A Peace Rose. Photo Credit Maia C. on Flickr.

Nonviolent Communication: An Introduction

A Peace Rose. Photo Credit Maia C. on Flickr.

I mentioned several weeks back that I had been reading, and really benefiting from the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life. At this point, I would still call it the most valuable book I have ever read. It has been so useful for me that I asked around my network to see if anyone was interested in going through the accompanying workbook with me week by week, to take our practice of the book’s concepts a bit deeper. I didn’t want this to become another beautiful idea that I brush against in a fleeting moment. I really want these concepts to transform my default methods for communication, so I’m keeping at it.

Each week, as I have time, I’m going to try to write a bit here about a chapter, section, or concept related NVC in hopes that by sharing it with you, I’ll gain a deeper understanding myself. To start with, I’ll share a bit of an introduction, focusing on some of the important concepts from the first chapter of the book.

My husband asked a question that I imagine a lot of people who hear about NVC would like to know: “I don’t think that my communication is violent. What would constitute “violent” communication?” Rosenberg would tell us that, even if we don’t feel we’re speaking violently, the words we use can be hurtful to others. To quote:

I call this approach nonviolent communication, using the term nonviolence as Gandhi used it-to refer to our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart. While we may not consider the way we talk to be “violent,” words often lead to hurt and pain, whether for others or ourselves.”
Rosenberg talks a lot about “life-alienating communication,” or methods and patterns of communicating that separate us from that natural state of compassion, and that break down our empathic connections with others.
Nonviolent communication focuses not only on the way we speak to others, but also on how we receive from them. It emphasizes the use of active listening, and the practice of looking past the words that people use in an attempt to really understand how they’re feeling. It calls on our natural ability to empathize with others.

 

There are four components to NVC. First, we are encouraged to be with our observations, noticing what we see happening. One of the most challenging parts of NVC is learning to observe without evaluating. Instead of noticing the fact that my husband has gone to bed without helping clean up after dinner and translating this information into the thought that, “He’s so lazy,” or he, “never helps me anymore!” I can strictly observe what is going on, without interjecting my own thoughts. “My husband did not help with the clean up after dinner tonight. He has not helped any night this week.”1

 

Once we have observed what is going on in a situation, we can focus on the feelings we have about what we observe, or the feelings the person we’re listening to is having. This is the second component. When I see that my husband has gone to bed without helping clean up the kitchen, I feel frustrated, even angry. This step is important, but its virtually useless without the next component: recognizing the needs behind our feelings.

When I see that my husband has gone to bed without helping clean up the kitchen, I feel frustrated and angry because I need to know that I can count on his help, and that we’re working in partnership with one another. Beyond our own feelings, we can listen empathically to others, focusing on and attempting to recognize what they seem to be needing.

Photo Credit: ILRI on Flickr.

The key here is remembering that the things we observe are the stimulus for feelings in ourselves or others, but they are not the cause. The cause is our own, or the other person’s, needs related to the situation. If I’m needing help in the kitchen, I might feel frustrated when I don’t get it. If I’m looking forward to quietly working in the kitchen by myself after dinner, I certainly won’t feel frustrated when no one comes in to help. My feelings arise from what is going on in me, not what others are doing. Similarly, its helpful when identifying what is going on in others to learn to hear and understand what they’re feeling and needing without allowing that to cause us blame or shame.

Once we have observed what is going on, recognized how we feel about it, and uncovered the needs behind our feelings, we can engage the fourth and final component of NVC: making specific requests. I might explain to my husband that, “When I saw that you had gone to bed without helping clean up the kitchen, I felt frustrated and angry because I need to know that I can count on your help, and that we’re working as a partnership. I would like to ask for your help tonight. Would you be willing to spend a few minutes washing the dishes and sweeping up with me before you go to bed?”

 

Another of the really challenging concepts the book touches on is making requests rather than demands. I can rant at my husband about how angry I am over his choice to go to bed without helping around the house, and then go on about what he “should” be doing, or I can remember that I want to live peacefully with him, and that this means giving him the space to decide when and how to respond to my needs and requests. NVC teaches me to share my feelings and needs, and make requests for things that will “enrich my life,” but all the while I have to remember that no one is obligated to act in a way that is in harmony with my needs. NVC is about freely giving to others out of a desire to respond compassionately to their feelings and needs, and giving others the space to give to us freely and authentically, from a place of understanding our needs and desiring to help us meet them. Making demands can sometimes help us to get what we want, but its usually at a cost.

 

The goal of NVC is to help us connect with the compassion that is already present within us, and to operate from that place in all of our communication. It’s not easy to learn to communicate in this way, but when I actually remember to use this process, I can’t deny its benefits.

Have you studied NVC? Is it something that appeals to you? Are there parts of the process that resonate with you more than others? Are there other tools you have used to aid you in communicating clearly and compassionately? I would love to hear from you!

  1. To my husband’s credit, he is typically pretty good about this. Not only did he help clean up tonight, but he made dinner, too.

12 thoughts on “Nonviolent Communication: An Introduction

    1. Melissa

      I keep learning more, too! I feel like I could read it 100 times and still take something from it. I’ll have to send you an email about our discussion times so you can join in if it’s something that appeals to you and works with your schedule. Either way, if you feel so moved, I hope you’ll share your own perspective and wisdom as you reread.

      Reply
  1. Rach

    Oh, this intrigues me. I would so love to escape non-empathetic communications. I’m looking forward to hearing more on your take on this.
    One thing that concerns me (and no I haven’t read the book) is whether transforming your reactions in this way is really doable or even desirable. I suppose I’m talking from a different cultural background. The stereotypical Irish person would find this concept difficult in practise I think. Stating an emotion to me does not seem the same as genuinely expressing it. Where’s the passion? Are we keeping it real? Of course violence in words or actions are ugly and destructive.
    Ho, hum. I’m tying myself up in circles. Just need to read it I suppose!
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    1. melissa Post author

      If you decide to read it, I would be so interested to hear your perspective. I have discussed the concepts with a number of people, but all of us come from similar cultural backgrounds as far as I can tell.

      For those of us who are used to communicating in less constructive ways (me) this way feels a bit foreign, even forced some of the time, but I have been shocked at how healing it can be. I hope that as time goes on and I continue to work at it, these new patterns will take root in me and it will all feel much more natural, and more “me.”

      Reply
  2. Willow

    I have been wanting to read this book for awhile now. Thanks so much for the summary! It sounds valuable and that you are really absorbing it. Gives me more motivation to read it.

    Reply
  3. teresa

    we actually have this book, but haven’t read it yet. I think my husband started it…
    You’re amazing. I’m sending him the link now. I think it will inspire us to dig in.
    i think it’s so important.
    thank you for taking the time to write this.
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    1. melissa Post author

      Teresa, I’m really, glad to know writing this was worth the time, and that it has been valuable to you. Thank you for letting me know <3 If you read the book and have any thoughts to share, I'd be so happy to hear them!

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  4. jaqbuncad

    It’s funny, to me, that this practice is called nonviolent communication – I never knew it by that name, but the practice of noticing and naming, observing my own emotional reactions, identifying why I was feeling that way (situation and circumstance vs expectations and needs), and then asking for what I wanted/needed is something that I learned when I began practicing polyamory.

    And it makes sense! Because one of the biggest hurdles to practicing polyamory was overcoming jealousy, and I couldn’t do that until I learned to understand my emotions and where they came from, and, conversely, to ask my partners for what I needed, with the understanding that it wasn’t on me to tell them how they should be acting, or to micromanage their feelings.

    The more I see this type of communication popping up, the happier I am to be familiar with it. It’s different, and can definitely clash with people who manage their emotions in other ways (I’ve been accused of being “manipulative” for knowing when to walk away in an argument for cool-down, “heartless” for being able to explicitly communicate the root of a particular emotion, etc.). I still feel that it’s a handy skillset to have.
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    1. melissa Post author

      I love that you have managed to adopt this style of communication and make it your normal. I hope to get there someday. For now, I’m continually reminding myself, reading, and trying to do better. I believe it’s helpful in any intimate relationship, but I can see how it would be particularly useful if you’re practicing polyamory. It makes sense that being in tune with your needs and emotions and allowing others theirs would make for far more fulfilling relationships. Heck, those abilities make for far better relationships no matter how many partners you have.

      Definitely a handy skill set for many reasons! Thanks for sharing your experience with it. Yours is a totally different perspective and I find it enlightening.

      Reply

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