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! I would like to continue asking you questions about the fundamentals of NVC. This time I would specifically ask you about the first component of NVC, observations. In later blog posts, I want to ask you about the other three components: feelings, needs and requests. So are you ready? Here is my question: According to Nonviolent Communication, what is the difference between observations and interpretations?
AI explains the difference between observations and interpretations
AI: In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), observations are factual statements about what is happening in a situation. They are objective and do not include any personal feelings or interpretations. Observations are meant to describe the situation as objectively as possible, without any judgment or evaluation.
Interpretations, on the other hand, are personal explanations or beliefs about the situation. They involve adding one’s own thoughts, feelings, and assumptions to the observation, and are subjective rather than objective.
For example, an observation might be “I see that the dishes are still in the sink.” This is a factual statement that describes what is happening. An interpretation of the same situation might be “You always leave the dishes in the sink, you are so lazy.” This statement includes the person’s personal feelings and assumptions about the situation, and is not a neutral observation.
In NVC, it is important to distinguish between observations and interpretations, as interpretations can often lead to misunderstandings and conflict. It is generally more effective to communicate using observations rather than interpretations, as observations are more likely to be objective and free of emotional charge.
JB: Wow! Thanks for your detailed answer, Alex. I’m impressed by your accurate description of observations versus interpretations. I especially like your example of the dishes, a situation I guess many can recognise themselves in.
The purpose is connection
As usual, I want to add a few thoughts to make the distinction between observations and interpretations clearer. In the last paragraph, you write that interpretations often lead to misunderstanding and conflict. I would like to add that one of the purposes of observations – maybe the main one – is to support the connection between people. Observations diminish the risk that others hear us as judgmental. When we express our judgments, the likelihood that others want or are willing to hear us decreases. Regardless of our intention, if they hear criticism, blame or analyses of themselves, they tend to counterattack, defend themselves, or withdraw.
Don’t avoid expressing yourself
Even if the observation in itself is free of evaluations and interpretations, the purpose of making observations is not to stay forever objective and free from subjectivity. Rather, the purpose is to consciously distinguish between observations and how we are affected by the event. By separating observations from our evaluations and interpretations, we are able to take responsibility for our feelings by connecting them to our needs.
At the same time as we make observations by trying to describe the objective world, we also want to raise awareness that what happens affects us. Different situations in our life are stimuli that trigger us in different ways, depending on our individual backpack of traits and experiences. That’s why we have three additional steps in the NVC model: feelings, needs and requests.
An observation answers questions such as “What happened?” and “What did someone do and say?”. To answer these questions, we use our senses, primarily sight and hearing. A comparison could be a video camera that captures images and sounds. A video camera makes no interpretations. Observations support us in creating a shared reality, a common ground we agree upon.
In our everyday speech, we often use vague language containing unspecific generalisations. When we make an observation, we want to be as specific as possible and refer to concrete situations. If we use words such as “always”, “never”, “often” or “rarely” it’s easier for others to hear judgments. For example, instead of saying “You never call me” we can say “The four last times we talked, I have called you”.
Often it’s not necessary to be very detailed when we make observations. Finding the lowest common denominator is supportive. Identify which parts of an event are important to include and leave out not-so-important details.
Observations when needs are fulfilled
It is not only interpretations that are expressed when needs are not met that can create misunderstandings or lead us away from the connection. Even when people’s needs have been met and they, for example, want to express appreciation, interpretations can create confusion. For example, if we say “You are so great!”, the receiver might be unaware of what we are referring to. By adding an observation that led to our conclusion (you’re so great), it becomes more clear what we are appreciating.
The benefits of interpretations
Having said this, it is not an end in itself to describe our existence and interactions with others in the form of observations. Interpretations can sometimes be a very effective way of describing things that have happened. Interpretations are often based on cultural and linguistic agreements. A simple example is the word “chair”. It’s not a specific observation, but everyone that has experienced chairs knows what we mean.
Our ability to make fast interpretations is crucial for our existence. Our minds’ tendency to make fast interpretations and decisions is fundamental for our survival. During our evolution, it has been more important to react fast than to have an accurate picture of reality. However, the skill to make observations is useful when we want to make sure that we have the same conception of what happened and to build connection and collaboration between us.
You can read more about observations 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.
To learn more about NVC, please visit the Empathic Way Europes website and check out other blog posts and our coming events.