Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt


Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow.

Sir Winston Churchill

The second of the key areas of our experience and communication on which NVCSM recommends we focus our attention is feelings.

The purpose of feelings

Feelings are part of a natural feedback mechanism in humans. They serve a double function.

  1. They alert our attention to the fact that there is a need not being met in us (uncomfortable feelings, such as hurt, anger, frustration, confusion) or that a need is being met (pleasant feelings, such as contentment, satisfaction, relief).
  2. They provide the motivation to help us get what we want or get our needs met. A similar word to ‘feeling’ is ‘emotion’, which suggests ‘motion’ or movement. So feelings generate in us the urge to act.


Expressing our feelings helps to create a human connection between people. On the other hand, it can seem risky in some situations, as we may fear that we are leaving ourselves open and vulnerable to attack. However, if we do express our feelings, this can have a profound and beneficial effect on others, enabling them to see us in a more human way. Expressing our feelings to others and reflecting back their feelings fosters empathy, understanding and trust.

Confusion over feelings

Many people are unsure how to communicate their feelings accurately. Generally speaking, our workplace culture places considerably less value on the expression of feelings than on the expression of ideas. Consequently, there is often confusion around the accurate expression of our feelings. Some of the commonest inaccuracies to be aware of are explained below.

A thought masquerading as a feeling:

‘I feel that you aren’t listening to me.’ The way to clarify feelings in these instances is to ask, ‘How would you feel if you weren’t being listened to?’ You may feel frustrated, or upset, or sad.

Interpretations about how we think others are behaving towards us

‘I feel manipulated by him.’ ‘That he is manipulating me’ is an interpretation of his behaviour towards me. How might I feel if I interpreted his behaviour that way? Annoyed or confused, or possibly even amused! Other common words that are expressions of interpretations rather than feelings include attacked, betrayed, cheated, rejected, misunderstood, neglected, patronised, unappreciated, used, abused and ignored. These are sometimes called ‘victim verbs’.

Confusing feelings with evaluations of ourselves

For example: ‘I feel useless at this task.’ ‘Useless’ is our evaluation of our abilities. How would we feel if we thought we were useless at something? Dejected or disappointed, perhaps.

Confusing feelings with needs

‘I feel understood.’ From the perspective of NVC, ‘to be understood’ is a need. If my need for understanding has been met, I might feel relieved, grateful or satisfied.

Expressing our feelings as if they were caused by others:

‘I feel irritated by you.’ Others may be the stimulus or trigger for our feelings, but they are never the cause. The cause is our unmet need; in other words, ‘I feel irritated because I need some peace and quiet.’ Confusion and conflict can be avoided if we own our feelings rather than blaming others for them or thinking that they are responsible for them.


Developing your feelings vocabulary: are you feeling confused now about what is a feeling and what isn’t?! Go to our Basic feelings vocabulary page to view some common feeling words and identify how you might be feeling now in relation to a particular situation.

After you have communicated your feeling, the next step in the NVC process would be to communicate what you need in relation to your observation and feeling.