Nonviolent communication (NVC), sometimes referred to as compassionate communication, is an approach to communicating designed to help people connect more compassionately with themselves and others. Nonviolent communication can transform interactions, as it enables people to become more aware of their feelings, needs, and desires, as well as those of others, in a given situation.
This form of communication can promote greater self-awareness and personal growth, to foster deeper interpersonal relationships, and to effectively settle conflicts and disputes at all levels of society. Those attempting to strengthen nonverbal communication skills may find the support of a mental health professional to be helpful.
Nonviolent communication was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s and is based on several core assumptions. First, Rosenberg proposed that humans are innately compassionate. The NVC model emerged from his ongoing attempt to understand the factors that influence this innate compassionate nature and his realization that language is one of the most crucial.
According to Rosenberg, it is our nature to behave compassionately, but many of us have learned how to speak and act in ways that are harmful to others. We learn to judge, withdraw, defend, and attack, all of which alienates us from others and from our natural state of compassion. NVC was designed to help us overcome these negative tendencies so that we can connect with others on a deeper personal level.
Rosenberg also believed that all humans share certain universal needs. When these needs are satisfied, we experience pleasant emotions such as happiness and contentment; when they are not, we develop negative feelings such as anger and disappointment. Our feelings, therefore, indicate whether our needs are being met.
Rosenberg's model of nonviolent communication was influenced by the principles of humanistic psychology as well as the Gandhian principle of nonviolence. The core components of NVC are outlined by Rosenberg in his well-known book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
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Such habitual responses are functional, in that they help conserve time and cognitive resources and allow us to react quickly in emergency situations. Nevertheless, they prevent us from being truly authentic. The end goal of NVC is to develop a mutually satisfying exchange, one in which the needs of all parties involved are met through compassionate giving.
The principles of NVC serve a dual purpose. They allow people to become more aware of what they are perceiving, feeling, and wanting in a given moment while also helping them become more attuned and empathetic to the needs, emotions, and circumstances of others. As a result, people are able to replace their habitual reactions with more conscious and honest responses and interact with others in a more respectful and empathic manner.
The process of NVC involves four key components:
First, individuals observe what is happening in a given situation without any form of judgment. Next, they express how these observations make them feel and what needs, values, or desires are related to these feelings. Finally, they make clear, specific requests based on what they need to enrich their lives, instead of demanding these from others. For example, a wife whose husband shouted at her at a social function might express these four components by saying, "When you shout at me in public (observation) I feel humiliated (feeling) because I value respect, especially in the presence of others (need). When we have a disagreement in public, would you be willing to wait until we can discuss the matter in private (request)?"
Since communication is a two-way street, the process would not be complete unless both people are willing to accept the same four pieces of information from each other. That is, they must discern what others are observing, feeling, and needing, without evaluating, and they must be open to receiving their requests. The four components of nonviolent communication need not be expressed in the same order each time. The process allows for some creativity so that the verbal exchange does not become mechanical and formulaic.
There is no one set of tools available for teaching nonviolent communication. However, some techniques and exercises are common. For example:
- In the initial stage of training, a list of judgments, needs, and feelings may be given to participants so that they can learn to distinguish between them and respond more accurately.
- Participants may be asked to read, relate, or role-play a conflict situation, after which they practice identifying the unmet needs of all persons involved.
- Language-reframing exercises may be employed to foster more honest expression of feelings and needs. Among other things, participants may be taught to:
- Watch for sweeping judgments, such as "You always..." or "You never..." and replace these with more specific, concrete observations.
- Own their feelings (e.g. "I feel...") instead of blaming others for them (e.g. "You make me feel...").
- Focus less on what we are (e.g. labels and diagnoses such as "nerd" and "abnormal") and more on how we are.
- Avoid language that suppresses choice, such as "must," "should," and "have to."
A therapist skilled in nonviolent communication can help nearly anyone become a better communicator. The principles of nonviolent communication can be applied in the family to improve parent-child relationships and in schools to reduce coercive, punitive methods of instruction. It can also be used in couples therapy to promote more satisfying intimate relationships in which both partners feel respected and have their needs met.
Mental health professionals and medical doctors have also utilized the principles of nonviolent communication to improve relationships between themselves and the people they treat. Instead of focusing on stigmatizing labels and general diagnoses, they learn to treat each person as an individual and to respond with greater compassion.
Given the emphasis on nonviolence, this approach to communication has also been effective with prison inmates and parolees. NVC may be used to help these individuals develop greater empathy and lay the groundwork for more supportive relationships. Nonviolent communication has also been applied in business negotiations and in the settling of disputes at various societal levels.
While the principles of nonviolent communication are simple in theory, it has often been criticized for the significant investment of time and effort required to learn and utilize the four key components. This concern is in light of the fact that it might take several rounds of nonviolent communication for a conflict or dispute to be resolved.
Nonviolent communication also requires that we clearly and honestly express our feelings. However, as humans, we do not always have a clear understanding of our complex emotions. Furthermore, a given observation may trigger multiple conflicting emotions, making it difficult to express what we are feeling and needing in that moment.
Finally, the success of NVC is also dependent on an individual's ability to display empathy. However, this capacity may be reduced in some individuals, such as those experiencing narcissistic tendencies or other mental health issues that affect empathy
- Baran, G. (1998). Speaking giraffe language. Peace Review, 10(4), 533-538.
- Ditkoff, H. (n.d.). Nonviolent communication. Retrieved from http://www.systemsthinker.com/interests/communicationtechniques/nonviolentcommunication.shtml
- Nosek, M. (2012). Nonviolent communication: A dialogical retrieval of the ethic of authenticity. Nursing Ethics, 19(6), 829-837.
- Rosenberg, M. B. (2002). Nonviolent communication: A language of life (2nd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.
- Rosenberg, M. B. (2012). Living nonviolent communication: Practical tools to connect and communicate skillfully in every situation. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.
- Sullivan, D. (2007). Nonviolence begins with speech: An interview with Emily Gaarder on the practice of nonviolent communication. Contemporary Justice Review, 10(1), 131-142.
Last updated: 07-28-2015
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