Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg


Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is an interpersonal communicative process developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg beginning in the 1960s. NVC often functions as a conflict resolution process. It focuses on three aspects of communication: self-empathy (a deep and compassionate awareness of one’s own inner experience), empathy (listening to another with deep compassion), and honest self-expression (expressing oneself authentically in a way that is likely to inspire compassion in others).

NVC is based on the idea that all human beings have the capacity for compassion and only resort to violence or behavior that harms others when they don’t recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs. Habits of thinking and speaking that lead to the use of violence (psychological and physical) are learned through culture. NVC theory supposes all human behavior stems from attempts to meet universal human needs and that these needs are never in conflict. Rather, conflict arises when strategies for meeting needs clash. NVC proposes that if people can identify their needs, the needs of others, and the feelings that surround these needs, harmony can be achieved.

While ostensibly taught as a process of communication designed to improve compassionate connection to others, NVC has also been interpreted as a spiritual practice, a set of values, a parenting technique, an educational method and a worldview. The system has been applied in organizational and business settings, parenting, education, mediation, psychotherapy, healthcare, eating issues, prisons, and as a basis for a children’s book. Rosenberg has used Nonviolent Communication in peace programs in conflict zones including Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Serbia, Croatia, Ireland, and the Middle East including the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He has identified Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration for the NVC model. His goal has been to develop a practical process for interaction rooted in Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘ahimsa’ which translates as ‘the overflowing love that arises when all ill-will, anger, and hate have subsided from the heart.’

Nonviolent Communication training evolved from Rosenberg’s search for a way to rapidly disseminate peacemaking skills to civil rights activists in the early 1960s. During this period he also mediated between rioting students and college administrators and worked to peacefully desegregate public schools in long-segregated regions. The earliest version of the model (observations, feelings, and action-oriented wants) was part of a training manual Rosenberg prepared in 1972. It evolved to its present form (observations, feelings, needs and requests) in 1992. The dialog between Rosenberg and NVC colleagues and trainers continues to influence the model, which by the late 2000s placed more importance on self-empathy. Another shift in emphasis has been to reference to the model as a process. The focus is thus less on the ‘steps’ themselves and more on the practitioner’s intentions in speaking (‘is the intent to get others to do what one wants, or to foster more meaningful relationships and mutual satisfaction?’) in listening (‘is the intent to prepare for what one has to say, or to extend heartfelt, respectful attentiveness to another?’) and the quality of connection experienced with others.

Rosenberg’s work with humanist psychologist Carl Rogers to investigate the components of a helping relationship was central to the development of NVC. Rogers emphasized: 1) experiential learning, 2) ‘frankness about one’s emotional state,’ 3) the satisfaction of hearing others ‘in a way that resonates for them,’ 4) the enriching and encouraging experience of ‘creative, active, sensitive, accurate, empathic listening,’ 5) the ‘deep value of congruence between one’s own inner experience, one’s conscious awareness, and one’s communication,’ and, subsequently, 6) the enlivening experience of unconditionally receiving love or appreciation and extending the same.

Influenced by Neo-Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm, community psychology pioneer George Albee, and cognitive scientist George Miller (a leading figure in the development of psycholinguistics, the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that underpin language), Rosenberg adopted a community focus in his work, moving away from clinical psychological practice. The central ideas influencing this shift by were that: (1) individual mental health depends on the social structure of a community (Fromm), (2) therapists alone are unable to meet the psychological needs of a community (Albee), and (3) knowledge about human behavior will increase if psychology is freely given to the community (Miller).

Rosenberg’s early work with children with learning disabilities is noted as showing evidence of his interest in psycholinguistics and the power of language, as well as his emphasis on collaboration. In its initial development, the NVC model re-structured the pupil-teacher relationship to give students greater responsibility for, and decision-making related to, their own learning. The model has evolved over the years to incorporate institutional power relationships (i.e., police-citizen, boss-employee) and informal ones (i.e. man-woman, rich-poor, adult-youth, parent-child). The ultimate aim is to develop societal relationships based on a restorative, ‘partnership’ paradigm and mutual respect, rather than a retributive, fear-based, ‘domination’ paradigm.

Nonviolent Communication holds that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from miscommunication about their human needs, due to coercive or manipulative language that aims to induce fear, guilt, shame, etc. These ‘violent’ modes of communication, when used during a conflict, divert the attention of the participants away from clarifying their needs, their feelings, their perceptions, and their requests, thus perpetuating the conflict. The assumptions underlying NVC are: All human beings share the same needs; Our world offers sufficient resources for meeting everyone’s basic needs; All actions are attempts to meet needs; Feelings point to needs being met or unmet; All human beings have the capacity for compassion; Human beings enjoy giving; Human beings meet needs through interdependent relationships; Human beings change; Choice is internal; and The most direct path to peace is through self-connection.

The intentions promoted by NVC include: Open-Hearted Living; Self-compassion; Expressing from the heart; Receiving with compassion; Prioritizing connection; Moving beyond ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to using needs-based assessments; Choice, Responsibility, Peace; Taking responsibility for our feelings; Taking responsibility for our actions; Living in peace with unmet needs; Increasing capacity for meeting needs; Increasing capacity for meeting the present moment; Sharing Power (Partnership); Caring equally for everyone’s needs; and Using force minimally and to protect rather than to educate, punish, or get what we want without agreement.

NVC suggests that certain ways of communicating tend to alienate people from the experience of compassion. For example, moralistic judgments implying wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with one’s values. Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticisms, comparisons, and diagnoses are all said to be forms of judgment. (Moralistic judgments are not to be confused with value judgments as to the qualities we value.) The use of moralistic judgments is characterized as an impersonal way of expressing oneself that does not require revealing internal thoughts and feelings. This way of speaking is said to have the result that ‘Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others need and are not getting.’

Other examples include: Demands that implicitly or explicitly threaten listeners with blame or punishment if they fail to comply; Making comparisons between people, and A premise of deserving, that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment. Compassion is also stymied by language that obscures awareness of personal responsibility. It is said that we deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to: vague impersonal forces (‘I had to’); our condition, diagnosis, personal or psychological history; the actions of others; the dictates of authority; group pressure; institutional policy, rules, and regulations; gender roles, social roles, or age roles; or uncontrollable impulses.

NVC invites practitioners to focus attention on four components: Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests. Observations are the facts at hand (what we are seeing, hearing, or touching) as distinct from our evaluation of meaning and significance. NVC discourages static generalizations. It is said that ‘When we combine observation with evaluation others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying.’ Instead, a focus on observations specific to time and context is recommended. Feelings are emotions or sensations, free of thought and story. These are to be distinguished from thoughts (e.g., ‘I feel I didn’t get a fair deal’) and from words colloquially used as feelings but which convey what we think we are (e.g., ‘inadequate’), how we think others are evaluating us (e.g., ‘unimportant’), or what we think others are doing to us (e.g., ‘misunderstood,’ ‘ignored’).

Feelings are said to reflect whether we are experiencing our needs as met or unmet. Identifying feelings is said to allow us to more easily connect with one another, and ‘Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by expressing our feelings can help resolve conflicts.’ Needs refers to universal human needs, as distinct from particular strategies for meeting needs. It is posited that ‘Everything we do is in service of our needs.’ Lastly, requests are calls for a specific action, free of demand. Requests are distinguished from demands in that one is open to hearing a response of ‘no’ without this triggering an attempt to force the matter. If one makes a request and receives a ‘no’ it is recommended not that one give up, but that one empathize with what is preventing the other person from saying ‘yes,’ before deciding how to continue the conversation. It is recommended that requests use clear, positive, concrete action language.

There are three primary modes of application of NVC: Self-empathy, Receiving empathically, and Expressing honestly. Self-empathy involves compassionately connecting with what is going on inside us. This may involve, without blame, noticing the thoughts and judgments we are having, noticing our feelings, and most critically, connecting to the needs that are affecting us. Receiving empathically, in NVC, involves ‘connection with what’s alive in the other person and what would make life wonderful for them… It’s not an understanding of the head where we just mentally understand what another person says… Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy in the other person, the life that’s alive in them… It doesn’t mean we have to feel the same feelings as the other person. That’s sympathy, when we feel sad that another person is upset. It doesn’t mean we have the same feelings; it means we are with the other person… If you’re mentally trying to understand the other person, you’re not present with them.’ Empathy involves ’emptying the mind and listening with our whole being.’

Expressing honestly, in NVC, is likely to involve expressing an observation, feeling, need, and request. An observation may be omitted if the context of the conversation is clear. A feeling might be omitted if there is sufficient connection already, or the context is one where naming a feeling isn’t likely to contribute to connection. It is said that naming a need in addition to a feeling makes it less likely that people will think you are making them responsible for your feeling. Similarly, it is said that making a request in addition to naming a need makes it less likely that people will infer a vague demand that they address your need. The components are thought to work together synergistically. According to NVC trainer Bob Wentworth, ‘an observation sets the context, feelings support connection and getting out of our heads, needs support connection and identify what is important, and a request clarifies what sort of response you might enjoy. Using these components together minimizes the chances of people getting lost in potentially disconnecting speculation about what you want from them and why.’

NVC has also found application in spiritual settings and Rosenberg has described its influence on his own spiritual life: ‘I think it is important that people see that spirituality is at the base of Nonviolent Communication, and that they learn the mechanics of the process with that in mind. It’s really a spiritual practice that I am trying to show as a way of life. Even though we don’t mention this, people get seduced by the practice. Even if they practice this as a mechanical technique, they start to experience things between themselves and other people they weren’t able to experience before. So eventually they come to the spirituality of the process. They begin to see that it’s more than a communication process and realize it’s really an attempt to manifest a certain spirituality.’ He further states that he developed NVC as a way to ‘get conscious of’ what he calls the ‘Beloved Divine Energy.’ People of many faiths have found the process relevant to their spiritual practices, particularly Christianity and Buddhism.

NVC is not without its detractors; its complexity, difficulty, and the dangers of misuse are common concerns. Other critics argue that the notion of unbiased observations is overly optimistic because multiple interpretations of events and behaviors are likely. Similarly, it has been said that people may not understand their own feelings and needs and therefore expressing them may be challenging, if not impossible. The model can also cause people to feel awkward and requires more trust in others than is typically found in everyday interactions, and the process of paraphrasing and attempting to guess the identity of people’s feelings can be off putting for some. Also, the demands of successfully requesting positive actions using appropriate NVC language is daunting and requires a level of investment of time and reflection not typically available in most people’s interactions.

Computer scientist Chapman Flack, in reviewing a training video by Rosenberg, finds the presentation of key ideas ‘spell-binding’ and the anecdotes ‘humbling and inspiring,’ notes the ‘beauty of his work,’ and his ‘adroitly doing fine attentive thinking’ when interacting with his audience. Yet Flack wonders what to make of aspects of Rosenberg’s presentation, such as his apparent ‘dim view of the place for thinking’ and his building on theologian Walter Wink’s account of the origins of our way of thinking. To Flack, some elements of what Rosenberg says seem like pat answers at odds with the challenging and complex picture of human nature history, literature and art offer.

Flack notes a distinction between the ‘strong sense’ of nonviolent communication as a virtue that is possible with care and attention, and the ‘weak sense,’ a mimicry of this born of ego and haste. The strong sense offers a language to examine one’s thinking and actions, support understanding, bring one’s best to the community, and honor one’s emotions. In the weak sense, one may take the language as rules and use these to score debating points, label others for political gain, or insist that others express themselves in this way. Though concerned that some of what Rosenberg says could lead to the weak sense, Flack sees evidence confirming that Rosenberg understands the strong sense in practice. Rosenberg’s work with workshop attendees demonstrates ‘the real thing.’ Yet Flack warns that ‘the temptation of the weak sense will not be absent.’ As an antidote, Flack advises, ‘Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others,’ (also known as the robustness principle) and guard against the ‘metamorphosis of nonviolent communication into subtle violence done in its name.’

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