Nonviolent Communication

Submitted by CuriousFellow on
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Thanks to Amari and others for mentioning Nonviolent Communication (NVC). I finally got around to checking it out. I am very impressed! Here's what I found:

Nonviolent Communication Part 1 Marshall Rosenberg (10 min), Part 2 (6 min), Part 3 (4 min)
Rosenberg on Nonviolent Communication ~ NVC
Nonviolent Communication Skills Training Role Play NVC or Active Listening

More advanced:
Marshall Rosenberg NVC Role Play
Self-empathy exercise NVC Nonviolent Communication

I don't entirely agree with this, but I found it interesting:
You Just Don't Listen

Rosenberg's book: Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life.

Rosenberg's web site:

I'm still very new to this concept, haven't read the whole book yet, but here is my present understanding of it:

NVC is useful for getting conflicting parties to talk AND LISTEN to each other. Once a person feels that their unmet needs have been HEARD and understood, they may be willing to stop talking and listen to the other party's unmet needs.

A funny thing about angry people's communication is that they don't necessarily say exactly what is bugging them. They are too busy complaining and hurling accusations, or defending themselves from the other person's attacks. Thus, even if party X monopolizes the air time and rants on for hours while party Y politely and attentively listens, X may STILL not feel heard - because X never expressed their unmet needs.

Defensiveness ("answering" the other person's attacks) is not very effective at resolving conflicts. First, time spent justifying ones actions is time not spent listening. Second, the purpose of justifying is to make oneself seem more right and to make the attack seem wrong. It's a subtle form of counterattack. It doesn't address the attacker's unmet needs or make them feel that they've been heard.

Rosenberg advises to listen for the unmet needs that underlie a person's attacks, and ask questions to verify or clarify what those needs are. That sort of dialog directly addresses the person's need to be heard.

Here is an example of how NVC might help in my own marriage.

Recently (before I saw the NVC material), Zoe complained that seven years ago, in a marriage counseling session, I had said that I didn't love her any more. My habitual way of dealing with her complaints is to just listen quietly for as long as I can. So after she said that, I probably said nothing and was just thinking about it, while she continued talking about other things.

How could I have responded? Before learning about NVC, if I had chosen to respond, I might have explained that at that time, seven years ago, she wasn't sleeping with me very much, she wasn't showing many signs of affection toward me, and was often complaining and attacking me (not just verbally but sometimes physically!). So I wasn't feeling very loved, and not very loving either.

Or, I might have said that a marriage counseling session ought to be an opportunity to speak freely and honestly about what is on ones mind. What I said then, in session, shouldn't be thrown in my face years later.

Or, I might have reminded her that "she started it," so to speak. In the first few months of our marriage, when she was upset with me about something, sometimes she would say (exact quote) "I don't love you anymore." Of course I felt quite hurt by those words. Usually I would try not to react, just tried to ignore it and forget about it. Finally, one time I responded, "Fine, I don't love you anymore, either." She immediately started crying. So I explained that I didn't mean it, but I wanted her to see what it felt like to be on the receiving end of those words. Since then, she hasn't tried to use those words as a way to manipulate me.

Or I might have said, "That was how I felt then. It's not necessarily how I feel now."

All of those would have been great comebacks, huh? Sure to stop Zoe in her tracks, instantly dissipate all her anger toward me, and make her fall into my arms and love me happily forever after, right?

Well, maybe not. Part of the reason why I usually just listen and don't say much in response to her tirades is that I know, from long experience, that trying to "respond" to her words has rarely helped.

This morning, as I was thinking about all of this, I realized that NVC might be a better way to respond. If I try to listen beyond her complaint that "Seven years ago you said that you didn't love me anymore," maybe the unmet need that gave rise to those words was/is a need to feel loved by me.

What if I responded with something like "Do you need to feel loved by me?" If I was close to the mark, she might feel like I had heard and understood her unmet need.

And maybe, if she thought about it, or if she became willing to listen to me, she would realize that I have a need to be loved by her.

So, I have some hope that NVC could be a useful tool for marriage repair. A couple other notes:

- A couple of the presenters in the videos mention that it takes some practice to apply NVC effectively. I can certainly believe that. It takes practice to replace one habit - silence, defensive responses, counterattacks, etc. - with another habit. I think role playing with a friend might be a good way to practice.

- That's not to say that one should hold off trying to apply NVC until one has perfected the skill. I like the encouraging remark of Rosenberg in his role playing video: "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly."

- They also mention that it can take a lot of active listening (NVC style) before the other person may become willing to listen to you.

- I don't expect NVC to be a panacea. It appears to be a specialized tool which is good for opening up communication lines and exposing the unmet needs that underlie conflicts. I don't expect that NVC can always provide a solution for meeting those unmet needs.


Think about it less. Patterns are hard to break and you could seek to establish new patterns, but the advantage that we have possessing a mind is that we are flexible and adaptable to change. When we are healthy, we can respond to any situation creatively, fluidly, and in the present. Staying present to yourself is really the only technique that youll ever need. Its the heart of all behavioral therapy and it works. I wouldnt recommend beating around the bush with various techniques, there is too much life to be lived. Stab at the heart

Stab at the heart?!

Sounds kinda violent to me, kinda like what OJ Simpson did.

What are you saying? Just wing it? Say whatever comes to my mind? I'd call that "reacting." That sure hasn't worked very well for me in the past.

My experience with NVC

I've been playing with NVC for a few years now. At first it's a technique, and it can seem a bit clunky, but ultimately it's a way of thinking and focusing attention while communicating. No matter what kind of ugly words the other person is hurling at you, you keep focusing on observations, feelings, needs, and concrete requests. In this way, you won't get pulled around as much emotionally by their words and won't feel as much need to try to defend yourself. Likewise, no matter how many ugly thoughts pop into your head, you keep looking for the needs and feelings behind them, so that you can present yourself in a way that invites understanding rather than defensiveness or retaliation.

There's nothing magic about the technique, nor will you be able to use it to manipulate anyone. However, when you begin to get the hang of it, it certainly *feels* magic. I've watched extremely upset people relax dramatically with just a few moments of simply hearing their feelings and needs echoed back to them, and I've managed to diffuse without fighting situations that otherwise could have turned into massive conflicts.

If all of us had been raised in a circumstance where we learned healthy ways of communicating, we wouldn't need to learn any special technique. However, if your role models growing up were people who often got stuck in unproductive ways of trying to communicate, chances are you will do the same. This is just a way of re-learning better habits, in a sense. Personally, I think it might be the single most valuable tool I've learned in my life, and that's saying quite a bit. But perhaps it isn't useful or necessary for many people.

On a side note, the need for love, which CF mentioned, is a very interesting one. Everyone has it, and it's a very deep-seated need, but most people haven't the slightest clue how to ask for it. That's mostly because it's impossible to give someone love directly (being an intangible and all.) You can only give people actions that *express* love. However, many people aren't aware of or aren't comfortable asking for the specific actions that would help them feel loved, so they end up making themselves and others miserable.

In the example you sited though, CF, I think the more salient need night have been security- she was wanting reassurance that her relationship was safe. You can't find out for sure without asking, though.


It seems to me that communication skills are learned, not inherent, even in the healthiest people. And actually, I haven't met so many people that I would call 'healthy,' so I think we're lucky to have a few tools to aid in our development. Even for people who were taught how to communicate, they are certain to run into others along the way who were not (like myself, for example ;)), and so even the best communicators can always grow their skills.

CF, when I read your story, I am always left somewhat dumbfounded - I guess I just don't understand how you keep going. That does not mean that I think you're doing the wrong thing, just saying that I don't think I could. I've only once had someone I loved tell me, in those exact words, that they don't love me anymore... and I kicked a hole through the wall. It really hurt, both my heart and my bare foot. I don't think I could ever say that to anyone, even if I meant it.

Of course, I don't think that makes me any better or more compassionate. I've certainly used my own veiled threats to communicate what I couldn't say. My technique has always involved threatening to leave, permanently. My mom does this, too, so maybe I learned it from her. Or, maybe both of us don't know how to communicate our pain very effectively. But we're both learning.

I think, CF, that even if these exercises that you are doing don't save your marriage, all the work that you are doing now will be useful to you - either in your dealings with the outside world, or in another relationship. Hang in there. :)

Stony Silence

Stony silence was my preferred tactic too, partly because when someone hits me with a shock like that I go numb. It can take a day or so for everything to sink in. The good thing about a marriage is that you're allowed to come back to the table and take up the conversation again.

I loved the comment on this site is that a couple should hold hands while arguing. I tried it. I don't think it will always work, but it helped us discuss a family issue without getting too personal.

I took an Active Listening course once. The instructor warned us about his experience with his teenaged son, whose response was, "Don't use that active listening shit on me!" The instructor's point was that these communications techniques work only if the person using them sincerely wants to listen to the other person. People are very good at detecting insincerity. The technique alone has no value, but coupled with a real desire to change, it can open doors.


Curious Fellow, I have a

Curious Fellow, I have a feeling that your wife may feel like she can walk all over you and you'll put up with her BS. Of course that's a better tactic than reacting in an equally attacking or defensive way, but that doesn't mean she'll actually respect you for keeping mum. She might be testing you, and she might be doing it unconcsciously.

I'm just speaking from my own experience here being with a very amenable person, who would rather do anything than be in a conflict (whereas I seem to thrive when there's a conflict, as I like problem solving). I sometimes feel that I need to know that my man will stand up for himself or speak out or speak up. It could be that even though you and Zoe are past your child-bearing years, the feminine in her is acting like a bully because she wants to get some reassurance from you that you're not just a passive person who will put up with anything (in terms of biological programming, putting up with anything would mean putting your kids through anything).

Maybe her needs are to feel that you know how to stand up for yourself in a way that hears her but doesn't let her walk all over you. So far, your tactic of just waiting till her tirade passes may leave you with more integrity personally than counterattacking, but that tactic doesn't seem to leave much integrity in the sense of the partnership.

Yes, patience is a virtue, its true, and Zoe's lucky to have you. But in your case maybe your patience in enabling immature behavior on her part, and stalling the growth of an actual partnership.

Just a thought.

I'm glad you're getting into NVC. I've found it very useful in my own life.

CuriousFellow wrote:This

[quote=CuriousFellow]This morning, as I was thinking about all of this, I realized that NVC might be a better way to respond. If I try to listen beyond her complaint that "Seven years ago you said that you didn't love me anymore," maybe the unmet need that gave rise to those words was/is a need to feel loved by me.

What if I responded with something like "Do you need to feel loved by me?" If I was close to the mark, she might feel like I had heard and understood her unmet need.[/quote]

Or you could sweep her into your arms and say, "I'll show you how much I don't love you," and plant a warm, loving kiss on her lips!

Or maybe say, "That was then, this is now," and give her a big hug.

Or how about, "Those were words. THIS is reality," and then show her the reality of the depth of your love with the above kiss or hug.

I think Amari might be right in that, while Zoe does need to feel loved, she's also expressing insecurity when she brings up that incident. Give her what she needs by showing her your love.

Now, in the above examples, probably the result will be some kind of pulling away. (Can you tell I'm speaking from experience? LOL.) My general response to that is to feel rejected and hurt and give some rejection right back, but obviously this just reinforces the woman's insecurity she had to begin with. What I learned from Deida is that her pulling away should be seen as a test of your integrity as the loving man you're portraying yourself to be. Can you stand firm in the face of her rejection? The answer is, you must, and by learning how to do so, you grow stronger, not just for the relationship but for all the challenges of your life. If you let her get to you, however, you show how easily you can be defeated, and then your integrity isn't trustworthy. Are you really that loving man or are you so sensitive that that love will turn to rejection the instant it's tested?

I see NVC as a miraculous tool and am working to integrate it into my life. People want... need, even, to be heard, and when I feel unheard, I use the pain that generates in me to help me understand how much others need to be heard by me... cuz it's hard to listen sometimes. NVC helps us learn how to listen, even in the face of our own pain, and I can't express my gratitude for how it's helped me.

That said, there's a time to move beyond words. After the listening, after the person feels heard, then give them what they need... and sometimes it won't be in the form of words. It's about energy. It's about feelings. These are shifted through actions.

Poet, re: holding hands while arguing. I haven't been on this site in awhile, so I might've missed that discussion. I think that's a great idea, though. In my life, in the past, I found that I would get so angry that I just couldn't hold hands while arguing. No way! In retrospect, I think that was a sign that I wasn't in a state to talk about anything, either from my own anger and immaturity or the other person's. Either way, my inability to hold hands at that moment was a sign from within, if only I could've seen it that way, but instead I saw it as a character flaw that I couldn't control my emotions. LOL. How far I've come since then. Yet I have far far to go. I still suck at NVC let alone Deida stuff, but every day I'm getting better and better.

Thanks to all of you

for your comments which I've read carefully and really do appreciate.

I'm continuing to read the book. I'm about 1/4 of the way through it, and already I've had so many insights that I would have a hard time describing them all. Just by reading and thinking about this material, I feel more at peace with the world. I even feel physically more relaxed - a completely unexpected side effect.

Here is an example of one of those insights or mental shifts. Note that in the first post of this thread, I said "[Zoe]... was often complaining and attacking me (not just verbally but sometimes physically!)." Note that I was complaining about Zoe. In effect I was saying that she was the problem.

NVC encourages you to get in touch with your feelings, and identify the unmet needs (within yourself, as well as in others) that underlie "life-alienating communications." So I did that with the above statement / situation. What I came up with was that I have a need to feel safe when I communicate with people.

Somehow, it is a lot easier, less stressful, etc. to think about the situation as an unmet need, than to think about it as something that Zoe was doing. With the old way of thinking, I would tend to think about how to get Zoe to stop attacking me. The new way of thinking broadens my range of options. I tend to think more about can Zoe meet my needs? If not, I can feel more comfortable with a decision to end the marriage.

I don't fully understand why the two ways of thinking feel so different, but they do. Maybe it is because in the second way, blame is unnecessary and irrelevant and doesn't use up my energy. Or maybe it's because with the second way, the focus isn't on trying to "fix" another person - which is a rather difficult task, as I'm sure Che would agree. Wink

Anyway, just wanted to check in and report that I'm still getting blown away by this NVC stuff. And I'm only 1/4 of the way through the book! Smile

That's wonderful

There are so many pains in the world that can be eased by a shift in perception. I love the saying from A Course in Miracles that goes "Would you rather be right...or happy?" Smile


I love that, CF! I've found that somehow I've made this shift in perception too, and it's fantastic. In the past, I also blamed and tried to fix, but now, in my current relationship (yes, despite only being a few months in, the problems are already beginning), I seem to be seeing them in terms of unmet needs, both in myself and Yvette. Then it comes down to communication about how to fix the problem, not by changing the other but maybe the issue stems from miscommunication. The old way is about control, which causes both sides to blame the other as well as resist changing oneself. The new way is a partnership. It's about giving, where I ask what I can give. And if Yvette simply cannot give what I need, no use in trying to force it (that just causes more drama), the final remaining option is to part ways--without all the normal dramas.

NVC insight for the day - Requests vs. Demands

Our requests are received as demands when others believe that they will be blamed or punished if they do not comply.
We demonstrate that we are making a request rather than a demand by how we respond when others don't comply. If we are prepared to show an empathic understanding of what prevents someone from doing as we asked, then by my definition, we have made a request, not a demand. Choosing to request rather than demand does not mean we give up when someone says no to our request. It does mean that we don't engage in persuasion until we have empathized with what's preventing the other person from saying yes.
-- Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life p79-81

Rosenberg gives an example that is very similar to what used to happen between Zoe and me (back when we were together and not so estranged). I would make a request, she might refuse, and I would get a disappointed look on my face and not say anything more. Or sometimes she would comply, but then later on complain that I had "forced" her to do it - leaving me dumbfounded. "What do you mean I 'forced' you?! If you didn't want to do it, you didn't have to!"

Oh. Now I understand. Smile

In case it wasn't clear...

The reason Zoe would feel that I had "forced" her to do things was that, on those occasions when she refused, my disappointed look, unwillingness to listen to and empathize with her reasons for refusing, and other behavior probably made her feel like I was rejecting and punishing her, which I was, in a way.

I would be thinking things like, "How can she be so cold and uncaring? Is she trying to get back at me for something she's angry with me about?" I don't think I ever said those things out loud, but she must have sensed my resentment.

"Winning" (?!) through intimidation

Of course, we may be successful in using such judgments to intimidate people into meeting our needs. If they feel so frightened, guilty, or ashamed that they change their behavior, we may come to believe that it is possible to "win" by telling people what's wrong with them.

With a broader perspective, however, we realize that each time our needs are met in this way, we not only lose, but we have contributed very tangibly to violence on the planet. We may have solved an immediate problem, but we will have created another one. The more people hear blame and judgment, the more defensive and aggressive they become and the less they will care about our needs in the future. So even if our present need is met in the sense that people do what we want, we will pay for it later.

--Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life, p148

Two Questions That Reveal the Limitations of Punishment

Two questions help us see why we are unlikely to get what we want by using punishment to change people's behavior. The first question is: What do I want that's different from what he or she is currently doing? If we ask only this first question, punishment may seem effective, because the threat or exercise of punitive force may well influence someone's behavior. However, with the second question, it becomes evident that punishment isn't likely to work: What do I want this person's reasons to be for doing what I'm asking?

-- ibid, p165

Tried it

I finished reading the book yesterday. I've tried some of the NVC techniques during the week and today.

At work, I started an email with "I'm feeling very frustrated [about a situation that is probably frustrating for some customers also]" without blaming anyone. Got back a very positive and appreciative response.

In a couple of social situation unrelated to work, I tried reflecting back the feelings and needs that I was hearing, and it seemed to make the other person feel better.

I tried it for the first time on Zoe this morning. We got into an altercation about finances. I asked, "Are you feeling angry because we're not financially very stable right now?" She said "Don't talk to me about that. You did yada yada..." I didn't know how to respond, so I went into relatively quiet mode. Later I tried again with similar results. Finally I abandoned trying to identify feelings and needs and just tried to explain that the reason I avoid her most of the time is that I hate getting into these "discussions" where I feel like I'm always blamed and attacked no matter what I say. She accused me of attacking her! (In my view, she applies a double standard. If I looked at her cross-eyed, she would probably say I was "attacking" her. And in the past when I've asked her to stop scolding me, she has indignantly replied that she wasn't scolding me. "Well, what are you doing, then?" One time she said "I'm giving you the benefit of my knowledge and experience" which at least makes some sense. But usually, I can't get any kind of answer that makes sense to me. She just won't admit that she's scolding.) Finally I asked her to lower her voice. She said that was her normal voice. (Well, no, that's not how she sounds when she's on the phone talking to her friends.) I pointed out that during most of our discussion she had been talking more loudly than I had been (with the exception of one minute where I shouted several times "Would you please listen?!") Finally, the discussion wound down on a relatively calm note (maybe a 2 on a 0-10 scale of intensity) as she went off to do some errands.

So, I'm still feeling pretty good about NVC. It seems useful in some everyday life situations. Zoe is a much more challenging case to crack. I'm not surprised at the lack of dramatic results. I can certainly use some more study and practice. And maybe the "discussion" ended on a calmer note than it might have if I hadn't studied and tried to apply the NVC stuff.


NVC is *most* challenging to use with the people we're closest to and see every day, so it's normal to have mixed success at first!

If you want some feedback, your sentence "Are you feeling angry because we're not financially very stable right now?" isn't quite textbook NVC. Your sentence attributes her anger to the situation instead of her unmet needs. Possibly a better try would be "Are you feeling angry because you would like to feel secure about our finances?"

Of course, the really challenging part about this method is that you can't expect a good result right away. If that's been the pattern in the relationship for a while, you're likely to get responses with a lot of judgments in them in the beginning. The *real* challenge is not to hear the judgments because you're listening so intently for the needs underneath. The fact is, if she keeps telling you over and over again what she thinks you did wrong, chances are she has a sizable unmet need for understanding. She's probably been trying to tell you certain things for YEARS, but hasn't been able to because instead of showing her that you understand her feelings, needs, and requests, you've heard what she says as an attack (understandable, seeing how she's communicating) and either shut down, tried to defend yourself, or attacked right back. CF, I can't know for sure but I'm willing to bet that after just 15 minutes of real listening, a lot of things would resolve themselves. The main hurdle is that you're telling yourself, as well as her, that she is "scolding" you. The idea of scolding is basically that her purpose is to tell you what is wrong about you. Unfortunately, if you think your own wrongness or rightness is on the line in a conversation, it will almost never go well, because you'll be too preoccupied with that to hear anything else. While her *method* (unfortunate as it is) may be telling you what's wrong with you or your behavior, her *purpose,* however tragically frustrated it may be, is to get her needs met. If you want a good outcome for your relationship, you should ignore her methods as much as possible and focus on her real purpose. It's kind of like a foreign language situation. She wants to tell you about her fears, desires, needs, etc., but the only language she knows how to speak is the language of criticism. NVC teaches you how to translate from one to the other, so your job is to be the interpreter, both for her and for yourself.

Unfortunately, until your wife masters NVC herself, the only way she will stop "scolding" altogether is if she stops caring and decides to just build up resentment about her needs that aren't met. However, if you give her full understanding every time she "scolds," and the situation is resolved, then she's not likely to criticize about that *particular* subject again, so the total amount of scolding will decrease a lot. In the mean time, trying to get her to change her "scolding" behavior is like telling someone to turn off the fire alarm in a burning house they're trapped in because it hurts your ears. You have to put out the fire first (by listening), and THEN you can turn off the alarm. But running into burning buildings takes courage and skill!

I know that you also have a lot of unmet needs in this relationship, and hopefully you'll get to a point where you can express those and actually be heard. But that moment is much more likely to happen *after* your wife feels that her own needs have been heard.

Maybe a good exercise would be a sort of role-play where you write out a list of the criticisms and judgments you get from your wife most frequently, and then try to translate them into feelings and needs. If you want, I can try to help if I can.


Amari, you're great! CF, thanks for posting all the tidbits here. I need it. Big time. Let's learn together. As for Zoe, in your example about the financial security conversation, what do you think her unmet need was? Apparently, it wasn't about financial security... or at least that was very minor compared to something else.