we want back, the more likely we are to get it.

Requests are received as demands when listeners believe that they will be blamed or punished if they do not comply.

Below are examples of moralistic judgements that automatically transform requests into demands:

He should be cleaning up after himself
She’s supposed to do what I ask
I deserve to get a raise
I’m justified in having them stay later.

I used to ask my friend if he could just “not be crazy.” Needless to say, this didn’t work, and only brought me more of what I was looking to avoid.

8) When listening, like when speaking, follow the Observations → Feelings →Needs → Requests framework

In NVC, no matter what words others may use to express themselves, we simply listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

Again, if you take nothing else from this post (or the book) it’s this framework: Observations → Feelings → Needs → Requests.

This is normal listening:

“Husband: “You never listen to me.”
Wife: “I do too,”
Husband: “No, you don’t,”

Can you feel the progress made in the above exchange? It’s palpable.

This is NVC listening:

Husband: You never listen to me.
Wife: It sounds like you’re terribly frustrated because you would like to feel more connection when we speak.

Game changer.

9) When listening, ask before offering advice/ reassurance

“The presence that empathy requires is not easy to maintain. “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” — Simone Weil

There is a Buddhist saying that aptly describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Ask before offering advice or reassurance, because such intellectual understanding of a problem blocks the kind of presence that empathy requires. When we are thinking about people’s words and listening to how they connect to our theories, we are looking at people — we are not withthem.

In the book, “Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner describes how painful it was for him, when his son was dying, to hear the words people offered that were intended to make him feel better. Even more painful was his recognition that for twenty years he had been saying the same things to other people in similar situations! Sadly, I could resonate.

10) When listening, treat all insults and judgements of you as the other person expressing unmet needs. Don’t take it personally.

I’ve noticed that criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when I focus on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message, even if it’s accusatory or spiteful.

NVC states that 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 I receive messages with this awareness, I no longer feel dehumanized by what others have to say. I only feel dehumanized when I get trapped in derogatory images of other people or thoughts of wrongness about ourselves. In fact, a difficult message becomes an opportunity to enrich someone’s life.

A quote from the book:

We have been educated to think that there is something wrong with us. I want to suggest that you should never, never, never hear what other people think about you. I predict you’ll live longer, and you’ll enjoy life more if you never hear what people think about you. Never take it personally. The recommendation I have is to learn to connect empathically with any message coming at us from other people. And Nonviolent Communication shows us a way of doing that. It shows us a way of seeing the beauty in the other person in any given moment, regardless of their behavior or their language. It requires connecting with the other person’s feelings and needs at this moment, with what’s alive in them. And when we do that, we’re going to hear the other person singing a very beautiful song.

11) When making or listening to requests, differentiate between needs and strategies

It is important, when resolving conflicts, that we can clearly recognize the difference between needs and strategies. Many of us have great difficulty expressing our needs: we have been taught by society to criticize, insult, and otherwise (mis) communicate in ways that keep us apart. In a conflict, both parties usually spend too much time intent on proving themselves right, and the other party wrong, rather than paying attention to their own and the other’s needs. And such verbal conflicts can far too easily escalate into violence — and even war. In order not to confuse needs and strategies, it is important to recall that needs contain no reference to anybody taking any particular action. On the other hand, strategies, which may appear in the form of requests, desires, wants, and “solutions,” refer to specific actions that specific people may take.

Here’s an example from the book:

For example, I once met with a couple who had just about given up on their marriage. I asked the husband what needs of his weren’t being fulfilled in the marriage. He said, “I need to get out of this marriage.” What he was describing was a specific person (himself) taking a specific action (leaving the marriage). He wasn’t expressing a need; he was identifying a strategy. I pointed this out to the husband and suggested that he first clarify his and his wife’s needs before undertaking the strategy of “getting out of this marriage.” After both of them had connected with their own and each other’s needs, they discovered that these needs could be met with strategies other than ending the marriage. The husband acknowledged his needs for appreciation and understanding for the stress generated by his rather demanding job; the wife recognized her needs for closeness and connection in a situation where she experienced her husband’s job occupying much of his time.

12) Avoid Labeling People

NVC is a process language, that discourages static generalizations. Instead, evaluations should be based on observations specific to time and context

Remember, all judgments are tragic expressions of other things. NVC is a process. When we say anything about ourselves like, “I am a _____,” it’s static thinking; it puts us in a box and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies. When we think that we (or somebody else) is something, we usually act in a way that makes it happen. There is no verb “to be” in NVC; you can’t say, “This person is lazy,” “This person is normal,” “This person is right.”
“Names are simply tragic expressions of unmet needs. NVCers know there is no such thing as normal, abnormal, right, wrong, good, or bad. They know that all of those are a product of language that has trained people to live under a king. If you want to train people to be docile to a higher authority, to fit into hierarchical structures in a subservient way, it is very important to get people up in their head and to get them thinking what is “right,” what is “normal,” what is “appropriate,” and to give that power to an authority at the top who defines what those are…When people are raised in that culture, they have this tragic trick played on them. When they are hurting the most and needing the most, they don’t know how to express it except by calling other people names. With NVC, we want to break that cycle. We know that the basis of violence is when people are in pain and don’t know how to say that clearly. There is a book called Out of Weakness, by Andrew Schmookler. He writes that violence — whether we are talking about verbal, psychological, or physical violence between husband and wife, parents and children, or nations — at its base is people not knowing how to get in touch with what is inside. Instead, they are taught a language that indicates that there are villains out there, bad guys out there, who are causing the problem. Then you have a country where even the leader will say of another country, “They’re the evil empire.” And then the leaders of the other country will say back, “These are imperialist oppressors,” instead of seeing and revealing the pain, fear, and unmet needs behind the other’s words. This is a very dangerous social phenomenon. That’s why NVCers are committed to just hearing the pain and needs behind any name — not to take it in and not to respond in kind.”

13) Avoid labeling yourself

“As an NVCer, never think of yourself as a “worthwhile person.” If you do, you will spend a good amount of time questioning whether you are a “worthless person.” NVCers don’t spend time thinking about what kind of person they are; they think moment by moment — not “What am I?” but “What is the life that is going on in me at this moment?”

14) Avoid motivating by guilt

NVC says that children who hear things like, “It hurts Mommy and Daddy when you get poor grades,” are led to believe that their behavior is the cause of their parents’ pain. The same dynamic is observed among intimate partners: “It really disappoints me when you’re not here for my birthday.” The English language facilitates the use of this guilt-inducing tactic. To motivate by guilt, mix up stimulus and cause. We say: “You make me angry.” “You hurt me by doing that.” “I feel sad because you did that.”

“It hurts me when you do that,” in NVC becomes “I feel upset because I want us to have great communication.”

Remember the framework: “When ___, I feel ___, because I am needing ___. Therefore, I would now like ___.”

It’s very important that when we express our feelings, we follow our feelings w/ a statement that makes it clear that the cause of our feelings is our needs.

15) Avoid motivating by “should”

“Get the word should out of there. As long as I think I “should” do it, I’ll resist it, even if I want very much to do it. Hearing “should” from inside or outside takes all the joy out of doing it. I try to never do anything I should do. Instead, I follow Joseph Campbell’s suggestion. After studying comparative religion and mythology for forty-three years, Campbell said, “You know, after all of my research, it’s amazing that all religions are saying the same thing: don’t do anything that isn’t playful.” Don’t do anything that isn’t play. He also said it another way: “Follow your bliss.” Come from this energy of how to make the world fun and learnable.

NVC states that depression results from cognitively arrested alternatives — or in other words, when our thinking blocks us from being aware of our needs and then being able to take action. We get caught up in the moralistic, all the “should haves” and self-judgements: “I’m a terrible person,” “I should have known better,” “If only I wasn’t as irresponsible,” etc…it’s the static thinking that gets us stuck.

Another quote:

Is the ultimate goal not to be perturbed by it all?
 “The ultimate goal is to spend as many of my moments in life as I can in that world that the poet Rumi talks about, “a place beyond rightness and wrongness.”

16) Anger is an alarm clock for our needs

Anger is a very valuable feeling in NVC. It’s a wake-up call — it indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on which of our needs are not getting met. It tells me that I’m thinking in ways almost guaranteed not to meet my needs. Why? Because my energy is not connected to my needs, and I’m not even aware of what my needs are.

To be clear, anger is not the problem. It’s the thinking that’s going on in us when we’re angry that’s the problem.

To bring this full circle, NVC posits that Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.

Every time I’m angry, NVC asks me to tell myself “I am feeling angry because I am telling myself thoughts about other peoples actions that imply wrongness on their part.”

Blaming and punishing others are superficial expressions of anger. If we wish to fully express anger, the first step is to divorce the other person from any responsibility for our anger. Instead we shine the light of consciousness on our own feelings and needs. By expressing our needs, we are far more likely to get them met than by judging, blaming, or punishing others.

17) Avoid policing others

The goal of NVC isn’t to get people nice to you — the goal is to figure out what need isn’t being met when they *aren’t* being nice to you .

NVC encourages us to be strict in what we send out, but liberal in what we receive. In other words, use NVC to change your behavior, not to police others. As a meditation instructor once told me “Be the buddha, not the buddhist. Receive others empathetically — hear their observations feelings needs requests — even when they’re hurling insults or accusations or judgements. Especially then.

18) The difference between apology and mourning

“Apology is based on moralistic judgment, that what I did was wrong and I should suffer for it — I should even hate myself for it. That’s radically different from mourning, which is not based on moralistic judgments. Mourning is based on life-serving judgments. Did I meet my own needs? No. Then what need didn’t I meet? When we are in touch with our unmet need, we never feel shame, guilt, self-anger, or the depression that we feel when we think that what we did was wrong. We feel sadness, deep sadness, sometimes frustration, but never depression, guilt, anger, or shame. Those four feelings tell us we are making moralistic judgments at the moment we are feeling those feelings. Anger, depression, guilt, and shame are the product of the thinking that is at the base of violence on our planet. And I’m glad to have those feelings, because if I’m thinking in a way that I believe supports violence on our planet, I want as quickly as possible to transform that thinking. In our second step, then, I mourned; I didn’t apologize, I mourned.”

Mourning in action:

“Sister, when I see how my actions have contributed to your pain, I feel very sad. It didn’t meet my need to nurture and support you in a way I really would’ve liked.”

Making NVC a habit

I went to a few NVC classes at this place in SF called The Communication Dojo and loved it. The name “Dojo” felt apt — NVC is a skillset that you train and improve over time, like Martial arts. If you go, I recommend you take a class with Newt Bailey, who was my instructor and is fantastic.

The class was helpful in a bunch of ways, but I also adopted this exercise from it. They recommended doing a daily check known as the ladder exercise. The ladder exercise asks four questions:

  1. How are you feeling?
  2. How does that feel on the inside?
  3. What do you want?
  4. What would that give you?

Often for #1 we’ll have an interpretation of a feeling (e.g misunderstood, neglected, betrayed, etc.) so #2 gets at the root of it. For #3, we often put our strategy (e.g. for them to admit they were wrong), so #4 gets us to talk about what need that would meet.

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Before NVC, I already thought I was a strong communicator, and certainly “nonviolent,” but I used to say things like “when you do this, you make me feel ___”; I used to generalize across a mass audience; label people; mix judgements and observations; offer advice instead of empathize; take insults personally; imply wrongness and criticize; and all sorts of things that don’t achieve the connection I’m looking for.

To be sure, I still make these mistakes all the time, but I’m more conscious of it now, and am gradually reducing them. But it takes work. It’s a practice.

NVC helps immensely in getting what I want while also feeling good about it, in a very simple way. Too summarize the process in one sentence:

Express what I am observing , feeling and needing; what am I requesting to enrich my life; what you are observing feeling and needing; what you are requiting to enrich your life.” Boom. That’s it.

I hope that you read the book. I hope that you share it with your friends, your family, your kids, your school, your company, whoever is important to you. And go to The Communication Dojo. They have a great NVC community.

If you become similarly passionate in spreading it, I’d love to help some way. In a world in which we are all figuring out how we can have an impact, improving the way we communicate seems like a pretty big low-hanging fruit.

Thanks to Rebecca Goldman for the book recommendation, and to Dan Morse for the edits.