In the blog post series “AI explains NVC“, Joachim Berggren (JB) asks questions about NVC to Alex Incognito (AI), a fictional character representing Artificial Intelligence in the form of the tool ChatGPT.
JB: Hi Alex! So far I’m impressed with how articulately you have answered questions about NVC. I find it fascinating that machine learning can express and describe what goes on between people in such a nuanced way. Today I want to hear more about the NVC model’s second component: feelings (the four components are: observations, feelings, needs and requests [insert link]).
Here is my question: According to Nonviolent Communication, what is the difference between feelings and thoughts?
AI explains the difference between feelings and thoughts
AI: In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), feelings are feelings that arise in response to a need being met or not met, while thoughts are mental evaluations or judgments about something. Feelings are often described as being either “neutral,” “positive,” or “negative,” depending on whether they reflect a need being met or not. For example, feeling happy might reflect a need for connection being met, while feeling angry might reflect a need for respect not being met.
Thoughts, on the other hand, are mental evaluations or judgments about something. They are often based on beliefs, interpretations, or assumptions, and they can vary widely from person to person. In NVC, it is important to be able to distinguish between feelings and thoughts, because they can often be confused or conflated with each other. This can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication, which can then lead to conflicts or other problems. By being able to clearly identify and express one’s feelings and thoughts, it is possible to communicate more effectively and resolve conflicts in a more constructive manner.
JB: Thanks for your reply, Alex! As in previous answers, I don’t have much to complain about. If I’m going to be picky, I would like to clarify that in NVC we do not refer to feelings as “positive” or “negative” (more about this later in the text). We feel things all the time, and as you write, the feelings indicate whether needs are being met or not. You also write that by expressing feelings it is “possible to communicate more effectively and resolve conflicts”. That’s right, and I’d like to add that for me, an even more important purpose of expressing feelings is to support and facilitate connection between people.
The key differentiation between feelings and thoughts
I want to clarify the key differentiation between the second component of the NVC model, feelings, and our thoughts. In our everyday language, we tend to confuse those two elements. Feelings are the words – the labels – we use to describe our body sensations. Thoughts are our (often habitual) attempts to make sense of our feelings and other aspects of our lives. Thoughts consist of interpretations, judgments, assumptions, etc. that are our mind’s attempt to help us understand our world.
Words for feelings are cultural and linguistic agreements which differ between cultures and languages. Since feelings are a subjective experience, something that goes on within us as individuals, we cannot be sure that others experience the same as we do, when we label our feelings with words such as “sad” or “happy”.
The words we use to describe our feelings function as a map that makes it easier for us to grasp what is going on inside of us and others. Although feelings are not experienced in exactly the same way in different people, words facilitate and increase the understanding of what is going on inside us when we express them. We get a rough sense of what’s going on inside someone else when they tell us how they feel. When someone uses words such as “irritated”, “angry” or “furious”, and we have an awareness of the same states within us, we understand the subtle differences between those states in others.
Feelings indicate whether needs are met or not
Within NVC, we use feelings as an indication of whether our needs are being met or not. (In this blog post, you can read more about needs.) When needs are met, we experience feelings that we in everyday language usually call “positive”, and when needs are not met, we experience “negative” feelings. In NVC we tend to avoid classifying feelings as “positive” and “negative”. One reason we avoid labelling is that whether we enjoy our feelings or not, they alert us to the life force within us, our needs, and what we are longing for.
Regardless of whether our needs are met or not, our feelings guide us to them and to possible choices we can make. We can celebrate or mourn when our needs are fulfilled or not. We can be present with the quality of the needs, the longing within us, regardless of whether they are currently being met or not. We can act to continue experiencing the needs that are being met or trying to fulfil needs that are currently not met. We may ask others to listen to us or perform actions that potentially could meet our needs. When we are aware of our feelings, we have the opportunity to act in various ways that promote the quality of our lives.
Creating a vocabulary of feelings
Since feelings signal whether our needs are being met or not, we can use our feelings as a map to find our needs. When we have very few labels to describe our feelings, it’s like having a low-resolution map. If we have a map with as low a resolution as a globe, we will never find a specific address. The same goes for feelings. If we have very few words to describe our inner life – for example, if we only feel good or bad – it becomes very difficult to identify our needs.
If we want to identify the nuances of our needs, we need a map with a higher resolution. By acquiring a large vocabulary of feelings, and connecting them to different body states, we will be able to identify our needs more easily. The easier we can identify our needs, the easier we can choose what we want to do and our quality of life will potentially increase.
Instead of just feeling happy, I can differentiate and nuance my inner landscape and use words like pleased, content, delighted, joyful, thrilled and ecstatic. These different emotional states probably point to different needs. It becomes easier to identify different needs by sensing the quality of distinct feelings instead of just using the word “happy”.
With our habitual way of expressing ourselves, we often connect our feelings to what others (or we ourselves) do and say. It’s quite common for us to think or say: “When you do/say x, I feel y”. As I wrote earlier, our feelings point to whether our needs are being fulfilled or not. What people do or say is not the cause of our feelings. The cause of our feelings is the meaning we connect to different events. What people do are stimuli for our feelings. These stimuli, or triggers, remind us of what is important to us, namely our needs.
We inevitably interpret what others do and say through several filters. These filters consist of our bodies’ capabilities to receive information, our cultural upbringing, our values, our experiences, our traumas and so on. When someone does something, people around them perceive this in different ways depending on their interpretations. The same action is interpreted differently by different individuals, depending on their unique filters. And that same action arouses different feelings such as joy, anger, sadness or indifference in each individual.
So, in NVC, we take responsibility for our feelings by connecting them to our needs, not to the actions of others. This does not mean that we ought to be neutral about what others do. We will have lots of different feelings. Sometimes these feelings are connected to needs connected to security, safety and care. Taking responsibility for these needs may include using our power to protect, for example protecting life, property or other values. The aim of NVC is not to be indifferent, but, in this case, to be able to differentiate between feelings and thoughts.
When we take responsibility for our feelings by connecting them to our needs, we also become more empowered. If we blame others for our feelings, we depend on them to change their behaviour in order for our mood to change. If others do not voluntarily change, we might want to use punishment, force or violence to change their behaviour. Of course, none of these behaviours leads to deepened connection or desire to cooperate.
By differentiating our feelings from our thoughts when we express ourselves, we decrease the likelihood that others will hear criticism. And if we are able to distinguish feelings from thoughts when we are listening to others, we become less defensive ourselves.
Distinguishing the map and the territory
The words we use to label our feelings can be described as an attempt to simplify and classify what we experience inside. In our bodies, our sensory system consists of a complex network of 10 million neurons. These sensory neurons interact in a variety of ways. When enough neurons are activated in a similar way as in previous experiences (and we are aware of it), we can label this experience with a feeling word. Depending on our experience in using words of feelings, we use more or less precise labels to describe our interiors.
It’s important to remember that the words we use are like road signs that show the direction. When I go to Warsaw and see a road sign with the text “Warsaw”, I know that the sign is not the city itself. It is the same with words for feelings. The words we use are not the life within us. Rather, the words exist to make it easier for us to share our inner reality.
As I mentioned above, thoughts differ from feelings. Thoughts are what goes on in our minds. Research has shown that most of us think between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. According to one source, 80 per cent of these thoughts are negative and 95 per cent repetitive. Our thoughts – often in the form of positive or negative judgments about ourselves and others – therefore tend to be static.
Life is anything but static, so if we want to follow the dynamic flow of life, our emotions seem to be a more reliable compass than our thoughts. When we are aware of the life within us, we notice that our feelings shift almost all the time. If we use words for feelings to describe what is going on inside us, we are closer to describing our inner life than when we use our thoughts.
Our brain is wired to focus on the negative. During human evolution, avoiding adverse events has had a greater survival potential than approaching positive events. In today’s society, most events are not life-threatening, so our nervous system’s habitual reactions can disrupt the quality of our relationships.
In work meetings, at family gatherings and when spending time with friends, our brain reacts to real or imagined threats as if we were confronted by a lion. The skill to separate our feelings from our thoughts leads to us getting better and better at relating from a place of awareness. Gradually we adapt and gain the capacity to act more adequately in different contexts.
Our cultural education
Depending on the culture we grew up in and the informal and formal education we received, our vocabulary of judgments is often larger than our vocabulary of feelings. When someone does something that isn’t in line with our needs, something that causes discomfort, we have not been taught to describe our feelings and connect them to our needs. Instead, we have been taught to make moral judgments.
Many of us have learned that what’s important for us is to conform, to do what is expected of us, and to obey authorities. Rather than paying attention to what is going on within ourselves and others, we have learned to focus on what other people expect of us. When we adapt to expectations we are often rewarded, many times in different forms of approval.
How emotions are expressed varies greatly, both between different cultures as well as within the same culture. There is no right way how to express our emotions. We tend to be more comfortable with the way feelings are shown in our culture and be judgmental about how other cultures treat emotions.
The same goes for different occupations and workplaces. In some professions, rationality is rewarded and emotions have a subordinate place. Examples of this might be the police force, the legal systems and the technology sector. In other occupations, we expect the employees to have the capability to both express and listen to feelings. These occupations include health care, child care and different service jobs.
Mixing feelings and thoughts
When we confuse our feelings with our thoughts and interpretations, it often becomes more difficult to connect with others. If we connect our distress to the actions of others, it tends to arouse resistance. And if we hear others express themselves in this way and we don’t manage to separate feelings from thoughts, we often become defensive.
Often we jump to conclusions about other people’s intentions when they act in ways that are not in line with our preferences. We tend to add “information” so others’ behaviours fit our interpretations of them. If I label someone as lazy, my mind tries to search for evidence of that label. If the person behaves as I expect, it’s a confirmation that I’m right. If they act in another way, I interpret that as an exception to the rule.
One way in which we mix feelings and thoughts are when we say “I feel…” followed by words such as “that”, “like”, and “as if”. Another way is when we connect our feelings to others’ behaviours: “When you say… I feel…” or “She makes me feel…”
We often use words that interpret what others (or we ourselves) think about us rather than how we feel. Such words can be connected to our needs being fulfilled or not. Here are examples of words we use as such “pseudo feelings”.
The disadvantage of not expressing feelings
Even if we don’t speak about what we feel, our bodies signal our feelings, for the most part in an unconscious way. Our body language, our facial expressions and the tone of our voices reveal how we feel, even if we try to hide it. And even if others don’t consciously notice these signals, their senses register them. When people’s words and body language express different things, we get confused. This discrepancy makes the connection between us more difficult than necessary.
Another disadvantage appears when we try to repress our feelings. If we don’t take care of and reflect and process our emotions, they can lead to a variety of both physical and psychological ailments. Some examples are pain, sleep problems, depression and anxiety. Another effect seems to be that when we try to protect ourselves from painful feelings, our bodies will react by also limiting the feelings we enjoy.
The benefits of expressing feelings
I think many people who have difficulty expressing their feelings in relation to others are afraid of how they will be received. If we believe that the behaviour of others is the cause of our feelings, I understand that it can be scary to express them. We may want to avoid blaming others. Or we don’t want to show ourselves as weak, prone to being pushed out of balance. By taking responsibility for our feelings by connecting them to our needs – and not to others’ behaviours – we largely eliminate these fears.
When we express what we feel, instead of denying what is alive within us, our words and body language are sending the same information. Others don’t get confused and don’t need to guess and interpret what is really going on inside us. It simply becomes easier to relate to us when we are congruent.
Not a magic bullet
Finally, I want to mention that although expressing our own feelings rather than our thoughts about others often creates connection more easily, this is not the solution to everything. Keep in mind that sometimes expressing feelings creates more resistance than connection.
Based on our individual preferences, our culture, family relationships and circles of friends, professions and workplaces, circumstances and contexts, feelings are expressed more or less openly. Being able to adapt our expression when we move between these different spheres is a great skill. Sometimes the connection is facilitated by using feelings to express ourselves honestly and guess empathically. However, the goal is not to express feelings but to create contact.
If you would like to broaden your vocabulary connected to feelings, HERE is the list of feelings that might support you in that.
You can read more about feelings in this blog post.
Joachim Berggren is a certified CNVC trainer. He has been a student of NVC since 2009 and has taught his understanding of NVC since 2010. He writes blog posts, offers workshops and hosts events about NVC, as well as offering individual sessions. He is passionate and intrigued about exploring human connection and our capacity to grow and evolve as individuals and groups during our lifetime.
In the blog post series “AI explains NVC“, Joachim Berggren (JB), is in dialogue with a fictional character, Alex Incognito (AI). Alex uses Artificial Intelligence to help Joachim explore questions related to NVC. Joachim asks questions and Alex generates answers from the tool ChatGPT. The text from ChatGPT is not edited, it’s just copy-pasted. The only change is the layout so the text fits in the blog post. Alex’s answers are indicated in italics.
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