Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt

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)
  • Expressing yourself
  • Receiving (connecting empathically with) others.

Connecting with yourself (internally)

We recommend using this mode when a situation has occurred that has not met your needs or that you feel unhappy about, and you notice that you have a lot of judgments about the other person or yourself with regard to the situation. If you act from these judgments – or ‘enemy images’ of the other person(s) – you are likely to make the situation worse. So, we recommend that you spend some time internally processing what has happened.

Initially, you simply need to be conscious of the judgments and labels (enemy images) you are holding in your mind about the other person(s) involved. You might want to clarify exactly what has happened (your observation) that has triggered these judgments in you.

Next, you need to move from these judgments to connect with how you are feeling and also what needs of yours have not been met in this situation. Because we have not been educated in a feelings and needs vocabulary in our culture, it may take you a while to know intuitively what your needs and feelings are. To begin with, you may need to look at feelings lists and needs lists to help identify them. When you are connected to your feelings and needs, the ‘enemy images’ you are holding in your mind will relax, and you will be in a better place to deal constructively with the issue.

Finally, you need to work out a strategy, a ‘request of yourself’ to try and meet your need. This strategy may include making a request of another person.

Expressing yourself

This mode involves communicating what is alive in you to others: what you are observing, what you are feeling and needing, and what you would like to request them to do or say to meet your need. You may choose to use this mode after you have connected with yourself. Or, if only minor judgments or none at all have been triggered in you, you may just communicate in the moment, without inner reflection.

Receiving others (connecting empathically)

In this mode you are connecting with what is alive in the other person – with their observations, feelings, needs and any requests they may have of you or of others. Another word to describe this mode of connecting with others is ‘empathy’. As with the mode of connecting with oneself, if you focus on what the other person is feeling and needing, rather than on their judgments about you, others or themselves, you are more likely to move through to understanding them and to resolution of any issues in a harmonious way.

Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. All things are bound together. All things connect.

Chief Seattle

In conflict situations, it usually helps to go to this mode of receiving others before attempting to express your feelings and needs to them. This is because most people, when they are frustrated or hurt, will not be interested in what you are feeling and needing until they sense that you understand and are open to their point of view.

The three modes in action

Here is an example of what using the three modes of NVC might look like!

The process of connecting with yourself (internally) may look something like this:

  • Becoming aware of my judgment/enemy image:

Jo (the team manager) is such a control-freak! She just thinks she is so clued up, and all the rest of us are worthless! This isn’t a team! It’s just her and her minions! If that’s how she wants to do things, then I’m leaving!

  • Clarifying my observation:

Okay, so what am I being triggered by? I think it was the moment in the team meeting we have just had when I suggested that we revisit the aims of the project and Jo said that would be a complete waste of time.

  • Connecting with my feelings and needs:

I feel so frustrated and disheartened [feelings]. It’s really important to me that my opinions are valued, or even just considered [needs]. And I really want the whole team to be valued [more needs]! We have tremendous resources within our team, and if they are valued and utilised we could achieve so much more than we currently are!

  • Working out my strategy or ‘request to myself’, to meet my needs:

I think I’ll ask Jo if I can have a one-to-one chat with her, maybe tomorrow morning, before things get busy, and see if I can talk some of these things through with her.

Expressing oneself

Using the above example, Jo has agreed to talk the next morning. When I get together with her I might say something like:

Me: ‘Jo, do you remember the point in the team meeting yesterday, when I suggested that we revisit the aims of the project and you said that it would be a waste of time?[my observation]’
Jo: ‘Yes...’
Me: ‘Well, in relation to that I feel some frustration [my feeling], because it’s important to me that my contributions to the discussion are considered [my need]. Would you tell me what your thoughts are in relation to what I was saying about the project? [my request]’
Jo: ‘I did consider them. And we just haven’t got the time to go back over old stuff like that from previous meetings.’

This would then signal that Jo needs some understanding and empathy for the need that comes up in her when I say what I’ve said. So now I need to move from the mode of expressing myself to the mode of receiving the other person.

Receiving others


What do you imagine Jo’s needs might be? Before reading on, can you have a guess?

We might guess that Jo probably also needs some understanding, maybe for the pressure she is under to get the job done on time. So we might try and empathically guess her need like this:

Me: ‘So are you concerned [feeling] that we complete this task [need] within the deadline?’
Jo: ‘Yes, you have no idea the demands that are continually placed on me from the directors!’
Me: ‘So you are feeling quite a bit of pressure [feeling] from above?’
Jo: ‘That’s an understatement!’

This is effectively Jo’s way of saying, ‘Yes’. So we have started to make an empathic connection with her. This means that the other person begins to feel that his or her needs are being respectfully understood.

If Jo said ‘No! That’s not what I need!’ Then we would guess again. When we use the NVC process, we never guess wrong, we just guess human! Each guess, even if it isn’t accurate, is a genuine attempt to connect with what is most human in the other person – their feelings and needs. And most people will appreciate your attempt at trying to understand them in this way, rather than the usual form of communications, which are often defensive comments or counter-attacking criticism!

It is often helpful to stay in this mode of empathically connecting with the other person, and guess their feelings or needs several times as they unburden themselves, to build their sense of being heard and understood. The more they sense that you are concerned about them and their needs, the more willing they will be to listen to yours.

The dance of communication

Once they have been heard, then the dance of communication moves on, this time back to the mode of expressing yourself. We continue to move back and forward between expressing ourselves and receiving the other person, until we reach a point where everyone concerned has been understood, and their needs have been mutually connected. We can then look for strategies or solutions that will meet the needs of all concerned.