Intro to Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

Updated: May 4

What is violent communication? Rosenburg defines “violent” as “acting in ways that result in hurt or harm”, so judging others, bullying, having racial bias, blaming, finger-pointing, discriminating, speaking without listening, criticizing others or ourselves, name-calling are examples of violent communication. The key to Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication (NVC) is to communicate with honesty and compassion. NVC focuses on being aware of our wants and needs and communicating positively with honesty and clarity, while listening to others’ wants and needs with respect and empathy. NVC reframes how we express ourselves and hear others, because focusing on people’s underlying needs can revolutionize the way we interact with anybody, even our worst enemies. Next I will discuss the four steps of applying NVC. After going through the steps in more detail, I will use two examples where applying NVC makes a huge difference.

According to NVC, in order to communicate with empathy and honesty, we should focus our consciousness in four areas: first, observe the concrete actions that affect our well-being; second, be aware of how we feel in relation to what we observe; third, identify the needs, values, desires, etc. that create our feelings; lastly, request the concrete actions in order to enrich our lives.

The first example focuses on how we express our needs positively with honesty and clarity.

Hypothetically, you were hanging out with a friend after not seeing each other for a long time. Your friend was going on and on about boys she likes. After listening for a long time, you got frustrated and blurted out: “You are only interested in boys!” Your friend snapped back: “That is not true!” Your play date ended up abruptly. Now imagine you apply NVC. The first step is observation. Instead of judging “you are only interested in boys”, you become aware that your friend was just trying to fulfill her needs of being liked or loved and make an observation “We have been spending most of our time talking about boys. You deserve great relationships, because you are beautiful, smart and loving.” The second step is to be aware of your feelings of being neglected after listening to your friend talking about boys for a long time. The third step is to identify your need that created the feeling, that is, you need your friend to be interested in you and what you are interested in. The last step is to make the request. “Now I would really like to share with you what I am doing. Can I have your attention please?” What do you think your friend would respond to your request?

The second example focuses on how to listen to others’ wants and needs with respect and empathy. Hypothetically, your sibling tried a new game and exclaimed excitedly: “We should play this new game!” You blurted out: “That’s for babies!” Your sibling snapped back: “You never liked my ideas!” You snapped back: ”What are you talking about? I like a lot of your ideas.” Both of you feel very upset. Now pause after your sibling says “You never liked my ideas!” and apply NVC. First, you make an observation “You heard that I don’t like your idea”. Second, you make aware that she feels upset and disappointed. Third, you identify her unmet needs that create her disappointment. She needs you to support her ideas. Lastly, you make the request to enrich your lives. “What would you like me to say so you feel supported?” If you said that, would you still be in a fight with your sibling?

The NVC suggests two foundational habits. The first is that we learn to separate observations about what happened from our judgments about them. An observation is objective, concrete, and neutral. Instead of a selfish friend, think “she likes to talk about boys.” Instead of a demanding sister, think “she likes me to support her ideas”. Straightforward observations leave much more space for potentially understanding the reasons why people did what they did, rather than making lots of assumptions. This sounds simple but is not easy to do. Often, our brains leap to label someone and our mouths rush to speak the judgment! How do they tend to respond when you judge them? A person who’s feeling judged typically goes on the defensive or just shuts down. The second habit is that we take responsibility for our feelings, emotions and actions. Others’ actions might provide a stimulus for us feeling the way we do, but they don’t literally cause our emotions. In conclusion, the NVC focuses on being aware of unmet wants and needs, specifically, expressing our needs positively with honesty and clarity and listening to others’ needs with respect and empathy. Thank you for your interest!

By Lihong McPhail, who is a co-founder of WeQuil School. After reading this book, we decided to employ the principles of nonviolent communication at WeQuil School.