Non-violent communication (NVC) is based on the acknowledgement that there are some people who like committing violence while there are others who enjoy contributing to well being through compassionate giving. Many of the structures in our societies contribute to the violent aspect by educating people to be obedient and submissive to authority. In the same way that our culture foists a life philosophy of enlightened hedonism onto us, it also sets us up in domination structures where superiors are expected to tell others what’s best for them and inferiors are simply supposed to obey. The goal of NVC is liberation from decades of cultural education steeped in domination structures and replace it with compassionate systems of communication, thinking, and influencing.
Part of the education problem is the widespread use of a “static” language that focuses on what people are rather than how they are feeling. They, their behaviour, or their appearance are constantly judged as good or bad, right or wrong, normal or abnormal. Our approach of retributive justice also plays a role. When someone is judged as “bad” by the authorities we come to believe they now deserve to receive punishment. All that it takes to make violence enjoyable is to believe there are bad people and they need to be punished. This approach to justice goes to the heart of violence on the planet. Finally, there is danger in a language that denies choice. Words like “ought”, “must”, and “have to” are commonplace but they deny individual responsibility and lead us to be slaves of authority. We may not like all the things we do but it is important to recognise that we don’t so anything that we don’t choose to. NVC is a system primary of communication but also of thinking and influence which helps us to overcome the domination structures which lead to excess violence.
If the alternative to domination and violence is compassion and giving then the question NVC answers is “what skills are needed to live compassionately?” It is about how we ensure that what ever we do is done willingly and comes solely out of the joy that comes from giving. In order to do this, NVC puts the focus back on human needs. If human needs are unfulfilled we take action. Once the needs are fulfilled we can celebrate. The basis of this process is to figure out “what is alive in us” and “what would make life more wonderful” How to go about communicating the answers to these questions to others is the process of NVC.
1. Observe without judgement
The process of NVC begins with clear observations that are delivered without judgement. Clear observations tell other people whether or not they are fulfilling our needs. However, judgement and evaluation, especially when it is received as negative, often provokes defensiveness and shuts down the possibility of listening in the other person. Observations, on the other hand, are objective and can be agreed upon by both parties without the presence of guilt or blame. Blame and criticism make it difficult for others to enjoy contributing to our well-being which is the whole point of NVC. If done successfully, this initial agreement over the facts of the situation is a great way to begin a productive conversation.
2. Feel and empathise
Both positive and negative feelings are a manifestation of fulfilled (positive) or unfulfilled (negative) needs. NVC is all about putting people in touch with feelings, either their own or others. After making observations, the next step is to attach a feeling to those facts. Again it’s important to stick to only naming feeling in this step and not move into judgement or evaluation. Saying “I feel disappointed” is the right type of response. Saying “I feel you aren’t trying to the best of your ability” is making a judgement while masking it with the language of ‘feeling’. In this stage empathy is very important. You may need to check with the other person that they really heard and understood your feeling and are empathising correctly.
3. Communicate the need
Needs have a specific meaning in NVC. They are broad categories of shared desires present in all people. Some examples of these types of needs are respect, self-determination, companionship, etc. The idea here is to link the need with a feeling from the previous stage, again no judgement should be taking place. “I’m feeling scared because my need for safety isn’t being met” or “I’m disappointed that my need for honesty isn’t being met” are good instances of this. The need should be communicated in a clear and open way to reduce the chance that it is misinterpreted. Again, checking that the other person heard you by having them repeat back your need is a useful way to confirm communication is taking place correctly.
4. Make a request
The last step is to make a request of the other person that would help you to get your need met. Because this is a request and not a demand we have to be open to the other person proposing a less-than-ideal alternative or even saying “no”. If the other person hears a demand, it makes it difficult for them to enjoy contributing to us, and they may comply out of shame and guilt. This is not the way we want other people to help us! This is why, in NVC, we only request and never demand. Requests made between two freely-acting individuals in order to fulfill each other’s needs is the entire goal of NVC. If the other person doesn’t agree to your request, that’s okay! You can use NVC to find out what feeling or need is holding them back and propose an alternative that gets both your needs met or you can simply accept their choice not to fulfill your need today. In NVC, each person is responsible for finding ways to get their own needs fulfilled and not responsible for trying to fulfill the needs of others.
Although it has been around for decades, NVC is a system of communication that I came across only recently. I think the idea is pretty powerful and putting it into practice, although difficult, has been extremely rewarding for me so far. It’s hard to believe I wasn’t introduced to NVC sooner and I hope introducing it to you will improve your relationships with those around you and make your own life better too. I think NVC is especially useful for people in imbalanced power dynamics (e.g., teachers, parents, and managers should definitely pay attention) but it is still a great system for use in any type of relationship.