Nonviolent Communication (NVC), also called empathic communication, the language of the heart or the giraffe language, was created by the American psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg and aims at supporting dialogue between people and building societies based on empathy and taking into account the needs of everybody. NVC helps to consciously choose words to express what we want and to increase the chance for contact and mutual understanding.
Imagine a world in which everyone knows NVC. When you are born, you are surrounded by love, closeness and understanding. Parents made sure that you have learned to clearly express your feelings and needs, and treat your requests seriously, while sharing how your actions affect them. Teachers at school support the development of your interests and talents, teach how to build satisfying relationships and solve conflicts and misunderstandings when they appear. Politicians take care of all citizens regardless of their political views or social status. Hunger and poverty have been eliminated, and protecting the environment and caring for sustainable development is a priority for every country on earth.
Now return to here and now – how does your world look like, your relationship with your loved ones, your relationships at work and your attitude towards random people on the street?
Everyone is responsible for their feelings and for fulfilling their needs (I am responsible for mine, you for yours)
When I got to know Nonviolent Communication, my greatest discovery was that everyone is responsible for their own feelings and needs, that it depends on me how my life will look like. At first, I resisted “But how can it be true? I have no influence on many things. I MUST do so many things, although I do not want to!”.
I act because I “want” and not because “I have to”
True, not everything depends on me, although my life, my choices, yes. Every day I decide in which direction I want to go, how to interpret what happens to me and what to do next. Even when I “have to” get up in the morning, I do not really have to, but I CHOOSE it, because I want to achieve something thanks to this (something else is more important than the morning sleep).
All actions are attempts to meet needs
Another discovery was that people act because they want to satisfy their needs. Suddenly life made sense ;). Even the most irrational behaviour, ridiculous from my point of view, aims at satisfying a need.
I’m calling someone because I have a need for company. I work because I have a need for creativity, cooperation and security. I am arguing with someone because I have a need to be understood. I’m going for a walk, because I have a need to relax or contact with nature, or inspiration, or … Well, each time the need may be different, but the strategy (going for a walk) is the same. Although the needs of all people are universal (regardless of age, culture, gender or other traits), the strategies are not.
We all have the same needs, but we choose different strategies to satisfy them
Just as one strategy can meet many different needs, one need can be met in many different ways. If I have a need to relax, sometimes I go for a walk, and sometimes I meet my friends. Somebody else would choose reading a book or going to the gym or to the cinema. We all have the same needs, but we choose different strategies to satisfy them.
What’s more, it is possible to meet all needs, because there are millions of strategies that can satisfy them. Sometimes it’s enough to turn on creative thinking and look for new options instead of being attached to one favourite strategy.
Of course, the fact that it is possible does not mean that it is possible here and now, always and everywhere. You cannot have all your needs met at all times, but you can pay attention to what is most important right now. How do you know what is the most important thing at this moment, which need to start from? You can get this information from your feelings.
Feelings tell you what you need
It is said that feelings are children of needs, and you probably know how it is with children – it is better to stop what you are doing and listen to what they want from you, otherwise they will not leave you alone and will ask for attention even louder…
When we reveal our needs, we have a better chance to meet them
Okay, so you’ve named your feelings, you know what you need and you have shared it with your loved one. You have formulated a request and wait for him/her to do what you asked for. Sometimes he/she will do it with joy (which would probably not happen if you did not ask), and sometimes this person does not have the slightest desire to do it, because some other needs are more urgent for him/her at the moment. What to do in this situation?
The needs of every person are equally important and can be at least taken into consideration
The assumption that everyone’s needs are just as important and can be taken into account does not mean they will be fulfilled right away. The very fact that you shared what is alive in you and listened to what is important for the other person, deepens your relationship. It increases the chance that you will better understand each other and find a solution that will be satisfactory for both parties.
Conflicts arise from the belief that there is only one way to meet a particular need
Nonviolent Communication clearly indicates the potential source of conflict. Most often, conflicts arise from the conviction that there is only one way to satisfy a particular need. When we focus on strategies, not on what is important to us, it is difficult to reach an agreement.
I want to go to the forest, you want to go to the cinema and there is an impasse. However, when we discover what common need we want to satisfy with our actions, then perhaps there will be a third option that will make every engaged person happy. If in the above example the most important need would be closeness, spending time together, maybe the solution could be eating dinner at some nice restaurant? There are many possibilities, let them surprise you!
Before we start to resolve a conflict, we make contact with another person
In conflicts it is worth remembering that the key element leading to the agreement is to establish contact with another person. Generating ideas for solutions will not work if we do not understand what is going on in this conflict, what is important to each person and which needs want to be fulfilled.
The essence of Nonviolent Communication
And thus we come to the heart of Nonviolent Communication – empathic contact. Contact with other people as well as with ourselves. When there is no desire to connect with another person, no beautifully and correctly formulated sentences will help in establishing agreement. And when we do not have contact with ourselves it is very difficult to give our attention and show interest in other people.
What helps in making contact? Empathy and honesty.
There are many definitions of empathy. According to Nonviolent Communication empathy means attentive listening to the feelings and needs. It means accompanying the other person, giving them your presence without judging, giving advices or comforting. The basis for such contact is the belief that each of us has the potential to find the best solution for ourselves when we connect to the most alive need.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy or pity. We think that the best way to show empathy is to feel exactly the same feelings as the person we listen to, to accept their point of view, to agree with them and/or to immediately find a way to help them feel better.
That’s why sometimes people avoid listening with empathy – they do not want to be as sad or irritated as the other person. Or they think that they are too empathic and it doesn’t serve their wellbeing… Luckily you cannot be too empathic – if you are “too empathic”, it means that it is no longer empathy.
Contact based only on empathy, can lead to frustration, standing in one place and lack of development. It’s nice and pleasant between us, but something is missing… Think how you feel when you hold back something very important to you for too long? When you cannot be honest about it? Often you start avoiding another person or you explode suddenly, which may affect the whole relationship.
Honesty is not only truthfulness, it is also an attitude of openness towards oneself and other people, which is based on respect and integrity and on the right to express oneself.
Please note that there is a big difference if we honestly share our thoughts and judgments (what we think about something or someone), or if we share our feelings and needs (how somebody’s behaviour affects me and what needs are unfulfilled for me then). In Nonviolent Communication, we mean the second understanding of honesty. For example, instead of “This movie was terribly stupid, it was completely unnecessary to watch it!”, you can say “I’m disappointed because I wanted to have a good time and fun, and it turned out that this movie did not meet my expectations.”
What are the important elements of honesty?
- awareness of intentions (Why do I want to say it? Does it help to deepen connection between us? What do I want to achieve?)
- clarity (What exactly do I want to communicate?)
- form (I recommend the four steps of Nonviolent Communication).
Four steps of Nonviolent Communication
The four steps of Nonviolent Communication is a tool that helps you consciously put in words what you want to communicate in order to increase the chance of building contact and understanding. When using the four steps formula you do your best to keep the connection between you and another person so that they don’t hear criticism and keep listening to you with open heart.
These four steps are:
– What happened?
– What did someone specifically do or say?
In this step, we pay attention to facts and observations. We notice what the camera would record and what everyone can agree with. For example “This is the third time this week you come to our meeting 15 minutes later than we agreed.”
Remember that the opposite of observations are interpretations and judgments that may “invite” the other person to hear blame and criticism, for example: “You are always late, I cannot rely on you!”.
– What did I feel then? What could the other person feel?
Feelings are emotions separated from thoughts. For example “I’m sad.”
In NVC, words that express feelings are distinguished from words and sentences which contain the interpretation of other people’s behaviour and the description of our thoughts. For example sentences like “I feel that you do not take me seriously” or “I feel disrespected” tell nothing about our feelings. Instead, we try to make others responsible for our well-being and that can create resistance. On the other hand, by connecting feelings to our needs we take full responsibility for them and other people don’t need to defend themselves. It is also easier to get in contact with each other.
– Which of my needs is unfulfilled/fulfilled?
– What is important? What do I want?
In this step, we pay attention to the needs that are behind our feelings. I express what is important to me at this moment. Continuing the example of a friend who is late: “Respect and keeping promises is important to me.”
It is important to distinguish needs from the strategies that we choose to satisfy our need. For example, arriving on time or sending sms that he/she will be late, is not my need. These are activities that can satisfy my need and I can ask for it in the next, fourth step.
– Is there anything I would like to ask someone now?
– Maybe I want to ask myself?
In order for a request to be a request, it is worth expressing it in a clear and specific way (what, where and when) and assuming the possibility of a “No!”. If you ask someone for something and start to get nervous when the person does not meet this request, it means that it was a demand. In our example, the request could be “Can we agree now that next time you will inform me that you are going to come later as soon as you know it?”.
In summary, the whole message in a situation with a friend who is late may sound like:
“I’ve been waiting for you so long. You are always late, I cannot rely on you! I feel that you do not take me seriously. I need you to be punctual next time, okay? “
“The third time this week you come to our meeting 15 minutes later than we agreed. I am sad because respect and keeping promises is important to me. Can we agree now that next time you will inform me that you are going to come later as soon as you know it?”.
Which statement would you like to hear from a friend or colleague? Do you notice the difference?
Marshall B. Rosenberg – creator of Nonviolent Communication
The creator of Nonviolent Communication is Marshall B. Rosenberg, who spotted that the way in which we use language in many cultures favours the escalation of violence. Traditional forms of communication encourage people to focus on judging others instead of discovering what other people feel and what is important to them.
I am CNVC Certified Trainer supporting people in creating satisfying life and relationships (personal and professional) through individual trainings and group workshops deepening communication skills. I help in implementing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in relationships, companies and non-governmental organisations. My work is based not only on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) created by Marshall B. Rosenberg, but also on non-formal learning methods and on Coaching for Transformation approach. I founded Empathic Way (www.empathicway.pl), through which I promote Nonviolent Communication and teach honest and clear self-expression and listening to others with respect and empathy. Empathic Way Europe is a project that I started because I love working in English and want to reach people living in the whole Europe.
Besides, I am the author of the online course “Four steps to a better relationship with others and myself” (at the moment only in Polish). I got to know Nonviolent Communication in 2010.