Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is formulated by the American psychologist Dr Marshall Rosenberg. It is a set of psychological insights in line with traditional nonviolence and close to the ethics of most religions. The overall intention is to communicate in a way that creates clarity, connection and compassion.
Below, you will find a short description of NVC, followed by a more detailed description. In the menu on the left you will find pages with central NVC topics: feelings and needs, and pages with NVC websites and NVC literature for further reading.
NVC – in short
The way that each of us are used to speaking is not the only way we have. We can choose to take a closer look and try to change it in order to better get what we want. NVC consists of a few principles about speaking in a way that helps us to get more clarity and better contact with others and to make joyful giving more likely. The principles are put together in four steps. These four steps are basically what NVC is about. Here is a sketch of ‘The 4 steps’ with short explanations:
1. Observation. When you begin to speak about something, it is important that the facts are clear. Say what you have seen or heard (what was said or done by someone). Try to be precise and avoid mixing in what you think about what you have seen or heard. Observation is a job for your senses, not for your thoughts. A way to detect whether thoughts are mixed in is if you think that what you have seen or heard is good or bad. Good and bad are judgements, and judgements are thoughts. If you have such ideas, then try to be even clearer in describing the observation.
2. Feeling. What do you feel about what you observe? What is the reality inside you? Bring your attention to your body and find the right word for the feeling. Sometimes it can take a while to find the word, and sometimes there are more feelings. If you sense that the word you have chosen speaks about the other person and not you alone, then it is likely that thoughts and judgements have sneaked in. Then wait until you find a word that only describes the reality inside yourself. There are many feelings words, however, they often come down to: happy, sad, afraid or angry. (for more, see: List of Feelings)
3. Need. What do you long for when you observe and feel like this? Or, if the feeling is happy, what need is fulfilled for you in this situation? The things that people need or long for are basically the same things, although often not at the same time. The needs repertoire is the same for all human beings. Needs are also limited in number to some 10 basic needs, for example, Individuality, Community, Rest, Contribution (for more, see List of Needs). When you can express what you need in a situation, it creates a strong point of understanding and contact between yourself and the other person. You will feel it as ‘coming to yourself’ and being true to yourself. When you feel the need in the body and find the right word, you will most likely feel a sense of relief.
4. Strategy. This is about what action you would like to happen in the situation where you observe this, feel this and need this. What action would meet your need? What would be the best thing to happen for you? Who would be the best person to do it, yourself or the other person, both maybe, or a third person? And when? When it is clear for you what action you want to choose, NVC suggests that you express it as a request. This will make it more likely that the person you ask, will do it. It is about giving them a free choice. If you sense that you somehow also make a demand, then come back to yourself and remind yourself that you can survive a ‘No’ and that the other person’s freedom is parallel to your own sense of freedom. There will be other ways or other people to help you.
To follow these steps and allow the process its time will lead you to speak from the heart. You accept what there is around you and inside you. On the basis of that you can see clearly and precisely pick the words to communicate what you would like. This is something else than what is common among us: that we quickly go up to our heads and seek to solve the situation immediately. We attempt to get away from the situation by changing it, instead of first accepting it. This leads to imprecise decisions that are not in accordance with ourselves and others. And it leads to unclarity in the way that we speak.
It can be a big challenge to try to change the way that you speak. It can also be play. Perhaps small steps will be the right way for you? This could create time and space to explore how it feels to be you when you speak like that. And how it affects your relationships and the world around you.
Finally, to end this short introduction to NVC, here are a few examples. From these, you may be able to take some phrases to use. It can be helpful to have certain ways of saying things, simply because things often move very quickly when we speak to others and we can easily get carried away or fall back into our usual way of speaking. So it can be helpful to be a bit prepared. Sometimes it can be good to go through a conversation after it has happened and learn from it. How could you have said it differently? How will you say it next time? With NVC it is possible to communicate fully with only 1-2 sentences and 25-50 words, sometimes a little more.
”I saw you throw food away after dinner (observation) and I feel sad (feeling) because it doesn’t meet my need to care for the environment and the efficient use of resources (need). Will you be willing to sit down later today and make a plan together about how we handle left-overs in this house?” (strategy / request)
”I received the invitation to your birthday this morning and I feel happy and soft because it meets my need for inclusion and friendship. Thank you!”
”I read in the newspaper that the municipality has decided to build the new road only 50 meters from my house. I feel angry because my need for influence on a decision that concerns me is not properly met. I also feel sad because a road will not meet my need for peace and quiet. Will you sit down with me and help me find a smart way of doing something to change this?”
NVC – in more detail
With the short description and the examples above, you now have an overview of the basic principles of NVC. When you practise these principles, you will quickly discover that ‘needs’ seem to be the centre of gravity. When we use NVC and speak to one another we consider our own present needs and the present needs of the other person. Mutual understanding and connection occur and we can then search for ways of doing things together. When this is the intention in our interactions, a wonderful experience can happen. It is the experience of the space between us opening up. Tension dissipates, our bodies relax and we breathe freely. I see more clearly the physical reality around me and between us, and I see you more clearly, your face and your body. There is distance between us and still connection. Our voices become clear and crisp. What happens between us becomes simple and transparent. There is no fighting or arguing, it is not about being right or wrong, not about justifying or defending ourselves. Whatever judgement or evaluation there is, it is only about which solutions are better in meeting our needs.
In most ‘normal’ everyday language, judgement and evaluation are often mixed in before there is connection between people’s needs. Most of the time it is unconscious and we just communicate in the way that we are used to and how most other people communicate. This is not wrong. However, there might be great opportunities for clarity and learning that we are overlooking.
At this place, let us take two examples to illustrate the difference between ‘normal’ language and NVC language. After that, we will go deeper into each of the four steps, then describe some elements of NVC and the difference between violent and nonviolent communication. Finally, we will look at some implications and consequences of NVC in large perspective.
Now, the two examples. The first is a situation in which someone does something that you don’t like. The second is one in which someone does something that you do like.
Imagine you have a colleague at work who sits next to you in the same office. Lately you have become more and more irritated because she taps her pen on the desk. You have argued with yourself: “It is not important, it is only a pen! Maybe I am too sensitive!? Perhaps I’m stressed these days!? No, she really is irritating! She should be more considerate! Hopefully, our boss will make changes in the office soon! ….”. Now it has become too much to hold it inside. Even when your colleague is not tapping her pen you are just waiting for it to happen. It seems that just saying ”Please stop doing that, it irritates me” belongs in the far past and is no longer possible. You need to do something. What will you say to her?
In ‘normal’ language you would maybe say: ”I want to talk with you about something. I am really annoyed because you very often tap your pen on the desk. It is really irritating. I can’t concentrate – no one can concentrate with that sound. Please stop, okay?”
Using NVC, it could be: ”In the last week or so, I have noticed more often that you tap your pen on the desk. Today it has been more than five times. Thinking about it, I feel irritated and sad because I need quiet space around me to concentrate on my work. I also feel uncertain because it is the first time I talk to you about something like this. I wonder how it is for you to hear this? …”Will you be willing to see if you can sit still with your hands?” … ”Could we agree that it’s okay if I remind you about it if you do it again?”
How would it feel for you to communicate in the first way? And in the second way? If you imagine that you were the colleague, which way would you prefer?
Imagine that someone in your family does something for you. It could be your brother who plants some trees that you have wanted to have for a long time. How would you thank him?
In ‘normal’ language: ”Brother, I am so happy because you have planted those trees. You are so amazing. You have always done so many good things! I love you!”
With NVC: ”Brother, I see that my trees are planted and I take it that it is you who did it. I feel surprised and happy because it meets my need for help and ease. It also meets my need for supportive community and family relation. My heart feels soft and warm. Thank you!”
What difference do you feel?
During these two examples, and maybe just now, do you get a sense of clarity and the space opening up? Perhaps you can feel a difference in your body’s tensions?
If you noticed a difference, perhaps you too find it interesting to see that the way we choose to communicate can change the way we experience the world around us? And that it invites a different kind of reaction from other people and makes new interactions possible?
The two examples are simple. Or maybe not quite so simple! In close relations, such as with a colleague, there can be much at stake even in details. This might be more so in family relations, especially between wife and husband. On a large scale, between groups, peoples or nations, the picture is more complex and the actions bigger but the mechanisms are almost always the same as in these simple examples.
Let us now move into detail about each of the four steps in NVC. Hopefully that will give an even deeper sense of what practicing NVC can entail. Just for the overlook, the four steps are: 1) Observation, 2) Feeling, 3) Need, and 4) Strategy.
1) Observation. Observations are what you see and hear (what is – or was – literally said and done). For some this can be easy, for others difficult. Very often we put interpretations of right and wrong (judgement) into our observations, either in the words we choose or in the energy and feeling we put in. This is especially true about irritation because it has often built up over some time. So the work to do here is to separate clear observations from interpretations of (thoughts about) the observations. Just become aware of what is what and communicate the observations. Trust what you see and hear. Thinking is not important here, it comes in at step 4. A guiding image could be that observations are what a video camera would record.
2) Feeling. Naming the feelings we feel has the effect of calming us down. When our body realises that its feelings are noticed it relaxes and can let the feelings be part of a bigger picture. Before that, the feelings often control the whole picture. In order to be able to name feelings, it might be good to practice it. Try to stop 2-3 times a day and ask yourself: What do I feel right now? Allow yourself to search for the word and enjoy the feeling of finding it.
There are many words for feelings but it almost always comes down to four basic feelings and combinations of them. These are: Joy, Sadness, Fear and Anger. What is important is that you name the feeling with the word that feels right for you (see List of Feelings). To notice and name the body sensation, maybe in parts or spots of the body, can be good too. Also metaphors can be helpful, for example, ‘I feel like a snowman’, or ‘I have butterflies in my stomach’. Feelings tell us whether we have what we need or not. We feel joy when our needs are met and sad when they are not. Feeling afraid reveals that a need for safety is not met. Anger is about an unmet need for space, respect and self-determination.
In daily language we often say ‘I feel’ when we really mean, ‘I think’. Try to be careful and use the accurate word for the accurate action, to create more clarity for yourself and others. There is also a number of ‘false feelings’ that are more thoughts and evaluations than they are actual feelings, e.g. ‘misunderstood’, ‘attacked’, ‘pressured’ and more. They imply that someone is doing something wrong to us, we blame them, and it will often result in them closing their ears. These ‘false feelings’ can be translated into a language that is more likely to be heard, e.g. ‘I feel misunderstood’ can be translated into: ‘(When you say…), I feel sad because my need to be seen for my intention is not met…( Will you listen to me when I repeat what I said before and then tell me back what you hear me say?)’. (about ‘false feelings’ see also List of Feelings)
3) Need. A need is what you must have in order to be more fully alive. Needs are where the free life in you wants to go, what it is calling your attention to – it says: look for something concrete in the outside world that can give you this, then you will be happy and feel life more fully in you.
Needs are what motivate everything we do. Whatever action we do, we are trying to meet the needs that are alive in us at that moment. Since needs are the living life in us, in our body and our wholeness, and since our situation changes again and again, our needs also change and it is important to listen and have ‘needs consciousness’ regularly. Knowing the need behind our actions is to be ‘self-connected’ and self-connection makes it possible to act according to life in us. Only each person themselves can feel the need and decide what the right word for it is, and only they can know and decide what actions in the outside world they trust will meet the need. Handling needs is a matter of freedom – it takes freedom and it creates freedom. Listening to needs is to listen to ‘the heart’ as opposed to ‘the head’. In this way, the heart is given priority, it comes first. Only later the head and its thinking comes in (step 4).
Needs are common factors for all human beings and there are about 10 basic needs. These are: Autonomy, Community, Safety, Change, Subsistence, Transcendence, Honesty, Empathy, Contribution and Rest. They may be formulated with other words or words that cover specific areas under each, e.g. Subsistence can be: Food, Water, Shelter and more (see List of Needs). Once you can name the need you feel you will often feel relief, a liberation in the situation and a flow of life from the inside. You now literally feel that your feeling(s) are caused by this need, not by the situation or the other person or their actions. The situation or the person were only the circumstances that triggered or stimulated your feelings and needs. This is a very important shift! What first seemed primary, the other person’s action, becomes secondary. You become your own cause, you get your own agenda and are no longer bound to the other person’s agenda. You are unattached and free to choose the action you want in response to the other person’s action, no longer reacting automatically or with necessity.
4) Strategy. A strategy is the action you choose in order to meet your need. It is about a change you want in the situation in which you discovered the unmet need. By seeing your need and wanting to create a change, you take care of yourself, you take responsibility for yourself. Where needs are about your internal life, strategies are about your external life. At this fourth step, thinking and evaluation come in. It is now related to needs. You choose what to do, how to shape your world as a solution to what you need and to what other people involved need. Your energy flows into action.
Once you know what you want to happen, who you want to do it and how, NVC suggests you formulate it as a request, not a demand. It is much more likely that the other person will do what you want if they can do it voluntarily. This implies that people actually enjoy contributing, which in turn means that they also meet a need of theirs by doing it. You need help, they need to contribute. To demand or put pressure on people would leave them with no choice and no freedom. This would mean that the space and clarity you have created between you by step 1-3 will be small again, for yourself as well. Make sure that you only get what you want from others and with others if it does not compromise their joy and their life. A request is best if it is a specific action the other person can do now (or agree now to do later). Trust that if the person says No it is because they would compromise a need of theirs by doing it. And trust that the person might be willing to negotiate your request, or that there will be other people who are willing to do what you request.
In situations where people do something for you and your needs get met, the communication will usually not end with a request but a ‘Thank you!’, just like in the example with the brother and the trees. In a way there is still a request implied. It is for the other person to receive your gratitude and let you know, e.g. by saying, ‘You are welcome!’.
That was ‘The 4 steps’ in more detail. Even practiced mechanically, they can make a big change. Even doing just one of the steps can make a change. To learn ‘The 4 steps’ by heart and get a clear picture of them can be very helpful. Often, when we get into tense situations and conflicts, feelings come up and leave little space for good ideas. If you have ‘The 4 steps’ clear in your mind, they can guide you in those tense situations. They can make it more likely that your communication will be successful and that you and the other person can talk and end up contributing to each other. But remember, there is no guarantee. People can react strongly and judgmentally to things that seem small to you. Not because you do anything wrong but because they need what they need and choose to interpret and handle it in the way they do. No matter what they do, they are trying to meet needs that are important to them. By listening without taking what they do or say personally, you can support them to get space around their frustration and struggle. This might lead them to choose better ways of getting their needs met, ways that are also constructive for you .
It is advisable to do ‘The 4 steps’ inside before you speak it out. This will calm you down and give you clarity. Once you have clarity, the full communication can be given in just 1-2 sentences and 25-50 words, like you have seen in the examples above. Sometimes even in very few words, or no words, because your whole attitude has changed and the other person feels it. This is important because it also makes NVC part of who you are and how you naturally express yourself, not a formal scheme of expression (and people often react negatively to formal ways of expression, they want to communicate with the real you).
What is important in using NVC is the intention. If you intend to create clarity, space and connection, then NVC will most probably work, even when the form is not ‘by the book’. If you don’t intend any of that but just want to get what you want, regardless of other people’s needs, then it most probably won’t work. NVC can be used formally to manipulate, but then it is no longer NVC.
Dealing with judging and violent language
As you saw through ‘The 4 steps’, NVC attempts to avoid communication that judges other people or their actions as good or bad. There is judgement and evaluation in NVC but only at the last step, after there is connection and clarity about the needs. Then there is consideration, everyone is taken into account, and the judgement is something shared and only about what is the best thing to do next. If judgement comes in before the connection, it tends to judge people’s persons and actions and be moralistic and unequal for the relationship.
There are many forms of moralistic and judging communication, e.g. blaming, labeling (calling names), analyzing, threatening, setting up conditions. This is often done with verbal forms such as ‘you have to’, ‘you should’, ‘you must’. This kind of communication ignores the freedom of choice and cuts the connection. It breaks the flow of life and tends to put people into boxes. It forces and pressures people and most people react spontaneously with counter-pressure or with shutting their ears.
In some situations this could be your own first reaction to someone who pressures you, often with a feeling of anger and a need for freedom and respect. This is natural. What is equally natural is to continue from there. To take a next step and express how you are and what you would like – simply: to continue the communication. This is not only for the other person’s sake but just as much for your own. Because: All judgmental communication creates dependency. It ties the people together and makes the relationship un-spacious. Try to think of how difficult it is to think about something else than a person you are angry with!
The solution in NVC is to get to the needs and to communicate them. This is to transform dependency into free relation and life that flows again. It works even if the other person does not want to communicate with you anymore. If you can connect with your own needs and communicate them with the intention of connection then you will be free no matter how the other person responds. This is also possible to do later, after the actual interaction that did not go well. You can take some time for yourself and get clear about the needs you met by doing what you actually did and the needs you did not meet by what you did. You can then identify with these needs and mourn what you chose to do and what the other person chose to do.
What we have just been through is the difference between violent and nonviolent communication. It is important to remember that there are always valid human feelings and needs behind any action, even behind violence. Violence is nothing but ill chosen strategies to meet important and valid human needs. The person does the best he can. Ask with curiosity and go for the deeper understanding that comes from knowing the needs behind the words and actions. This leads to transformation. Almost always, you will find that there is first a need for respect and freedom and then behind that an original need for something else that was not seen and accepted. This original need has to do with the situation before it escalated and got stuck in conflict. Once the other person trusts that you will respect them, they might open up so you can get to the original need and meet there.
NVC with yourself
NVC is primarily about communication between people. However, you can also take NVC into your communication with yourself. What do you say to yourself when this and that happens? Do you use judgmental language or do you use compassionate language? Do you demand things of yourself or request them? Taking NVC inside like this and transforming judgmental language can bring healing of old wounds, fear, anxiety and anger.
Honesty and empathy
NVC helps express difficult things with honesty and clarity. Often, honesty is understood as being straightforward in telling people what you think about them or their actions. In NVC this is not so. Here, honesty is to express what goes on in you and what actions you would like. You come out and reveal yourself and what you dream of. This requires more courage than telling people what you think about them.
NVC also helps to really listen to another person and ask until their needs and motivations are clear. This listening process is what NVC understands as empathy. Empathy is listening, perhaps guessing the needs of the other person, perhaps reflecting back what you heard the person say. Empathy is not advising, not attempting to lift the pain from the other person’s shoulders, not attempting to change anything, not pushing things forward, just staying present with the other person.
Honesty and empathy are, in NVC, both considered to be basic human needs. They generate space and connection.
If we go back to the example with the colleague and the pen, the NVC approach we suggested could be the beginning of an open dialogue with honesty and empathy. You bring yourself in and the colleague is listened to and taken into account. The colleague might start exploring why she taps the pen, maybe she feels nervous or impatient about something. Naming the feeling and seeing the need (for ‘safety’ or for ‘change and flow’) could lead her to request of you to support her in something difficult she is struggling with at the moment. A side effect could be that the tapping stops by itself because she is now seeing and dealing with what is behind it. Alternatively, it could be that now you understand what is in it for her, you don’t mind the tapping anymore.
Now we have been through some examples of the use of NVC, a deeper description of ‘The 4 steps’, some elements of NVC, and finally how NVC is different from violent judgmental language.
NVC implies and assumes things about the world and, as the last thing, we will mention some of them in order to get an idea of them. This is about how life essentially is and about how the world will become when NVC is used. ‘The world’ can be your own personal sphere, your community, your nation, or the whole world. What world do you want to create and how would it feel to be you in such a world?
‘The world’ of NVC:
- All human beings have the capacity for compassion
- Human beings enjoy giving
- Human beings change
- The needs of everyone involved matter
- There is no contradiction between self and others: To take care of your own needs and bring them out and request something can only be a valuable contribution to your community
- The most direct path to peace is self-connection
- Conflicts are always on the level of strategies, never on the level of needs
- All actions (also thinking and speaking) are chosen, consciously or unconsciously. Only needs you feel inside are ‘necessary’
- ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are only about actions and if they meet the current needs or not
- There are sufficient resources in the world to meet everyone’s basic needs
- Use of force over people is only legitimate as ‘protective use of force’. Protective use of force is a matter of protecting life here and now. The force must be temporary, kept at a minimum, and always have dialogue as next step
(the list is inspired by Bay NVC – for more, see: http://www.baynvc.org )
This description of NVC is written by Peter Ulrik Jensen