Marshall Rosenberg, phD, is quite a character. In his workshops where he introduces a new method of communicating, he has been known to bring out hand puppets[1] and sing to demonstrate his points. For the good example he uses a giraffe, since giraffes “have the biggest heart of any land animal.” He uses a jackal to demonstrate the kind of language that alienates people.

In his book: “Nonviolent Communication: A language of life”, he goes into great detail on this new way of communicating with others and with ourselves that diffuses arguments, that allows us to go from judging people and alienating them, back to using language in a way that makes life more wonderful. This is the last book I read in 2019 (i finished it literally ten minutes to midnight) and perhaps the one book from which I learned the most. Non violent communication, which i will call NVC for short, is fundamentally a model where people observe a stimulus in the environment, observe their feelings in response to it, and connect to the underlying need that generates said emotion. Instead of Sally saying “Jim, you’re an asshole”, she says “Jim, when you said my hair looks silly, I feel hurt, because I need to feel attractive.” This allows Jim and Sally to both explore better ways of meeting Sally’s need to be desired. (The book has better examples than this, but don’t trust me: read it to verify.)

In short, the NVC Model equals:
Observations -> Feelings -> Needs -> Requests

And with that briefest of summaries, here are twenty things I learned from Dr. Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication.”

1) Communication is about meeting people’s needs and for enabling a mutual celebration of life.

All communication is about something else. Communication that is just the transfer of information is done because you want the information in question to do an action (think the owner’s manual for a lawnmower), which gets dull for those of us who don’t have lawns. Communication not about the transfer of information serves the purpose of encouraging and reinforcing the bond that people develop with each other. An example of this is when you vent to a loved one after a rough day. In all of the above cases, there is an underlying need to be addressed by communicating. In the former instance, mowing a lawn, and in the latter, healing empathy.

2) All insults are the expression of unmet needs.

You can diffuse a situation (and avoid feeling pain on hearing an insult) by listening for the underlying need being expressed. By understanding that all negative moralistic judgements are just someone’s misguided way of saying “please”, you can connect with the person on a deeper level and you are doing what Dr. Rosenberg calls in his seminars “putting on your giraffe ears.”

3) Passing judgement shackles growth to shame and makes people resistant to suggestions/requests.

Instead of focusing on meeting people’s needs in a way that serves life, people play this game of shaming each other into changing behaviour. What then has to happen is that either the other person gets defensive, or the person changes behaviour at the cost of feeling worse about himself as a person. I do this to myself all the time. I tell myself that if I’m not 100% efficient in the use of my time (whatever that means) then I’m a failure, and I’m betraying the most valuable parts of myself. So i go day-by-day flagellating myself for not growing more as a person, so that I do the things I said I ‘should’ do, and I tell myself that if i just improved, then i would be happy. Have you ever seen someone shame themselves into a happier life? Me neither.

I’ve learned that I will enjoy life far more, and get vastly more out of life and myself, if i stop trying to motivate myself through shame. I will choose to let that mindset go.

4) Anger is the manifestation of other emotions, usually pain and fear.

Anger is the reaction to an unmet need, combined with an internal story about how the person who did the action you don’t like is a terrible person. It’s the moralistic judgements about the other that produce anger, but the feelings associated with the underlying need tend to be pain or fear. Sometimes both. Anger, shame, guilt and often depression are signs that you are playing the game of moralistic judgements, and that you are not in tune with your own needs.

5) Practicing NVC requires us to take responsibility for our own emotions, by separating them from the stimulus (observe without evaluating) and then identifying the underlying need

The proper format for when someone does something you didn’t like is: When you did <action>, I felt <emotion> because of <unmet need>. Would you be willing to <request for positive action to meet need>. In this case it is important when we make a request to remember that the need and the strategy for meeting that need are two different things.

I’m reminded of a time several years ago when I went on a walk with my then-girlfriend. Our initial plan was to go to from our apartment to the North Saint Paul snowman statue and back, while making a few stops so she could play Pokemon Go. When we were about a block away from the statue, her phone died. Suddenly she noticed that her foot hurts and said “Hey my foot hurts. Let’s go home.” When I encouraged her for us to make it to the snowman, it turned into an argument.
What I wish I’d said was “When you said, ‘Hey my foot hurts. Let’s go home’, i felt pain, because i’m needing love and connection.” Instead, i interpreted her statement as “You don’t value spending time with me as much as you do the video game. You don’t care about me.”
What I imagine she might’ve said (in NVC) was “When you encouraged us to continue to the statue in spite of my pain, i felt hurt, because i need a love and connection that is sensitive to my physical discomfort.” Instead, she interpreted it as “You valuing the completion of this arbitrary task over my physical pain! You don’t care about me.”

6) When making/interpreting a request, it’s important to separate a need from the strategy used to meet that need.

In reference to the above example, she and i were both needing connection and love, but our strategy for getting it (by taking things as personal judgements instead of the expression of needs) we achieved the exact opposite. Bad communication strategies led to unnecessary pain.

7) Gratitude and praise can be alienating when expressed in the form of a judgement.

“You are smart”, ties someone to an identity that they need to protect, and establishes you as someone who can sit in judgement over their character. And the person doesn’t even know what you did that they like!

When phrased in the format “When you did <action>, I felt <good emotion> because of <need it met>,” then expressing appreciation can be a mutual celebration of life. For example, instead of saying “you are helpful”, you could say: “When you carried the other half of my couch up three flights of stairs, I felt so relieved because I desperately needed to move today and I had no idea how I was gonna get it up there on my own. Thank you.”

8) Use of the words “should” and “have to”, bind us to external morality and judgement.

We take full responsibility for our actions by replacing “have to” with “choose to.” It is important to remember that no one has ever consciously done anything that he didn’t choose to do.

9) Using NVC is a powerful tool for getting along with ourselves, by applying self-empathy to listen to the unmet needs in our own internal judgements.

When we tell ourselves “You suck. You didn’t get anything done today.” Behind that judgement is an unmet need. “I’m needing to read an engineering textbook”, and a request “can you prioritize reading tomorrow?” Listening for the unmet needs behind a judgement works for ourselves just as well as it does with others.

10) Don’t be afraid to interrupt when mediating a conflict.

But only do this when the purpose of said interruption is to bring people’s attention away from judgements and back towards their feelings and unmet needs. “Every time, John, you insert your fat face where it doesn’t belong! This is just like–”
“Tim! Are you feeling frustrated because you’re needing privacy?”

11) When mediating, aim to satisfy everybody’s needs, not compromise.

“Compromise” as a standard encourages people to leave unsatisfied.

12) Reflecting back to someone is a way to show you understand their feelings and needs.

“So when when I do <action> you’re feeling <emotion> because of <unmet need>?”

You don’t have to be right. If you get silence or judgement, substituting guesses in the above format is useful because even when you’re wrong you’re still directing the person’s attention to his/her unmet needs.

13) When making a request, convert it into an action that can be seen/heard on a camera. Nothing vague.

“I want you to listen to me!” That does not work, as “listen” is a process that takes place in someone else’s head. “I would like you to repeat back what you heard me say” is valid, as it is specific and actionable.

14) “Attacked”, “betrayed”, “insulted” are judgements, not feelings. “Sad”, “annoyed”, “frustrated”, “scared”, “buoyant”, “elated”, “joyous”, “grateful” are emotions.

Having tried this already in a conversation with my roommate, we’ve discovered that identifying the emotions we are feeling, without mixing in some diagnosis, is easier said than done. Don’t be ashamed if this takes practice.

15) The difference between a request and a demand is whether you’re punished for saying “no.”

Punishment includes guilt trips, insults, negative judgement and in the case of children, outright punishment. When you turn a request into a demand by punishing someone for their refusal, they’ll have a hard time trusting that any of your future requests are genuine. The joy of giving is lost when you’re doing it to avoid a negative judgement.

16) “No” is an expression of unmet needs. It is not necessarily a rejection.

For example, if you say “Hey I’m feeling lonely and need some company. Would you be willing to spend the evening with me?’

Suppose the other person says “I’m feeling anxious because I’m behind on my work and need space so i can get my work done. Would you be willing to find someone else to meet your need for company tonight?”

This gives you the freedom to respond with “I can’t think of anyone who I would enjoy more than you to meet my need for company. Is there a strategy we can come up with that will meet both of our needs?”

This leaves you the opportunity to get your needs met in a way that both you and the other person are happy.  Now suppose the other person had responded to your initial request with the word “no” without providing the explanation.

You interpret it as a rejection and say “well i guess you don’t love me then.” Not only do you miss that opportunity, but both of you suffer. Your partner recognizes your request as a demand and will have a harder time enjoying doing things for you going forward.

17) For ourselves: to make life play, write out everything that you do that does not bring you joy. Write out “I choose to do <action> because i value <need it serves>”.

For instance, “I choose to do dishes because I value a clean and beautiful living environment.” Or “I choose to exercise because I value my health, and because I value how good I feel in my body after I exercise.” From now on, I will never feel bitter or resentful doing dishes or exercising, because I remember how these actions serve my values.

18) When dealing with a sensitive subject, ask for a reflection of what you said, as even when you make an NVC request properly, the other person can in their pain hear a judgement or demand. Slow down and check to make sure they don’t hear it as judgement or as a demand.

In the book, and his talks, the author cites the example of when he works with married couples, he’ll pick the one with the longest running dispute and make the prediction that the problem will be resolved within twenty minutes of both partners being accurately able to describe the other’s needs. Getting to that point, however, has taken hours.

19) Don’t just do something, stand there!

Often people need empathy far more than they need a resolution to the problem. Active empathizing by asking ‘Are you feeling X because you are needing Y?’, when they say “YES” enables people the release of knowing they’re understood. You may then observe their muscles relax. They may also move on to some other complaint until you’ve empathized with multiple pains that they’ve been carrying for a long time.

Sometimes you need to do this just so they can hear your needs without hearing judgements or demands.

20) It is possible to scream non-violently.

A non-violent scream is a pure expression of pain/frustration and the unmet need it contains. What matters is that it is an expression of needs and not an expression of judgement.

In summary, i’m feeling grateful that i read this book because i was needing a better way to communicate with others and myself, and this book has provided a method for doing that. Thank you Dr. Rosenberg.


[1] San Francisco NVC workshop —


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