Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt

In a nutshell

1. What is nonviolent communication?

Nonviolent CommunicationSM is a tool to help us communicate and connect with others, as well as connecting more deeply with ourselves. NVC is simple to grasp and can be applied immediately and effectively. It is particularly helpful in three situations:

  • When we are in conflict with another person, NVC can help us resolve that conflict peacefully and effectively
  • When someone is upset or in emotional turmoil, NVC is a powerful tool to support listening, understanding and empathising with others
  • When we are confused, unsure, overwhelmed or angry, NVC can help us clarify and connect with what is going on inside us, and then work out what to do about this.


2. Domination and partnership cultures

Domination cultures are ‘power over’ cultures. They have a hierarchal structure, where a person or small group of people exert power and control over other people. Key elements of the language of domination cultures include

  • Moralistic judgements based on the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad
  • Labels which are used to define and reinforce people’s place in the hierarchy, for example ‘manager’, ‘worker’. Other labels, such as ‘selfish’, ‘inconsiderate’, ‘stubborn’, ‘lazy’ and so on, are used to coerce people into doing what the people in power want
  • Praise and blame, which are verbal forms of reward and punishment, designed to get people to do what the person in power wants.

Partnership cultures are ‘power with’ cultures, within which power is shared between people. In other words, all people are valued equally, treated with respect and included in making decisions that affect them. Where a partnership or life-enriching cultural style predominates, we are likely to find

  • Decisions being made collectively or after full consultation with all who are affected by the decisions
  • Flexibility with regard to staff, to meet their needs as well as those of the organisation
  • An office culture of openness, trust and cooperation
  • High morale, dedication and loyalty to the organisation
  • Rare incidents of disputes and disciplinary measures
  • Mediation processes in place to resolve conflicts that do arise.


3. The intention of NVC

Our intention when using NVC is to create the quality of connection with ourselves and others that leads to everyone’s needs being met through mutual giving from the heart.


4. The four key ingredients of NVC

As well as being aware of our intention when communicating, NVC encourages us to focus on four key areas of communication:

  • Observations – clarifying what we have seen or heard that has triggered or upset us
  • Feelings – accurately identifying the feelings that have been triggered inside us as a result of the situation and express those feelings, free from language that lays blame on the other person
  • Needs – identifying and connecting to the deep, powerful forces inside us which motivate all our behaviour and which generate our feelings, and finding a language for these deep and powerful needs
  • Requests – communicating our needs separately from our requests creates freedom and flexibility.


5. The three modes of NVC

There are three ways that we can use the NVC process. We call these ‘the three modes of NVC’. These are

  • Connecting with yourself (internally) – clarifying what happened and the judgments that have arisen from this, then connecting with your feelings and needs that have not been met and finally working out a request that will meet your need
  • Expressing yourself – communicating what you are observing, what you are feeling and needing, and what you would like others to do or say to meet your need
  • Receiving (or empathising with) the other person(s) – empathically connecting with the other person’s observations, feelings, needs and any requests they may have of you or of others.


6. Language that fuels conflict

There are certain ways in which we tend to communicate when we’re in a conflict that can make the conflict worse and lead to a disconnection between ourselves and the other person:

  • Blaming the other person
  • Judging them
  • Comparing them with others
  • Threatening or manipulating
  • Imposing your own judgment or belief
  • Denying responsibility for choice


7. Observations

The first key area of our experience and communication on which NVC recommends we focus our attention is making clear observations. This involves stating simply what we see or hear without evaluating the other person’s behaviour, nature or motives. Making clear non-judgmental observations to assist your communication has several benefits.

  1. It identifies in your mind, and for the other person, what it is specifically that you are reacting to (what triggered you) and helps you sift out your interpretations from what actually happened, therefore providing clarity.
  2. It establishes an initial connection – the other person will be more open to hearing you if what you say is free from evaluation and judgment. This in and of itself can lessen the likelihood of a dispute developing in the first place.
  3. It leaves room for correction if the two of you have different memories of the situation.
  4. It is part of taking responsibility for your communication and therefore how you are received.


8. Feelings

The second key area of our experience and communication on which NVC recommends we focus our attention is feelings. Feelings signal to us that a need of ours is or is not being met and motivate us to get our needs met. Unfortunately, there is often confusion around the accurate expression of our feelings and we tend to

  • Confuse thoughts with feelings
  • Confuse our interpretations of other’s behaviour with feelings
  • Confuse feelings with our evaluation of ourselves
  • Confuse feelings with needs
  • Express our feelings as if they were caused by others


9. Needs

Blaming leads to more confrontation; communicating our needs clearly is much more likely to lead to harmony and agreement. Needs are considered to be the most significant ingredient of the NVC process, for several reasons.

  • Firstly, needs are the motivation for everything we say and do in life. Therefore, being conscious of and communicating about our needs and the needs of others contributes greatly to clarity and connection with ourselves and others.
  • Secondly, all human needs are universal – they are what we all have in common. When they are expressed clearly, they can elicit empathy and understanding from others, because they are something we all fundamentally understand.


10. Requests

After we have expressed our need to someone, we move on to making a request to them. Our requests are more likely to be met with a ‘yes’ if they meet the five requirements detailed below.

  • Specific – exactly what do you want... and when, where, who is involved and so on?
  • Offering choice – if the other person hears your request as a demand, they may react negatively. People enjoy the respect expressed in being asked. Phrases such as ‘Would you be willing to... ?’ encapsulate this spirit.
  • In a positive form – in the form of a ‘do’ rather than a ‘don’t’.
  • Do-able – put in a bite-sized chunk.
  • Taking the other person into account


11. Listening – four choices

When we listen, we often habitually hear what is being said as judgments, whether judgments are being verbally expressed or not. Listening in terms of judgments is likely to lead to misunderstanding and conflict, and to our needs not getting met. Any message can be listened to in the following four ways:

  • Judging others in terms of being right/wrong, good/bad, at fault
  • Judging ourselves in terms of being right/wrong, good/bad, at fault
  • Sensing our feelings and needs
  • Sensing others’ feelings and needs


12. NVC and empathy

Empathy is one of the deepest needs that we have as human beings. To give empathy to someone over how they are experiencing a situation is one of the most powerful things we can do to build trust and understanding between us. The more intense the conflict or degree of upset, the stronger will be the individual’s need for empathy.

  • To truly listen empathically to another requires us to have shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about the other person.
  • The person being empathised with is likely to feel a sense of relief and gratitude for being understood in such a way.
  • A common mistake that is often made in communication is attempting to tell other people what they need to do differently, which often includes telling them what they have done wrong, before we have actually listened to them empathically first.
  • You can offer empathy quickly and ‘in the moment’ or, if it is worth the time and effort, go on a journey of discovery with the other person and really explore their concerns, feelings and needs.


13. Nonviolent communication in action

Real life examples illustrate the power of empathy and how it can diffuse even extremely violent situations:

  • A young woman who was threatened with a knife by a drug addict in a detox centre
  • A police officer who calmed an angry mob
  • A teacher who used NVC to avert rape
  • A lecturer who used NVC to shift gang members from despising him to giving him respect


14. Gratitude and NVC

In nonviolent communication, as well as letting people know when something they have or haven’t done has not met our needs, we also want them to know when something they have done has met a need in us. We call this expressing our gratitude. Contributing to others’ well being is one of the deepest needs that we have as human beings, and we like to know when our attempt to do this has been successful. The NVC approach is to let others know our gratitude by using the following ingredients:

  • We make clear what the person said or did that we want to acknowledge or celebrate
  • Then we want tell them how we feel as a result of what they’ve done
  • Then we tell them what needs of ours were met by their actions.


15. NVC summary – ten things we can do

This page summarises key elements of the Nonviolent Communication process by listing ten things you can do to contribute to internal, interpersonal, and organisational peace. These include

  • Be aware of your intentions
  • Tune into others and be aware of their needs
  • Express you needs and let others know when they are being met.