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An Introduction to Nonviolent Communication

January 2017

Mahatma Gandhi believed that "The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems." Many conversations go adrift because comments that are meant to be helpful and constructive are heard as criticism or advice, and one or both people become defensive. Nonviolent Communication grew out of Gandhi's understanding of nonviolence and offers a creative model that is spreading around the world.

Developed in the 1960s by Dr Marshall Rosenberg (a clinical psychologist), NVC is "a specific approach to communicating – speaking and listening – that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish. I call this approach Nonviolent Communication, using the term nonviolence as Gandhi used it – to refer to our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart. While we may not consider the way we talk to be 'violent', our words often lead to hurt and pain, whether for ourselves or others."1

As a young person growing up in Detroit, Marshall was confronted daily with various forms of violence. He became particularly interested in the causes of violence and possible ways to reduce it. This inspired him to study psychology, gaining his PhD in 1961. Working with civil rights activists and mediating between rioting students and college administrators, he developed NVC training as "a way of rapidly disseminating much needed peacemaking skills."2

The Center for Nonviolent Communication, which he founded, grew out of this work. Today the NVC community is active in 65 countries and NVC training is widely available. In the UK, for instance, there are CNVC-certified trainers in Cheltenham, Stroud, Bristol, Birmingham, Oxford, London, Edinburgh and many other places.3

Nonviolent Communication is not a magic wand, of course. It doesn't work in all situations. Some people have been so conditioned by past hurt that they will hear criticism and blame where none exist. However, NVC has made a huge difference to many people. Chuck McDougal describes it as "a simple process that eliminates the competitive, adversarial […] style of communication that has infected most of our lives."4 His comment brings to mind Einstein's famous observation that "The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them."

Dr Rosenberg explains: "NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviours and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in a given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative."5

A path towards emotional liberation
Sometimes called Compassionate Communication, NVC is profoundly assertive. It empowers us to move away from emotional slavery and gravitate towards emotional liberation. Dr Rosenberg has found that most of us seem to experience three stages on this journey.

Stage 1: emotional slavery, where we feel obliged to keep everyone happy. If someone doesn't seem happy, we feel we must do something about it. This enlarged sense of responsibility can jeopardise relationships and leave us feeling burdened by the people we care about. "Taking responsibility for the feelings of others can be very detrimental in intimate relationships," he says. Many people "experience love as denial of one's own needs in order to attend to the needs of the beloved."6

Stage 2: the obnoxious stage, where we are in transition between emotional slavery and liberation. Dr Rosenberg explains: "When we notice how much of our lives we've missed and how little we have responded to the call of our own soul, we may get angry. […] We are clear what we are not responsible for, but have yet to learn how to be responsible to others in a way that is not emotionally enslaving. As we emerge from the stage of emotional enslavement, we may continue to carry remnants of fear and guilt around having our own needs met. Thus it is not surprising that we end up expressing those needs in ways that sound rigid and unyielding to the ears of others."7 How often have you heard someone say, "That's not my problem!" in a tone that you found unfriendly or even aggressive?

Stage 3: emotional liberation, where we respond to other people's needs out of compassion, not guilt, fear or shame. We accept full responsibility for our intentions and actions but not for others' feelings. We recognise that we're all connected and so we look for win-win solutions that will meet others' needs as well as our own.

The 4 components of NVC
* a) observing without evaluating
* b) expressing our feelings (e.g. delight, annoyance or fear) and taking responsibility for them
* c) identifying our unmet needs (e.g. for respect, autonomy or space)
* d) requesting – not demanding – specific actions that might fulfil our needs

NVC works in both directions. The speaker tries to speak honestly and respectfully "without criticising, analysing, blaming, or diagnosing others, and in a way most likely to inspire compassion."8 The listener tries to receive the speaker's words with care and empathy, hearing how the speaker is without hearing blame or criticism. NVC allows ample space for reflecting and clarifying, so that both people can ensure they've heard and understood what has been said.

Vicki Robin has found NVC to be "an amazingly effective language for saying what's on your mind and in your heart. Like so many essential and elegant systems, it's simple on the surface, challenging to use in the heat of the moment and powerful in its results."9

Some practical examples of spoken NVC

(a) Observing without evaluating, just focusing on the facts:
* "John told me he was angry."10 (Compare "John was angry.")
* "Sam didn't ask for my opinion during the meeting."11 (Compare "Sam doesn't care what I think.")
* "Janice spent over 60 hours at the office this week."12 (Compare "Janice works too hard.") Making observations in this way can be surprisingly difficult. No wonder Jiddu Krishnamurti saw the ability to observe without evaluating as "the highest form of intelligence"!

(b) Expressing specific feelings, showing that we take responsibility for them and are not blaming anyone else:
* "I was devastated when I heard that you're moving away. I'll miss you."
* "I feel scared when you say that."13
* "When you don't greet me at the door, I feel lonely."14
* "I felt encouraged when I read your letter."

(c) Identifying an unmet need of ours which is linked to the feeling we've just expressed:
* "I'm irritated when you leave company documents on the conference room floor, because I want our documents to be safely stored and accessible."15
* "I'm grateful that you offered me a ride because I was needing to get home before my children."16
* "When you received that award, I felt happy because I was hoping you'd be recognised for all the work you'd put into the project."17
* "When you raise your voice, I feel scared because I'm telling myself someone might get hurt, and I need to know that we're all safe."18

(d) Requesting a specific action (using positive language) that might meet our needs:
* "I'd like you to tell me one thing that I did that you appreciate."19
* "I want you to tell me how you feel about what I did and what you'd like me to do differently."20
* "Could you tell me what you've heard me say so I can see if I've made myself clear?"
* "I'd like to know whether you see any reasons why my plan might not work."

Receiving in NVC
Deep listening is an essential part of NVC: listening with empathy in order to receive what the person has told us.

Dr Rosenberg defines empathy as "a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu stated that true empathy requires listening with the whole being: 'The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.'"21

According to Daniel W Davenport, "The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished." Dr M Scott Peck said, "You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time."22 Yet how many of us try to do just that!

Rather than listening with full attention, we often respond in ways that detract from what the speaker wants to share. Dr Rosenberg offers a list of typical patterns: "My friend Holley Humphrey identified some common behaviours that prevent us from being sufficiently present to connect empathically with others. The following are examples of such obstacles:
* Advising: 'I think you should ...' 'How come you didn't ...?'
* One-upping: 'That's nothing: wait'll you hear what happened to me.'
* Educating: 'This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just ...'
* Consoling: 'It wasn't your fault; you did the best you could.'
* Story-telling: 'That reminds me of the time ...'
* Shutting down: 'Cheer up. Don't feel so bad.'
* Sympathising: 'Oh, you poor thing …'
* Interrogating: 'When did this begin?'
* Explaining: 'I would have called but …'
* Correcting: 'That's not how it happened.'"23

In the words of the Chinese proverb, "To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation."24 Dr Rachel Naomi Remen says, "Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words."25

Some practical examples of emotionally charged comments received with empathy

Person A: "You aren't God!" Person B: "Are you feeling frustrated because you would like me to admit that there can be other ways of interpreting this matter?"26

Person A: "How could you say a thing like that to me!" Person B: "Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked me to agree to do as you requested?"27

Person A: "I've been a nervous wreck planning for my daughter's wedding. Her fiancé's family is not helping. About every day they change their minds about the kind of wedding they would like." Person B: "So you're feeling nervous about how to make arrangements and would appreciate it if your future in-laws could be more aware of the complications their indecision creates for you?"28

Bernie Glassman, president and co-founder of Peacemaker Community, said: "The extraordinary language of Nonviolent Communication is changing how parents relate to children, teachers to students, and how we all relate to each other and even to ourselves. It is precise, disciplined, and enormously compassionate. Most important, once we study NVC we can't ignore the potential for transformation that lies in any difficult relationship - if we only bother to communicate with skill and empathy."

As Albert Einstein put it, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”"

If you'd like to read more about NVC, we can recommend Dr Rosenberg's books. Dr Elizabeth English's website is worth a look,29 as is Dr Miki Kashtan's.30 If you're more visual and would prefer to see NVC in action, you may enjoy watching Dr Rosenberg or Dr Kashtan on youtube. If you can't wait to try practising NVC, here's a good place to start:

  1. Marshall B Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. California: Puddledancer Press, 5th printing, January 2001 (copyright 1999), p. 2 ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

  3. ↩︎

  4. ↩︎

  5. Rosenberg, p. 3 ↩︎

  6. Rosenberg, p. 60 ↩︎

  7. Rosenberg, p. 62 ↩︎

  8. Rosenberg, p. 71 ↩︎

  9. ↩︎

  10. Rosenberg, p. 35 ↩︎

  11. Rosenberg, p. 35 ↩︎

  12. Rosenberg, p. 36 ↩︎

  13. Rosenberg, p. 48 ↩︎

  14. Rosenberg, p. 49 ↩︎

  15. Rosenberg, p. 69 ↩︎

  16. Rosenberg, p. 69 ↩︎

  17. Rosenberg, p. 70 ↩︎

  18. Rosenberg, p. 70 ↩︎

  19. Rosenberg, p. 94 ↩︎

  20. Rosenberg, p. 95 ↩︎

  21. Rosenberg, p. 97 ↩︎

  22. ↩︎

  23. Rosenberg, p. 99 ↩︎

  24. ↩︎

  25. ↩︎

  26. Rosenberg, p. 116 ↩︎

  27. Rosenberg, pp. 116, 118 ↩︎

  28. Rosenberg, p. 117 ↩︎

  29. ↩︎

  30. ↩︎