The four NVC steps
The four steps of Nonviolent Communication (known also as four components) help us to consciously use words in order to clearly express what we want. Using the four steps increases the chance of establishing contact and mutual understanding. They highlight four different moments in which it is good to stay alert as it is easy to abandon NVC language for a language that cuts us off from connection.
Remember that it makes a big difference which words you use, and at the same time NVC is mainly about getting in touch with another person or with yourself. Not about words. Sometimes you don’t need words at all as there are many ways your body language can convey a message. Besides, words can be correct and in line with the NVC concept, but if behind them there is no intention to connect, they won’t “work”. Other people will easily pick up on insincerity or lack of integrity, and you might be surprised that you did everything correctly and the results are not what you wanted.
The basic information about the four steps you can find in the article “Nonviolent Communication – basic information”. In this one, I will go a little deeper into the subject and I will give you more examples. I also encourage you to think about a specific situation from your life so that you can relate to it and see for yourself what power the four steps have.
The four NVC steps are:
- What happened?
- What did someone specifically do or say?
In the first step, distinguish observations/facts from interpretations and judgments. Describe what has happened (what did someone do or say) or what you are telling yourself about what happened. Talk about what a camera would record, not what meaning you give to a situation or words. Camera is not able to know if something is beautiful or ugly. It knows what is there in the place you evaluate as beautiful or ugly, for example: in this room there are flowers, two armchairs and three paintings on the walls. When sharing observations, avoid words like: often, rarely, never, always, etc.
The purpose of naming observations is to build the common ground. If you manage to stick to pure observations you are more likely to connect with another person without inviting them to defend or run away. When you talk about your interpretations and judgments, the other person might easily hear blame and criticism, and that’s what we want to avoid.
It’s not always necessary to agree on everything that happened, but try to find the basic “facts” which affected/triggered you in some way.
– Interpretation/judgment: „Every time I have an idea, you criticize it and don’t want to agree to it.”
– Observation: „I suggested we spend this weekend in Prague and you said you’d rather stay at home.”
– Interpretation/judgment: „You are completely unreliable, you never keep your word!”
– Observation: „ You said you were going to take out the rubbish last night and you haven’t done it until now.”
- What do you feel? What is the other person feeling?
In the second step, we name the feelings that appear in us, our body, in connection to the described situation. Something has happened and we are starting to feel something. Why we feel exactly this and not something else, arises from our unmet (or met) needs (more about needs in the next step). The purpose of naming feelings is to get in contact with the needs behind them.
The characteristic of feelings is that they name how you are, which emotions you experience. When you share your feelings, it is important not to confuse them with what you think others are doing to you or what you think about yourself. In the language of Nonviolent Communication, words that express feelings are distinguished from words and sentences that contain the interpretation of someone else’s behaviour and a description of our thoughts. It happens that people start the sentence with “I feel…” and then they share their thoughts or judgements instead of feelings.
– Interpretation/thoughts and so called “false feelings”: “I feel that you don’t care about me at all”, “I feel humiliated”, “I feel as if you think I am stupid”, “I feel that I am worthless”.
– Feelings: “I feel frustrated and lonely”, “I feel excited”, “I am irritated”.
- Which needs (yours or someone else’s) are met or not met?
- What is important? What do I value?
Nonviolent Communication puts a lot of focus on the needs. They are at the centre of our interest and can be described as a life force or an inner energy that “drives” us. We want to establish contact with them when we empathize with others and ourselves.
Needs are the source of how we feel. When our needs are fulfilled we feel feelings that we enjoy. When our needs are not fulfilled our feelings can guide us towards actions that hopefully have the potential to fulfill them.
In this step, what can go wrong is confusing needs with strategies. It is good to distinguish needs from the strategies you choose to satisfy a particular need, because at the strategy level it is easy to start a conflict, which is almost impossible at the needs level.
How to distinguish one from the other? Needs are universal, everyone has the same regardless of age, culture or gender. Strategies, on the other hand, are more specific, carrying the information: “what, who, when or where”.
– Need: creativity
– Strategies for meeting the need of creativity: painting a picture, cooking dinner using randomly bought vegetables, coming up with new exercises for the workshop.
– Need: authenticity
– Strategies for meeting the need of authenticity: unrestrained dancing, telling the other person what I don’t like instead of pretending that everything is ok, leaving meetings that don’t serve me.
Remember that one need can be satisfied through a million different strategies, but also one strategy can satisfy many different needs, so when someone does something, it is worth asking about the motives for this activity and what needs are behind this activity. Then the understanding increases.
- Is there anything you would like to ask someone now?
- Maybe you want to ask yourself?
The purpose of the fourth step is to make it clear in which way you would like your needs to be met. You ask others to do something, instead of hoping that they will find it out on their own, and this way you increase the chance that your needs will be fulfilled. You can ask others but you can also ask yourself.
At this step, remember that the request is a request, not a demand. How can you recognise the difference? Check how you react when someone says “no” to your request. If you get angry, take offence, start complaining or judging, it means that it was probably a demand, not a request.
It is worth expressing requests clearly and concretely (what, who, where and when). It is important that the request is doable and that it says what you want, not what you don’t want.
– A request that is vague: “Can you respect me more?”
– A request that says what you don’t want: “Can you stop walking around the table?”
– A request rather impossible to fulfil: “Would you like to always bring me breakfast to bed?”
– A demand: “Take these plates to the dishwasher immediately or you will regret not doing it.”
Clear and specific requests:
– “Could you please look at me when we talk about our relationship?”
– “Can you tell me how you understood what I have said?”
– “When you want me to look after your children, can we agree now that you will ask me at least two days before?”
Three NVC paths – three perspectives
The four steps are so universal that they can be applied in a variety of situations – listening to the other person, sharing what is important to you, and empathizing with yourself. These are the three paths you can follow.
Which path to choose? It very much depends on the situation in which you are and what you choose.
It is worth considering who in a given situation needs empathy and understanding the most. Are you sure you have the resources to listen to the other person with empathy, or are you on the verge of endurance yourself?
If you have some time at your disposal, I recommend that you always start with empathy for yourself. Once you know: what exactly happened (observation), what you feel about it (feelings), what is important to you (needs) and what you might ask someone or yourself to satisfy this need (requests), then you will decide what to do about it faster. Do you want to tell someone about your feelings and needs? Or are you ready to listen to the other side and try to understand how they see the situation, what they feel and need? Or maybe another solution will come to your mind.
Remember that no matter what you decide to do, you can always come back to self-empathy.
I would also suggest as a general rule: when you open your mouth, try to listen with empathy before expressing your honesty. The likelihood of being heard is much bigger when the other one can relax and not wait for saying what’s important for them.
Receiving with empathy
Expressing with honesty
|– What happened?
– What did someone do or say?
– What are you telling yourself about what happened?
|– When you see/hear/remember…||– When I see/hear/remember…|
|– What were you feeling then?
– What are you feeling now?
– Where do you feel it in your body?
|– Are you feeling…?||– I feel…|
|– Which needs are not fulfilled?
– What’s so important to you in this situation?
– What do you value?
|– Because you need/value…?||– Because I need/value…|
|– What do you want to do now?
– Do you want to ask someone/yourself for something?
|– Could you tell me, if I understood you correctly?
– Would you like me to…?
|Would you be willing to…?
– tell me what you heard me say?
– tell me how you feel hearing what I just said?
– do… (concrete, positive, doable request)?
Thoughts, judgements, opinions, comparisons, should/have to
(they can occur at every step, be alert)
You have a choice
What I like the most about Nonviolent Communication is that I always have a choice. It depends on me what I will do or say. Even when I know NVC well and know what empathy is, I can still choose not to listen empathetically when I don’t have the space or the will to do so. And when I choose not to stay in connection, I want to be aware of what might arise because of it. Sometimes, initially I might not be willing to stay in contact but thinking about possible consequences might bring a shift in me. And that’s the fun about life: we can never fully predict the future…
I would love to hear from you whether you are applying the four steps of NVC in practice in your life and if so, how is it going :). Please share in the comment.
Magdalena Malinowska – I am a 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 NVC created by Marshall B. Rosenberg, but also on non-formal learning methods and on the Coaching for Transformation approach. I have a Master’s Degree in Cross-Cultural Psychology. I live in Sweden and Poland.