How are your communication skills? Most of us tend to think we’ve learned enough communication to get through our lives. Yet we still have times when we’re frustrated and not able to say what we need to say, or we have the same old argument with someone without making any progress. Also known as Compassionate Communication, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a set of tools that can build a person’s ability to communicate more effectively and be more in touch with themselves.
The four main components of NVC include effective use of Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests. Simply put; life happens to us (Observation) which generates Feelings which are connected to a Needs, which leads to some Request or Action. We loop through this chain all the time in our lives but are often not aware of the distinct parts. I’ll explain a bit about each of these four components.
At the heart of NVC is the connection between feelings and needs. When we feel something, that feeling is connected to needs or values that are alive in us. For example, when I’m angry, it might be because I have a need for respect or safety. We can practice taking that next step of identifying and expressing needs that are present in a situation when emotions are present. Learning to see, reflect, and express feelings and needs builds empathic understanding of ourselves and others. This happens because these needs or values are universal, they can be understood as valuable by everyone. We may not all need ‘respect’, for example, to the same degree, but we can understand it when we hear someone has that need. Also, when we can identify our needs, our feelings often will become softer, as if our body’s expression of feelings is an attempt to get us to consciously recognize needs.
The Observation component of NVC recognizes how what we experience, stimulates our feelings and needs. Learning to separate judgment from observation in communication is an important part of this component. We use judgment all the time in our lives very effectively to evaluate what choices we want to make. Yet when we judge others or feel judged ourselves, it causes disconnect. For example, when I try to share, “You were disrespectful to me”, I’m sharing my judgment, rather than my observation. Whatever else I say next is not likely to be heard. My communication can be more effective if I can start by expressing what actually happened, “You started speaking before I finished my thought, and I felt, etc…” It’s also helpful to be aware how we use judgments and evaluations when we express feelings. It is helpful in communication to express and own our feelings, yet, when we use feeling words with judgment, again it’s hard for others to hear. For example, I might say, “I’m feeling attacked right now.” In truth, I think you're attacking me and I’m actually feeling defensive or scared.
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The last of the four components of NVC is the Requests. If we express what we’re wanting as a demand, it will again evoke resistance. So, if I have any sense of “you have to!” in my tone or language, it will be less likely someone will say “Yes”. So, the practice is to watch internally to see if what I’m asking for or wanting is truly a request. Can I hear a “No”, without getting upset? If I do hear a “No”, can I take time to understand the other’s needs more clearly? When we make requests, we are turning the conversation over to someone else and it’s time to listen and hear what comes back.
All of these four components are simple to understand in practice, yet take time to learn. In some ways it is like learning a new language, yet the results are very rewarding - a greater sense of connection with yourself and with others. The key to NVC isn’t learning a specific formula of how to speak, but rather to build some effective habits in our thought and communication, and to develop a genuine curiosity to understand all the needs that are alive in ourselves and in others.
A beautiful benefit to learning this way to communicate is that we develop greater awareness of our feelings and of our needs. In this way we are able to ask for what we need more clearly and, as we have more capacity to take care of ourselves, compassion for others’ feelings becomes more common.