What if there was a way to communicate without making the listener defensive, while also improving our chances of getting our needs met? I’ll bet you’d be interested—I know I was! That’s the promise of a system of talking and listening developed by Marshall Rosenberg and shared in his book, Nonviolent Communication.
I’m generally a skeptic about the suggestion that some procedure can make that much difference in our relationships. However, I’ve been practicing nonviolent communication and I’m already seeing a huge improvement. Let me acknowledge upfront that this post draws heavily from the book, including using terms, descriptions, and examples from Mr. Rosenberg’s work.
Nonviolent communication and domestic abuse
For those of us who have been violent or abusive in our intimate partnerships, this is a game-changer. Often, our harmful actions come during conflict when we’re feeling exasperated trying to get what we see as our basic requirements met. Or it happens when we’re feeling attacked by our partner—perhaps because they are trying to get their needs met.
Nonviolent communication addresses both. We’ll address the first part in this post, and the second scenario in a subsequent post.
Beyond our intimate relationships, however, this process can be used in all kinds of communication situations. Dialogue within our families, interactions at school or work, and negotiations in community disputes will all be easier as we grow this skill. Nonviolent communication means others are less likely to feel attacked and become alienated from us.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the terms “violent” or “nonviolent” communication. Call me too literal, but violence is behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. Harsh words don’t qualify. I think the term “aggressive” or “problematic” communication describes the concept better, but the techniques described in Mr. Rosenberg’s book still apply.
Here’s the bottom line, however: certain ways we express ourselves create resistance and conflict with other people. An aggressive approach causes them to withdraw or fight back. It’s a vicious cycle as the tension escalates.
When people do respond to our hostile requests, they’ll likely do so out of fear, guilt, or shame. If they lack a genuine desire to do what we ask, they’ll sooner or later become resentful. This makes it even less likely they’ll comply in the future. None of this helps us enjoy the kinds of harmonious relationships we all want.
Communicating with judgment
One example of aggressive communication is when we use moralistic judgments that imply others are bad when they don’t act like we expect them to. We quickly focus on classifying, analyzing, and determining their level of wrongness rather than on what they might need. Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of this judgment.
We might say:
- “My wife should spend less money on clothes.”
- “The boss is lazy.”
- “My husband is selfish and doesn’t help me enough.”
- “Her comments were inappropriate.”
- “His work quality is poor.”
- “Our house doesn’t look as good as the neighbors’.”
Note all these examples contain an element of judgment. They assume badness on the part of people who behave in certain ways. As you can see in the final example, our negative judgment can even be directed at ourselves, making us feel miserable.
As we judge others’ actions negatively, we are also subconsciously telling ourselves that those things merit punishment. Then, we justify our negative treatment of them because they “deserve” it. “It’s okay that I called him a jerk because he is one.”
This is not to say we won’t have opinions about right and wrong, good and bad. But when those seep into our communication, it is off-putting to the listener. That’s no way to get our needs met.
Denial clouds the truth of choice
Another kind of unhelpful communication is denying responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. When we say things like “I have to” we are disowning accountability for our actions by attributing them to factors outside of ourselves.
We may say things like:
- “I had to clean my room,” like there is some vague force controlling us.
- “You made me feel bad,” like someone else’s actions automatically determines our emotions.
- “I drink because I am an alcoholic,” like our condition or personal history leaves us no choice.
- “I lied to the client because the boss told me to,” like we have no alternative than to obey authorities.
- “I started smoking because all my friends did,” like group pressure is beyond our ability to resist.
- “I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s school policy,” like policies, rules, and regulations are absolutes with no room for discretion.
- “I hate going to work but I do it because I’m the breadwinner,” like social norms leave us no opportunity to be individuals.
- “I was overcome by my urge to eat the candy bar,” like we’re a slave to our impulses.
When we change those sentences to reflect that we have choices, we take responsibility for our actions. “I choose to go to work because I want to make money.” “I choose to make dinner because I want my family fed.” The shift helps us see ourselves as empowered decision-makers rather than as helpless victims.
Sometimes we choose an undesirable path because the alternative is even more unattractive. If someone holds a gun to our head and tells us to get down on our knees, we may do so because we didn’t want to get shot. Still, we made a choice in that moment.
We can never make people do anything, nor should we try. When we communicate our desires as demands, we are threatening the listener with blame or punishment if they don’t comply. No one likes that, and it damages our relationship with them when we take this approach.
Here are some examples of demanding statements:
- You should change your outfit. What you’re wearing makes you look out-of-date.
- You must get the check to the bank so we can pay our bills.
- The house is a mess. We have to clean it up before our company arrives.
We’re better off when people do something because they want to—because it benefits them—than if they do it to avoid punishment. People want to have free will and autonomy—a sense they can decide on the direction of their life. Pressure, even for something they would have decided to do otherwise, creates resistance and resentment.
Four parts of nonviolent communication – a better way
Hopefully you’re getting a feel for how our choice of words can prevent us from having a harmonious relationship or getting our needs met. Unfortunately, most of us learned to communicate this way. The good news is, we can learn to do it differently.
Here’s where the practice of nonviolent communication can help. The four components of this method are:
- Observations – the ability to observe actions that affect our well-being without adding judgment.
- Feelings – accurately identifying how we feel about what we observe.
- Needs – determining our needs, values, and desires that create our feelings.
- Requests – asking others for concrete actions that will enrich our lives.
We’ll dig into each of these next.
Observing without evaluating
The first step of the nonviolent communication process involves separating our observations from our evaluations. When we combine those two, others are likely to hear criticism and resist what we are saying. Our intended message may be lost because the listener disagrees with our assessment.
The method steers us toward making specific, fact-based observations and away from subjective opinions. Most of the time, everyone will agree on the facts. However, when we add our judgments to our statement, it opens the interaction up to disagreement as others will interpret events differently.
There are many ways evaluations can get mixed up with our observations. Here are some examples:
|Example of observation with evaluation mixed in
|Example of observation separate from evaluation
|UsIng verbs that evaluate
|Doug only studies for exams the night before.
|Implying that one’s inferences about another person’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, or desires are the only ones possible
|She won’t get her work in.
|I don’t think she’ll get her work in.
|Implying predictions are certainty
|If you don’t eat balanced meals, your health will be impaired.
|If you don’t eat balanced meals, I fear your health may be impaired.
|Being general – failing to be specific about who or what we’re referring to
|Immigrants don’t take care of their property.
|I have not seen the immigrant family living at 1679 Ross shovel the snow on their sidewalk.
|Using words that denote ability without indicating that an evaluation is being made
|Hank Smith is a poor soccer player.
|Hank Smith has not scored a goal in 20 games.
|Using adverbs and adjectives in ways that do not indicate an evaluation has been made
|Jim is ugly.
|Jim’s looks don’t appeal to me.
When we use absolute words like always, never, ever, whenever, etc., we are likely exaggerating. This, too, often provokes defensiveness. While not absolute words, frequent and seldom can have the same effect.
Here are more examples and chance to practice recognizing when a statement is an observation versus when it has an evaluation mixed in: NVC Exercise 1.
Identifying and Expressing Feelings
The second step of nonviolent communication is to express our feelings. The clearer and more specific we are, including the nuances of our emotions, the better. Sometimes this means we’ll need to strengthen our feelings vocabulary.
In this step, we’ll want to express words that describe our actual feelings rather than make statements that describe our thoughts, assessments, and interpretations. This can be hard, because most of us tend to be “other” focused when we verbalize our emotions. We have not been trained to identify and name what’s going on inside ourselves.
Expressing feelings requires us to be vulnerable, and that might be scary. We might fear that we’re going to be exposed or that others will take advantage of us when we let our guard down. The upside, however, is it helps us connect with people in a deeper and more authentic way.
Losing our feelings
The first guideline for expressing our feelings is that we’ll want to say what we are actually feeling rather than describe what we think. For example, “I feel inadequate in my job” is an assessment of my ability rather than a feeling. On the other hand, “I feel disappointed in my job performance” is expressing the feeling.
Similarly, we want to avoid describing what we think others are thinking or doing. Instead, focus on words that describe your feelings. Rather than saying, “I feel unimportant to my partner,” say “I feel sad or discouraged about our relationship.”
Here’s another example: “I feel misunderstood” is a statement assessing some other person’s level of understanding. Instead, we could say, “I’m feeling anxious or annoyed about our communication.” The change in wording may seem small, but the difference in the way it’s received is huge.
There are several ways we may be actually expressing a thought instead of an emotion. When we follow the word “feel” with these words, it’s a good indication we’re really expressing a thought and not an emotion:
- Words such as “that”, “like”, or “as if”. For example, “I feel that you should know better.”
- Pronouns such as “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “they”, or “it”. For example, “I feel I am constantly having to clean up other people’s messes.”
- Names or nouns referring to people. For example, “I feel Amy has been pretty irresponsible.”
Want some more examples? Here are words that are interpretations of others’ actions and not emotions when they follow “I feel ___”:
- let down
- put down
- taken for granted
Building our feelings vocabulary
It’s helpful to use words that refer to specific emotions rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if we say “I feel good about that,” the word “good” could mean a lot of different things. If we are more specific by saying we feel “happy”, “excited”, or “relieved”, we’ll communicate more accurately.
Sometimes looking at a list of words that describe emotions can help you determine the best word to describe your emotion. Here are some common negative emotions:
You may want to keep a list like this NVC Emotion List handy for times when you’re trying to identify your specific feeling(s).
Here are more examples and chance to practice recognizing when you’re stating a feeling versus a thought, assessment, or interpretation of what others are doing: NVC Exercise 2.
Needing: Taking responsibility for the source of our feelings
Emotions, especially strong negative ones, happen when we have a need that is not being met. The third component of nonviolent communication is acknowledging those needs behind our feelings. What others say or do may be the stimulus for our feelings, but it’s never the cause of them.
The more directly we connect our feelings to our needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately. On the other hand, when we use judgments, criticisms, and interpretations of others, we alienate them, and ourselves, from our own needs.
Here are two examples of blaming statements disconnected from needs, each followed by ones that join emotions and needs together:
Blame: “You disappointed me by not coming over last evening.”
Responsibility: “I was disappointed when you didn’t come over. I wanted to talk over some things that are bothering me.”
Blame: “Their cancelling the contract really irritated me.”
Responsibility: “When they cancelled the contract, I felt really irritated because I was thinking that backing out now is unfair to me.”
It’s blame when we attribute our emotion to someone else’s behavior. The responsibility examples show the speaker accepting ownership of the emotion by acknowledging the thought behind it. Again, the wording may seem similar, but the difference in how it’s received by the listener is dramatic.
What are our needs?
Here are some of the basic human needs we all share:
- Autonomy – The ability to choose our own direction and the path for reaching that endpoint.
- Celebration – To celebrate the good things in life, but also mourn the losses.
- Integrity – The need to create meaning and demonstrate our worthiness.
- Interdependence – This is the sense of being part of a community where are we are accepted, appreciated, respected, valued, and loved for our contribution.
- Play – Our ability to have fun, laugh, and enjoy life.
- Spiritual communion – To be connected to a higher power.
- Physical needs – this is everything we need to survive, such as air, food, water, and shelter. It also includes things like protection from threats and receiving human touch.
Fixing faulty speech patterns
There are some common speech patterns that tend to mask that our feelings are ours—not the result of what others do. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these in your own dialogue:
- Using impersonal pronouns such as “it” and “that”. For example, “It really infuriates me when items ring up at the cash register differently than the price on the shelf.” “That bugs me a lot.”
- The use of the expression “I feel ___ emotion because…” followed by a person’s name or a pronoun other than I. For example, “I feel hurt because you said you don’t love me.” “I feel angry because Sheila broke her promise.”
- Statements that mention only the action of others. For example, “When you didn’t call me on my birthday, I felt hurt.” “Mommy is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.”
To change these to statements to ones where you take responsibility, try switching the “I feel” part to “because I”. One way to tell whether your statement is blaming or being responsible is to check your intent. Are you trying to make the other person feel guilty? Or are you sharing something from your heart?
Judgments, criticisms, and interpretations of others alienate us from our needs. When we express our needs using these disaffected words, others are likely to hear criticism. And when they hear criticism, they tend to get defensive or counterattack.
Clearly, this does not help us achieve what we are trying to accomplish. Instead, the more directly we can connect our feelings to our needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately. Again, most of us have never been taught to think in terms of needs. We’re accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled.
Here are more examples and chance to practice recognizing when words describing our emotions are not connected to our needs: NVC Exercise 3.
Asking for what you need
What can you do when your needs are not being met? Start by expressing what you observe, feel, and need, then follow it with a specific request. A warning, however: requests may sound like demands if we don’t first share our feelings and needs. Give the other person the context of why you’re asking. Often, we’ll find that we don’t even know what we want, so we need to get clear about that first.
Actually making a request is important, too. If we simply express our feelings, it may not be clear to the listener what we want them to do. The clearer we are about what we want, the more likely it is that we’ll get it.
Here are some guidelines for making requests of others:
- Use positive language. Say what you want as opposed to what you don’t want. That helps people respond without guessing what we want, which means they are more likely to get it right. A wife, frustrated that her husband was not spending more time with her, told her husband she wanted him to work less. He cut back on his work hours, then joined a golf league!
- Make your requests in the form of concrete actions that others can do. Avoid vague abstract or ambiguous phrasing. For example, “I want you to do the laundry” is more specific than “I want you to help more.”
- Ask the listener to reflect back what they heard. This helps to make sure the message we sent is what was received. When they do, thank your listener for trying to meet your request for a reflection. Your appreciation is especially helpful if they think they are being accused of not listening.
After we express ourselves, we often want to know one of three things:
- What the listener is feeling,
- What they are thinking, or
- Whether they would be willing to take a particular action.
Depending upon what we want to know, ask those questions. Again, be specific about what you are seeking.
Requests versus demands
When we make a request that comes across as a demand, the listener will think they are going to be punished if they don’t comply. The more that person has been blamed or punished by others in the past, the more sensitive they’ll be to how we phrase the request. They’re likely to feel their choices are to either submit or push back. As a result, they may not do as we’ve asked, or they’ll only do so begrudgingly—with an attitude!
The key to making sure we’re not being demanding is to ask ourselves how we’ll react if our request is not met. If we’re going to criticize, judge, or lay a guilt trip on them for saying no, we’re is a demand mindset. On the other hand, if we’ll show empathy or respectfully recognize the other person’s feelings and needs, we have the request posture.
Choosing to request rather than demand does not necessarily mean we give up when someone says no. It means that we first empathize with what’s preventing the other person from saying yes. Then, if you still want them to reconsider, you can try to persuade them. Perhaps addressing their concerns will change their mind.
We can make genuine requests, but we should never expect the other person to comply. That’s their decision if they willingly choose to respond to our request. Our job is to accept whatever answer they give us. Pressuring people to change their behavior or give in to our way is inconsistent with nonviolent communication and is not going to serve us well.
Here are more examples and chance to practice making requests without being demanding: NVC Exercise 4.
Practicing nonviolent communication
The nonviolent communication process can help us communicate better in our relationships. When we express our observations, feelings, and needs, then make a request, we’re less likely to make others defensive. Ultimately, we’re more likely to get our requests met.
I admit—it’s hard to remember to use this process in the heat of an argument. It takes practice. Hopefully, you are stepping out of those conflicts by taking a time-out to allow your emotions to cool and clear thinking to resume. Then, plan to re-engaging with your partner using the nonviolent communication approach.
The great thing about this system is it doesn’t require others to learn it or understand its principles. We can help them through the process and they might not even know we’re doing it. That’s the subject of our next blog post about nonviolent communication.