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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Clark

Observations in Nonviolent Communication

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

There is a reason that the very first component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is to make value-neutral observations. The moment our judgments begin to blend in with what our senses pick up, we start to impose our understanding of reality on others. The conversation is immediately trapped in our sense of what is true. But there is another, less conflict-laden way — and that’s through value-neutral observations.

By separating our evaluations from the things we observe, we immediately improve our ability to avoid unnecessary and unproductive conflict, connect to another person’s experience, and mutually benefit.

observations in NVC

Why are evaluations damaging?

It’s hard to move through the world without making evaluations. In some ways, this is something we do constantly — this food is bad, that movie is good, they are hilarious, I’m a coffee drinker, and so on and so on.

But just because it’s something we do all the time doesn’t mean it's something we can’t do anything about, nor is it necessarily a positive influence in all situations.

After all, taking a moment to clearly state our observations before mixing in our evaluations gives us a chance to think. It gives us time to process what’s going on before we arrive at our conclusion about what something is. Because once we label something with an evaluation, we move from a data point to a statement about essence.

Think about it. Let’s say Joseph owes you money and is late in repaying. You might evaluate this as “Joseph is untrustworthy.” Makes sense. He promised to pay you back on a certain date and didn’t. I guess Joe is just like that.

But hold on a second. We could strip it of evaluation and simply say, “Joseph is three days late in paying me back.” This value-neutral observation has a few things going for it:

  • It’s objectively true

  • It says nothing about what Joe is or what he is capable of

  • It sets up a situation where Joe can act and make a difference (for instance, he could pay you back, maybe throwing a bit extra on top for being late or explaining the unforeseen circumstances that made his tardy repayment totally understandable)

That last one is worth reiterating. When we begin to call Joseph untrustworthy, it becomes really hard for him to do anything to fix that perception. Even when he gets your money back, it’s still an example of his untrustworthiness. Now, you’ve defined another human being, and that’s just the way he is. Poor Joe never had a chance.

This last one also points to why NVC can work so well in real-world conflict. Let’s say you actually want to talk to Joseph about the money he owes you. If you begin by describing the situation like, “Joseph, you’re being a cheat, and I can’t trust you,” or something similar, you are unlikely ever to get your money back. For Joseph to get to where he sees from your point of view, he’ll have to accept (or at least tolerate) these evaluations you’ve made about him as a person.

What are some more examples of value-neutral observations?

In the table below, we take in some examples of observations that contain values and value-neutral versions of them.

Observations With Evaluation

Value-Neutral Observations

​Wow! They’re a great cook.

This meal they cooked tastes good.

Caspar is always running late.

Caspar has not been on time for the last three meetings.

You don’t want to be my friend.

You haven’t accepted my invitation to hang out three times in a row.

She’s an angel.

She took extra time to help me through a difficult task at work.

He talks too much.

In our last conversation, he spoke more than I did.

You can probably already see that value-neutral observations generally take longer than evaluations. This is part of the magic. The longer we take to describe a person’s actions, the more room we make for complexity to enter. The more complexity we allow in, the less likely we are to simplify down to right and wrong, good and bad.

How do you use value-neutral observations?

Here are some basic tips for using this powerful NVC component:

  • Name Specific Behaviors: If you are trying to address a conflict that revolves around someone’s actions, the best place to start is with specific behaviors that can be listed without evaluation. This gives a clear starting point without adding in judgments that the other person has to swallow in order to see your perspective.

  • Slow Down: When you take time, you add more flexibility to your next move. That’s crucial in avoiding making evaluations.

  • If You Fail, Try Again: Making an evaluation isn’t the end of the world. Instead, it’s an opportunity to practice making a value-neutral observation. Next time you notice yourself making an evaluation, even one that’s highly accurate and/or inconsequential, try out the value-neutral version. “I hate getting the flu!” can turn into, “In the past, I’ve experienced many negative sensations while having the flu. For this reason, I find myself preferring being rid of the flu.” What fun!

How do value-neutral observations fit into NVC?

Of course, NVC is not a single-component system. That means it isn’t enough to make value-neutral observations. But these lay the foundations for moving forward.

They get you started on the right foot, getting clear on what it is you really know about the situation. When you move on to discussing how you feel, you’ll have a grip on what it is you are actually having feelings about. This will give you a better signal of the need that is being activated. And it can help you dig into whether or not you have a request and if one is being made of you.

Read More About NVC

Check out our entire series on NVC:

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