After years of sitting unassumingly on my bookshelf, I finally picked up the “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshalll B. Rosenberg and read it - what a gem! In this article, I’ll share my favorite learnings from it.
Nonviolent Communication Book image
I was hesitant to pick up this book. The colorful cover with - what seems to me - one-too-many colors felt slightly tacky. I was afraid it was yet another commercialized “woo-woo” on the basics of communication. Yet, after yet another mention of it from someone I know and respect, I read it. I highly recommend you read it, and I’ll likely reread it myself.
It starts with you: your needs, feelings, and taking responsibility for it
Easy, no? We may get slightly nauseous and annoyed hearing that, yet again, it starts with us. No way, we may say. How about that thoughtless colleague?
We may have different triggers and get to deal with all kinds of people. The unpleasant interactions, unfortunately, are a constant. We’ll always have them. What matters is how we react to them for the sake of others and ourselves.
To be good at nonviolent communication, we must be in tune with our feelings and needs.
We’re very used to communicating in so-called “moralistic judgments”: “It’s wrong/bad” or even the good ones - “It’s great, you’re awesome!”. They’re not specific and say nothing about our own needs and feelings. They may even fuel the already unpleasant situation and upset the people involved. So what shall we do instead, then?
Distinguish observations from evaluations
We may add our evaluation to the observation, which leads nowhere… For example, the evaluation sounds like “Bob is bad at his job.” While the observation is more concrete: “Bob hasn’t delivered 3 of his articles in time, and the ones that got delivered were full of typos.” Once those two get mixed up together, we may get in trouble, so let’s separate them.
Distinguish between what we feel and how we think others react or behave toward us
“I feel ignored” is an interpretation of someone’s actions. It has no clear statement of our feelings.
There may have been times when “ignored” made us feel… relieved - when we wanted to have some space and time for ourselves.
We may have felt hurt in other cases because we wanted to be involved. A better phrasing and an example of NVC would be: “I am hurt because I prepared for this meeting and wanted to state my point, but I was interrupted and could not state my opinion. Would it be possible for me to have a chance to voice my concerns to you privately?”
Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs
When we struggle to express our needs, we may take on judgments or blame in a heated situation. It sounds like, “Karen, you’re insensitive and thoughtless.” Instead, we could say: “I need more respect in our dialogue, Karen. Instead of telling me how you think the person is acting, would you tell us what the person is doing that you find disturbing?”
“We’re more skilled in analyzing the perceived wrongness of others than in clearly expressing our own needs.”
I’m still learning how to pinpoint my needs and feelings successfully. The vocabulary we have as humans on our feelings and needs is relatively poor. We can easily state “good, nice, bad, not good” but we struggle to add more dimensions and say, “I feel sad and disappointed because I would have liked to have made better progress in my work by now.”
The book’s author provides pages on words about our needs and feelings. It’s super helpful for anyone to take a look and try to apply it in their daily lives.
De-fuse the conversations
Have you ever met anyone with whom you want to be in a meeting with? Who manages to facilitate even the most difficult conversations, and people respect them? Embracing nonviolent communication - we all can be more like that person who has a calming effect on everyone.
Once you learn how to tune in with yourself, you’ll be able to empathize with others better, which will also defuse conversations.
As many of us struggle to voice over and understand our emotions, the person you’re dealing with could likely use some help, too. What helps exactly is quite a lot of mirroring and listening empathetically to what that person’s feelings and needs may be.
Truly empathetically listening is not just nodding your head or saying, “That’s bad” (not specific enough and a moralistic judgment) or “I’m sorry that you feel that way” (I do not count this one as a sorry at all - not specific and not helping a person to understand how they feel).
The book has many great examples of defusing even dangerous situations with empathy. One of the examples was that a person came to an overnight rehab stay, but no more beds were available for the night. The person got visibly upset and put a knife to the receptionist’s throat. She managed to calm them down and have a nonviolent conversation for 40 minutes (with a knife in front of her). She kept on asking about their needs. She did not scream for her life. Instead, she empathetically cared about them and how they were feeling: “Are you feeling frustrated because the facility has no spots left for today, and that means you may be unsafe on the streets at night?” (Note how this is… lots of effort and work. We’re helping a person to name their feelings and reconnect with their needs rather than saying “well, that sucks or I cannot do anything”).
In many situations, a distressed person must be empathetically acknowledged to calm down. If you see their emotions - try to help them find it out. You may be wrong a few times, but getting to the actual feeling and need can genuinely defuse the situation and help you and the person you’re talking to.
I sometimes cringe when I get feedback like “I really liked what you did” or “You’re great!”. I could not explain why it was not landing well with me.
Reading the book, I finally realized.
NVC defines three components in the expression of appreciation:
- the actions that have contributed to our well-being
- the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
- the pleasureful feelings engendered by the fulfillment of those needs
I loved the chapter on appreciation and the components of it. An example in the book was that the author gave a workshop, and a lady walked over to him and told him: “You’re awesome!”. Instead of just saying thank you and going away, Marshall B. Rosenberg asked the lady to clarify, mentioning her feelings and needs and what exactly she liked in the workshop. This led her to say: “I loved two specific points [shows two notes from the workshop] because I have a teenage son, and I’ve been struggling to communicate with him lovingly and was searching for a guideline on how to do it better. Knowing those techniques will help me to relate to him better.”
Notice how giving appreciation, the same way as in general, communicating non-violently, is again full of talking about your needs and feelings and mentioning the specific observations. Only when we do that we could add a 4th part of the NVC: requests.
Nonviolent communication was like a condensed psychotherapy session. My GoodReads rating is 5/5 (despite some cheesy bits like poetry, it’s still worth it and I tend to be pretty strict with books). The world is full of different, diverse people, and building good connections is essential.
It’s far from easy to communicate in nonviolent ways and involves a lot of self-reflection and empathy. It’s so worth it, though. After all, we all have similar needs, like respect, fun, support, safety, or authentic belonging, so let’s support each other in communicating better.