What Is Nonviolent Communication?

For years, I’ve been searching for an authentic, responsible, and successful way to communicate, one that promotes real connection with myself and others. Fortunately, I learned about Marshall Rosenberg’s teaching of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in the year 2000. Now I’m happy to report that my desire to consistently have compassionate verbal interactions — even in charged situations — has finally been fulfilled.

For me, learning nonviolent communication has been a process of becoming fluent in a different language — even though English words are used! In my old language, I focused on what was wrong with someone, on countering their expression with criticisms, on offering solutions to fix “the problem” or on defending my own position. It all seemed to make perfect sense (even though it generally felt terrible and left me with unsatisfying relationships). Yet to change this experience, I had a big hurdle to clear. I needed to be willing to explore a new logic and language that produced more enriching results.  (I was fortunate to get to study with Marshall on several occasions and many other talented NVC teachers between 2000 and 2005.  Marshall passed away in 2015 at 80)

So how does the language of nonviolent communication work? Let me give you a brief example. Let’s say I passed a bulldozed lot in our area of Hawaii. I used to say (or think) something like, “Grrrrrrr, those stupid people! They’re destroying what little Nature we’ve got left. They should go back to wherever they came from and not ruin our island!”

However, if I were to use NVC, I wouldn’t communicate in terms of condemning thoughts and righteous demands. Instead, I’d communicate in the four parts of NVC—observations, feelings, needs and requests, which express what’s actually alive in me. Then the sentence might sound like:

OBSERVATIONS: When I look at that bulldozed lot . . .
FEELINGS: . . . I feel outraged and powerless. . .
NEEDS: . . . because I want protection for the Earth’s ecosystems and for the natural beauty of our island.
REQUEST: Would you be willing to brainstorm with me ways I can change how land is developed here, so it becomes something I can support?

With nonviolent communication, there’s no suppression of feelings and no false niceness. There’s also no blame, shame or judging of others (or myself!). All that energy is redirected towards identifying my feelings and needs. Then I ask for something that would actually enrich my life. For me, this is a profound breakthrough. By using this form, I’m able to communicate about any topic or feeling in a way that maximizes my chances of getting my needs met. Whereas before, I spoke in a way that practically guaranteed my needs would NOT get met.

But all this is only half of the equation. Perhaps even more unique to NVC is the practice of empathic listening. When listening empathically, I translate whatever is expressed into observations, feelings, needs and requests. Let’s say my partner comes up to me and says, “You’re a lazy, messy bum and I’m sick of putting up with your junk all over the house!!!” Using empathic listening, I can do something besides collapse, defend myself or counter attack. In this case, I might pause, reflect and ask:

OBSERVATIONS: When you came home and saw my clothes and towel on the floor . . .
FEELINGS: . . . were you upset . . .
NEEDS: . . . because you’d like to have order in the house?

Giraffe and jackal puppets used to teach nonviolent communication.Notice, I don’t take on the condemnation nor do I condemn back. Instead, I listen for feelings and needs and then make my best guess at what is actually going on with the other person. Empathy!

Hearing this, she might say, “Yeah, but what I’m really aggravated about [feeling] is all the traffic and the fact that I was working all day while you stayed home [observation].” Then I might say, “Sounds like after being at work and driving home [observation] you’re feeling burned out [feeling] and really want peace and relaxation [need] “Yeah. You know, what I’d love is to take the weekend off [request] to chill out and be together [need].” “Wow, I’m happy [feeling] to hear that [observation], because I’ve been wanting to connect [need]. I was actually bored [feeling] sitting around the house today [observation]. I would have liked some company [need].” “Cool. And about the house [observation], would you be willing to put your things away after you’re done with them [request]?” “OK.” “Thanks.”

This dialogue is an example of how nonviolent communication can take a potential fight and turn it into an intimate connection. By focusing on the feelings and needs of each person, it’s possible for everyone to get their needs met. And it only takes one person speaking this language to make it happen.

Beyond its obvious merit in personal relationships, nonviolent communication has been used successfully in all kinds of settings — including families, schools, businesses and other organizations. It’s helped bring peace and change to prisons, war-torn areas and volatile conflict-situations all over the world. It seems to work for people of all races, classes, backgrounds and locations. This excites me because I want to be able to communicate with everyone in a way that is respectful and effective, while still being sincere and passionate. Prior to NVC, I didn’t see how that was possible. Now I see it as completely do-able!

If you’re interested in exploring NVC, here are a few avenues…Training nonviolent communication consciousness is about practice.

  • Read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg, which completely explains this practice, in detail, with many real life examples. Order it here.
  • Check out the NVC websites on our Links page.
  • Attend an Introductory Workshop in Compassionate Communication, or a 6-week Basic Skills Class, which focus on the fundamentals of NVC. For more information, contact us.
  • Schedule a Compassionate Communication coaching session with me. I work with individuals, families, schools, businesses, and other organizations. I also offer mediation services for couples and groups. For more information, contact us.
  • Join our Compassionate Communication practice group if you’re on the on the Big Island or join a local NVC practice group in your area. If there isn’t one available, read the NVC book and form your own practice group.
  • Practice, practice, practice!