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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Clark

A Beginner's Guide to Nonviolent Communication

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is the basis for many Relational Arts, especially the branch known as Authentic Relating. It’s also a great tool in its own right.

NVC is a general outline for how to interact with people in a way that reduces unnecessary conflict, increases understanding, and leads to mutually beneficial outcomes.

beginner's guide to NVC

What is NVC?

Nonviolent communication is a set of principles for living together and communicating. It emphasizes compassion, collaboration, and authenticity.

It draws on four major themes:

  • Consciousness: Being mindful of our goal to interact with people in a mutually beneficial way

  • Language: Using words to purposefully improve connection

  • Communication: Learning to ask for what we want, how to hear what other people are asking for, and finding win-win solutions

  • Sharing Power: Shifting focus from what we can make people do to what we can do if we work together

As you can see, NVC quickly moves from a system for talking to a system for relating on multiple levels.

Who Created NVC?

Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015) was an American psychologist who created NVC during the early years of the 1960s. By the 80s, he'd established the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

His pioneering work proved indispensable for opening up a discussion on how we interact with each other. And it proposed that we could make more conscious choices about how we interact.

How does NVC work?

NVC has a multi-step approach. But it can all be boiled down into two major points:

  1. Listen with empathy using the four pillars of NVC (observations, feelings, needs, and requests)

  2. Honestly express yourself using the four pillars

Let’s go through these two parts and see them work in action.

Receive Empathically

The first step is always to receive empathically. This means opening yourself up to the other person and trying to get their world and see where they are coming from. Without this as the first step, the entire system will fall apart. And often, this alone can change so much of our experience.

When a potential conflict arises, we often get drawn into it because instead of listening to the needs underneath a communication, we focus on how it is communicated. But we can’t expect everyone to have NVC training, so it’s up to us to be the ones who dig down beneath the surface to find the need.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: let’s have an example! Okay. Say you are meeting your sister for coffee. A car wreck on your way to the cafe causes a traffic jam, and you end up fifteen minutes late. When you arrive, your sister displays all the signs of anger, like folded arms, furrowed brow, the works.

When you sit down to join her, she seethes out, “Well, you finally got here.”

These observations you’re having are probably leading to the conclusion that your sister is angry.

But before you launch into a defense of yourself and a counterattack that might dredge up her past slights against you, try to receive empathically.

You could say something like, “From what I can tell, you appear to be pretty mad at me. Is that true?”

Rather than telling her what she is, you simply describe what you see and what conclusions that leads you to.

Maybe she says, “Of course I’m angry. You know I have a tight schedule, and you showed up 15 minutes late!”

Now, you could begin yelling at her about the traffic jam and how she’s too self-centered to consider anything but her own desires — but that wouldn’t be NVC. Instead, we receive empathically. Right now, that could look like us reflecting back what she’s told us so that she knows we are listening to her.

“It sounds like you’re worried about time today, and me being late might put extra strain on your schedule.”

For most people’s sisters, this exchange alone will cut the tension. That’s the magic of this step.

the four steps of nonviolent communication

"Oh Fuck, No Ruckus!"

The phrase, “Oh fuck, no ruckus!” is the ultimate mnemonic device to remember the four pillars of NVC that come after receiving empathically. Those pillars are:

  • Observations (Oh): Sharing what we observe in as neutral a way as possible

  • Feelings (Fuck): Owning the way that we feel about the things we observe, making sure not to blame others for how we feel

  • Needs (No): Getting to the fundamental needs we have that give rise to our feelings

  • Requests (Ruckus): The direct expression of requests we are making of others that could improve our lives by meeting our needs

This is the fundamental NVC process.

How might this look with the sister in the example above?

You could begin by making value-neutral observations, like, “You are telling me you are angry, and I can hear that in your tone.”

Then, move on to the feelings these observations are having on you. It’s important at this point not to give in to blaming the other person for how you feel. “I’m feeling frustrated.”

Now, dive into the need that isn’t being met and that’s causing your frustration. “My frustration points me to a need to be understood.”

Have any clear requests that could make life better? Share them clearly. “I have a request to share why I’m late.”

That’s more or less how the process goes.

Never Say “Yes” Out of Duty

There’s one more concept that you really need to understand to fully grasp NVC. This centers on the requests other people make of you. NVC advises that nobody agree to a request out of a sense of duty or obligation. In other words, you should only fulfill requests because you get a need met from doing it.

Why is this? Isn’t it good to meet one’s obligations?

The problem with this is that you begin to gather up a kind of point system. Someone might end up unable to help you, and you think of all the times you helped them when you didn’t want to!

This is a situation many of us have found ourselves in over and over. In matters large and small, we end up giving in to a person’s request when we don’t want to, and we harbor resentment about it. That’s not really giving them anything or doing them a favor.

Instead, try to find the need underneath their request and see if there is a way you can help them meet their need while you meet one of yours.

For instance, let’s go back to your sister and the coffee.

Let’s say she asks you to make up for being late by buying her a coffee and scone. And let’s say you don’t feel comfortable doing that because it implies you are guilty and have to buy her off. If you agree to this request out of a sense of duty or peacemaking, both parties will live to regret it. You will end up resenting her for the request, and resentment has a way of coming back up later.

But when we give to others as a way to give to ourselves, everyone’s needs are met. Sometimes this is easy — like when we enjoy giving something to somebody else or vice versa. That can’t always be relied on. Most often, we need to get down to the needs of both parties. Then, a win-win solution is often pretty easy to find.

Benefits of Using NVC

If you begin to seriously employ these techniques, you’ll find that they can greatly improve your ability to de-escalate conflicts. And ultimately, it helps you find win-win solutions where everyone gets their needs met.

The major benefits can be understood this way:

  • Learning to Make Clear Requests: One of the transformational takeaways from this training is learning to make requests that are clear and unambiguous. Rather than insinuating what you want, clear requests give others a chance to understand the need(s) you have and how you’d like them to participate in getting the need(s) met.

  • Interrogating the Underlying Need: There is so much self-knowledge to be gained when you take the time to experience what you are feeling and follow that emotion down to its root. Below the emotional state is a need not being met, and that’s a powerful thing to know.

  • Reducing Unnecessary Conflict: A lot of conflict serves no purpose. It is simply the result of how we communicate. By reducing this kind of unnecessary conflict, we can create a lot more mutual flourishing in our lives.

Read More About NVC

Check out our entire series on NVC:

Nonviolent Communication FAQ

Isn’t this a little robotic?

Many people find NVC robotic when they first start. That’s a fair criticism. After all, we don’t really talk this way.

But the thing is, once you learn the principles, you can begin to phrase things in a much more normal, everyday sort of way. It’s advised, however, that you don’t do this at the very beginning. You are learning an entirely new paradigm of relating to others, so it can help to stick to the steps until you have a lot of experience with them.

Does NVC really work?

What is weaponizing NVC?

Why is NVC so important?

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