Getting to know Nonviolent Communication, Part 1

As a conflict resolution practitioner, I regularly see people reacting toward, withdrawing from, or attacking others when they feel they are in conflict. Then, when the other person responds either poorly, or not at all, to those tactics, the conflict escalates. It is amazing how ineffective these approaches are to helping them get what they want and need. My job is to help people communicate about conflict well (before, during, and after) in order to help everyone get what they truly want and need. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a tool I use regularly with my visitors and in my own life. 

Marshall B. Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication writes in his book, “[NVC] is an ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking.” I agree. It is just plain more effective. So, let’s learn about it!

There are two parts to NVC:

1.       Expressing honestly through the four components

2.       Receiving empathically through the four components 

This blog will focus mainly on the first part – Expressing honestly through the four components

In his introduction, the author tells a story about a man searching for his lost keys under a street lamp. When a policeman asks him in an attempt to help, “Did you drop them here?” the man says, “No. I dropped them in the alley. But the light is much better here.” This illustrates the point that when we have a problem, get upset, feel conflict in ourselves or with others, we tend to focus on what immediately seems “easier” or “justified” or in direct reaction to our feelings, aka, looking under the streetlamp. 

This might be a weird connection to make because we would all say, “Why would look where you know you didn’t drop your keys?” I get that! It is hard to believe, but this is what we do in conflict and just like it wasn’t obvious to the man in the story, it isn’t obvious to us when we are reacting in conflict. It is not natural for us to look in the alley, where the keys are. With NVC, though it may feel like more of an effort at times, we are able to go right to where the keys were dropped. The author argues that when we engage with NVC, we are able to shine the light on the places that hold what we are seeking, as opposed to being distracted in areas that don’t hold what we are seeking.

I’m going to describe the NVC process, then give an example. To those of you who are familiar with STATE skills in Crucial Conversations, this will be familiar to you. I encourage you to note the slight differences and how the process is described.

Four components of NVC:

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

Observations. This is where you observe what is happening, what is being said, what is being done. I like to think about this as the observable, measurable, tangible data. This is the data before interpretation or thesis. You aren’t trying to come to conclusions or determinations – simply observing what anyone else could. What was said? What was done? Behavioral and specific.

Feelings: In the second component you state how those observations lead you to feel. You can find an inventory of feeling words on the The Center for Nonviolent Communications website.

Needs: Next comes the need that is related to those feelings. A few needs from the needs inventory are: acceptance, belonging, consideration, competence, to be understood, purpose, mutuality, and respect. 

Requests: This final component is when you state your request. This shares what you want from the other person. Note: Crucial Conversations’ STATE skills have this stage as “Ask,” where you can ask an open ended question to learn more about what the other person is experiencing. My recommendation is to get comfortable doing both – ask an open-ended, curious question or make a request. When should you do which? Think of types of conversations on a continuum. On the opposite ends of the continuum are simple, low-conflict conversations and  a situation or behavior that was incredibly egregious and you need to set a boundary. In these two scenarios, make a request. When you want to engage in dialogue and hear from the other person, or really anything else, start with an open-ended ask. Hearing from the other person before you make your request will help the other person be more willing to grant that request AND you will have a better idea of what to ask for with their input. 

The goal with using all 4 of these components is to give all relevant information authentically, transparently, and clearly. Rosenberg states, “When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.” Let’s look at an example. 

Scenario: In a faculty meeting, one member is taking up too much air time. 

  1. Observations: Jack, you have shared your thoughts on this topic fourtimes so far in the last ten minutes. There are five other people in the room we haven’t heard from yet. 
  2. Feelings: I’m feeling anxious and concerned that not everyone feels there is room for them to share in this important discussion. 
  3. Needs: Having everyone feel heard and engaged is a value of our group. 
  4. Request/Curiosity: Would you be willing to hold your thoughts for a bit until we have heard from others?

The author notes, and I agree, you may want to adapt this ‘process’ to your style or to the situation itself. Some find  ‘formulas’ like this feel choppy and uncomfortable. I recommend trying to stay in the formula at first as you practice. This will help you become familiar with all of the components and develop skills to adapt your style and the situation over time. 

My tip for incorporating this into your everyday life, at home, and at work is to practice practice practice! We are not used to thinking this way, let alone speaking this way. It takes effort to re-train our brain as well as our language and behavior. Here are some ways you can practice:

  • Have this handout out and visible in as many places as you want (by your desk or computer, by your bed, on the living room coffee table). When should you review this?
    • From time to time – even if you don’t have use for it in the moment. This helps familiarize yourself. 
    • When you start to feel upset or uncomfortable – about anything at all-think about and even write down the behaviors you are observing. Then your feelings. Then your needs. Then write down a request OR write down what you are curious about.What information don’t you have yet about the situation? You don’t have to do anything with this other than keep it for your own processing and understanding. 
    • When watching TV or a movie. When someone on the screen has an emotional reaction, or reacts out of strong emotions, try to identify what was said or done and the feelings that resulted. Identify what needs that character might be feeling. And then think, if you were them, what might you request or what curious question might you ask. This will help you see how easily people go to looking under the streetlamp instead of where they actually dropped their keys. It will also help when it is time to look at part 2 of NVC, listening and receiving other people’s observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
  • Contact our office. We are here to help you think through difficult situations and can help you apply this framework to your situation. We can also role play the conversation. So often we think we know what we want to say but when we get into the conversation itself, we forget all we’ve thought about. Practicing speaking the words out loud a few times helps to ensure you will in fact speak the words you intended to say. 

This is just the beginning of understanding and utilizing non-violent communication. Stay tuned for future posts on communication that blocks compassion and understanding, how to observe without evaluating, and how to listen and hear others’ experiences, feelings, needs, and requests more wholly.

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office