[Book Brief] Non-Violent Communication

[Book Brief] Non-Violent Communication
Photo by Adam Solomon / Unsplash

Marshall B. Rosenberg wanted to understand what pulls us away from our compassionate selves when we are under trying circumstances. Through his research, he identified a form of communication that leads us to focus on clarifying what is being observed and needed rather than judging and jumping to conclusions. He calls it non-violent communication (NVC).

The best part, the benefits of NVC don't require the other party to be literate in NVC or have the same motivation as us.

The four components of NVC

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Requests

The first component of NVC is to observe what is happening in the current situation. What is the other person saying? What's the action that is affecting our well-being? The trick is to observe while refraining from any judgements. The next step is to state how we feel as a result of our observations. Third, we state what needs of ours are connected to the feelings. Finally, we follow up immediately with a request for action.

For example:

When I see the kitchen is a mess [observation], I feel irritated [feeling] because I need more order in the house [need]. Would you be willing to help me clean it? [request]

When we are on the listening end, we look for the same pieces of information.

Communication That Blocks Compassion

Certain ways of communication block our compassion and alienate us from the other person. They can obscure our awareness that we are each responsible for our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Moralistic judgements: Implying the other person is bad because they do not act per our values.

Making comparisons: Comparing someone to who we think represents "good" is a form of judgement that blocks compassion for ourselves and others.

Denial of responsibility: Attributing the reasons for our actions to factors outside our control.

Demanding: Demanding someone to behave a certain way threatens listeners with blame or punishment.

Thinking who deserves what: This implies that "bad" people deserve to be punished to change their behaviour.

Observing Without Evaluating

When we combine observation with judgement, others are less likely to hear our intended message and instead focus on the criticism.

Do not make generalizations. Instead, evaluate a situation based on observations specific to time and context.  Be careful of the words "always", "never", "ever", "whenever", "frequently", and "seldom". They can sometimes mix observations with evaluations.

Identifying and Expressing Feelings

Sometimes we use the word "feel" without actually expressing any feelings. For example, "I feel you cheated me" doesn't imply any feeling. Feelings are not being expressed clearly when the word "feel" is followed by "that", "like", "as if", "I", "you", "he", "she", "they", "it", and names or nouns referring to people. For example:

I feel like a failure
I feel it's utterly useless
I feel John has been unresponsive

The key is to distinguish between what we feel and what we think we are or what we think of others. Specifically, make sure to name your feeling. Examples of properly expressing a feeling:

I feel inadequate as a basketball player.
I feel proud when you get good grades.
I feel anxious when I walk through the park by myself at night.

Taking Responsibility For Our Feelings

It's important to realize that what others say or do may be the stimulus of our feelings but not the cause. How we interpret what others say and do as well as our needs and expectations shapes our feelings.

When we receive a negative message, we have four options for how we receive it:

  1. Blame ourselves
  2. Blame others
  3. Sense our own feelings and needs
  4. Sense the other person's feelings and needs

Options 1 & 2 deviate us from compassion for others or ourselves. Option 3 is the best approach when you're speaking. Option 4 is the best option when you're listening. The key is to connect our feelings to our needs. Use "I feel...because I need...". [Example]

I feel angry that you broke your promise, because I was counting on a night out to relax.

We should responsibility for our intentions, feelings, and actions.

Requesting What We Want

Be Clear

When making requests, use positive language with clear and concrete action words.

I'd like you to tell me what I can do to help you be less tired.

Be conscious of what you are requesting. "The train is so slow" is not a useful sentence. The other person may not know what you are asking or whether you'd like a response.

Ask for Reflection

To make sure a message is received, ask the listener to reflect back what they heard. Be careful though, it can come off condescending if used too often. When your request is met with a reflection (whether it's correct or not), make sure to express gratitude as a first response.

Request Honesty

After making a request and asking for a reflection, we may want to know what the listener is feeling, what the listener is thinking, and/or whether the listener would be willing to take action.

  1. "I'd like you to tell me how you feel about my request"
  2. "I'd like you to tell me if you think my suggestion would work"
  3. "Would you be willing to give it a try?"

Requests As Demands

When people hear demands, they see two options: to submit or rebel. To tell if a request is a demand, see what they do if the request is not complied with. For example, if someone asks "can you spend time with me?", and you reply with "I'm tired, find someone else" and they respond with "you're so selfish", that was a request intended as a demand. If you guilt trip, it's a demand. It's a request if you show empathy towards the other person despite what they respond with.

Some words that can steer you towards making demands instead of requests: "should", "deserve", "supposed", "I have a right to".

Receiving Empathically

Empathy is only achieved when we remove all preconceived ideas and judgements about others. Instead of empathy, many of us offer advice or reassurance. We'd be assuming what the other person is requesting if we jump to these actions. As such, ask before offering advice or reassurance.

Sometimes we may aim to understand the logic behind what the other party is saying. While that can be useful, it prevents us from practising empathy. We spend more time connecting what they are saying to our theories than listening to their needs.

Similar to asking for reflection when you're the one speaking, use paraphrasing to ensure you listened properly. Don't overuse it though. As a general guide, use it when someone expresses intense emotion. It helps convey compassion and understanding. And be careful of your tone. While trying to clarify information, first express your feelings and needs before asking a question.

When someone is using intimidation, it's often them appealing to you to meet their needs. Find those needs and you'll often find a good-hearted person looking to solve a problem. This is related to my post earlier about assuming positive intent.

So how do you know when you've given adequate empathy? Usually when we sense a release of tension from them or their flow of speaking stops.

Sometimes we just can't get ourselves to provide empathy. That usually means we ourselves are starved of it. In that case, it's useful to acknowledge that our own distress is preventing us from showing empathy. The other person may provide that empathy for you and you help each other reach a resolution.

If we find that showing empathy or listening doesn't help and the other party can't hear us, we may find it more helpful to remove ourselves from the situation.

Expressing Anger

The first and most important step is to not place responsibility on the other person for our anger. What another person does can be the stimulus, but not the cause. The cause is from our thinking of blame and judgement.

We can use anger to our advantage by realizing we have a need that isn't being met. Hence, we start focusing on needs instead of judging others.

I am angry because I need...

Steps to address anger:

  1. Stop and take deep breaths
  2. Identify which of our thoughts are judgements
  3. Determine our needs
  4. Express our feelings and unmet needs using NVC

Conflict Resolution

NVC can be used to effectively resolve conflict.

  1. Express your need
  2. Look for the needs of the other person
  3. Verify everyone understands each others' needs
  4. Provide as much empathy as is required for both of you to fully hear each others' needs
  5. Propose strategies for resolving the issue

Presenting strategies with clear and positive language is what moves a conflict towards resolution. Use language such as "would you be willing to...".

Focus on what you want instead of what you don't want. And keep that focus in the present.


The book has a couple more chapters that I'll omit as I feel the essence of NVC is captured well enough at this point. It's quite powerful in my opinion. I've personally tried using NVC and I was pleasantly surpised at how well it worked. I highly recommend you read this book in its entirety. It's an easy read and is full of "aha!" moments, examples, and exercises.

If I were to summarize NVC in one sentence, it would be this:

When ... I feel ... because I need ... so I'd like ...