As humans, we are wired to connect with one another. We need personal relationships as much as we need food, water, and the air we breathe. Considering how vital it is that we have strong connections with others, it’s shocking how little most of us are actually taught about creating and maintaining these connections through good communication.
Anyone who has been in a conflicted relationship (umm everyone), knows how frustrating it can be to do your best to express your feelings and still be misunderstood. You re-word, you cool off and re-visit, and still end up in an argument. Repeated failures then cause us to hold back our feelings because having a conversation about them just leaves us more frustrated than we started.
Not only have most of us not been taught how to communicate well but we have also been modeled ineffective and triggering ways of communicating- in other words, we are taught how to have frustrating and conflicted relationships. Frankly, it is tragic that so many of our attempts to meet our basic human need for connection, leave us even more disconnected. So how does one break this pattern? Enter NVC.
Non-Violent Communication (NVC)
I don’t love the name, but I love the method. I say that because many of us are already non-violent in our communications, but we still struggle to connect effectively. Some of us want to keep the peace to a point that we can’t communicate for fear of conflict. This method is for everyone.
Essentially NVC gives us the tools to understand what triggers us, take responsibility for our reactions, and transform our habitual ways of responding. The non-violent name comes from the focus on compassion for others and for one’s self.
The basic principle of NVC is that underlying all human actions are needs that people are trying to get met. Seeking to understand and acknowledge those needs creates a foundation of connection, cooperation, and peaceful communication.
Learning to use NVC is a practice- it requires a shift in your awareness. Although it requires you to speak differently, I think the real power of the practice is that it makes you look at your thoughts, feelings, and needs in a new way. Seeing clearly what is going on for you internally allows you to express yourself in new ways that promote connection and positive change.
How to Practice NVC
There are 2 fundamental parts to the dance of communication; expressing yourself and listening. Using NVC we focus on 4 components and practice becoming aware of them whether we are speaking or listening.
The Four Components of NVC
Practicing NVC requires that you learn to separate what you observe from your judgments of the observation. Reserving these judgments helps prevent the triggering of defenses and opens up the conversation in a way that leads to better understanding.
Example: Partner A experiences her partner looking at his phone or acting distracted while she is talking. She says “You don’t listen to me.” That leads partner B to become defensive, leading to conflict and disconnection.
Using NVC, person A would state what she observed, without making a judgment: “Hey, I keep noticing that you are looking at your phone and looking away from me.”
Just that small shift in language can alter the trajectory of the conversation. Also, separating what you actually observe from what judgments or assumptions you might be making about why your partner is behaving this way can drastically affect your own feelings and how you react to the situation.
NVC is about taking responsibility for your feelings. It is a profound shift to view what others say or do as the stimulus for your feelings, but not the cause. We don’t all respond to stimulus in the same way, so the stimulus itself is not the cause of our feelings, rather it is our response that is the cause.
This is not to say that others’ behaviors should not affect us, they do! Viewing your feelings as a response to a stimulus, rather than someone else’s fault, is just a shift in perspective that allows you to take more responsibility for how you feel and understand why.
Partner A tells Partner B that she has observed him looking at his phone while they are talking. He could respond in 4 ways:
- Take it personally: “I can’t do anything right, can I?”
- Fight back: “Just because I am not looking directly at you doesn’t mean I am not listening.”
- Consider his own feelings and needs: “When I hear you say that I feel bad because I really am listening to you and I don’t want to be thought of as a person who is rude.”
- Consider the other person’s feelings and needs: “Are you feeling hurt because you think I am not interested in what you have to say?”
Obviously, the first 2 options are probably not going to make anyone leave the conversation feeling great. It may lead Partner B to look at their phone less while having a conversation, but it won’t lead to real connection, which is what partner A is really looking for. Even if B just said “sorry” and set the phone down, he may feel like he is just bending to the will of his partner to create peace, without understanding what she really needs. Options 3 and 4 are what NVC is all about because they get at the heart of the matter: needs.
Practicing NVC means making a connection between the feelings and the unmet needs that a person is experiencing. The outer expression of feelings of any kind can be traced back to an unmet need. The key to identifying, expressing, and connecting with needs is to focus on words that describe shared human experience rather than describing the ways in which you want a need met. When we can connect with our needs, we can take responsibility for our feelings, and we can also open up the opportunity for others to connect with our needs because it is likely that they can relate.
Let’s say partner B says both responses 3 and 4 from above, connecting with feelings and needs. Partner A then says “Yes I am feeling hurt because I need to feel valued by you and when you seem as though you aren’t paying attention I feel that you don’t value what I have to say.”
Can partner B argue with the need to feel valued? Probably not! We all want to feel valued by the people in our lives. Likely B will connect with this need and understand why A is feeling the way she does.
If A would have instead focused on getting her needs met, instead of the need itself, she may have just said, “Please put your phone down while we are talking,” which might have felt bossy or controlling to B. At any given moment, our connection with others determines their willingness to go along with our requests. Without connection, B might have been unwilling to go along with A’s request to put down the phone or may have done it out of shame or fear of more conflict.
In order to meet our needs, we can identify and express an action that we think will meet our needs, and then request it from our partner. Here, differentiating between a request and a demand is important.
When A said “Please put down your phone while we are talking,” she was actually making a demand. We know this because if B didn’t put down the phone, things would have gone downhill fast!
In any given situation the goal is to work to have everyone’s needs met. Agreeing to a request out of fear, guilt or shame doesn’t NOT increase the connection between 2 people. Learning to make requests instead of demands can be challenging to put into practice, but the positive results will be incredibly reinforcing!
Imagine if A put all these pieces together and said something like this: “Hey I am feeling a bit hurt because I need to feel like you value me and what I have to say, and when you look at your phone while we are talking I don’t feel valued. Would you mind setting it aside while we talk?”
B may react with surprise, not realizing that he was even looking and it, and then because he understands how A is feeling, he happily sets it aside because he wants his partner to feel valued. Or, maybe he is waiting for an important text and is feeling anxious about it, so he explains why he is distracted and expresses his need to keep eyes on it right now. Either way, A feels heard and knows that B does want to listen to her, even if he can’t give her his full attention at this moment.
I am guessing you can probably think of a whole lot of examples of conversations in your life that have gone awry, that could have benefited from using these 4 components.
This is just a little taste of the magic of NVC! There are training and practice groups all over the country, plus a wealth of online resources where you can learn more about this powerful way of creating more connection and peace in your life.
Using this practice changes the way we speak, but deeper than that it prompts us to become more tuned in to what we really feel. If you keep going back to needs, you can really simplify so much of your own inner turmoil and have more empathy for yourself and others. Most of our needs are universal, so if you can trace back your feelings to a need, and express that need, others will often be able to connect to how you’re feeling and empathize with you. “Don’t ignore me,” becomes “I’d like to feel valued,” and who can argue with that.
If you identify what you are feeling as “ignored,” you may even question your feelings, wondering if you are too needy or attention-seeking, but I doubt you would question your need to be valued by a loved one. Getting down to the deeper need is how NVC encourages self-empathy. It helps you to understand the roots of what you are feeling and have the awareness that these basic needs are things that ALL humans require for well-being.
This practice really does have the power to help us become more connected to ourselves, which is a prerequisite for becoming more connected to others. NVC can be effective whether or not both partners practice it, but what is really amazing is the transformation that can take place when two people practice together. If we were all taught to communicate this way, what a beautiful world this would be.