Nonviolent Communication: My Takeaways on The Ultimate Method To Express Yourself, Be Understood, and Get What You Want Out Of Life
If I was to ask you how many days you communicated last week, odds are you would say you did it every single day… all day long. When many of us think of communication we think of speaking, which is problematic because until I discovered the concept of nonviolent communication, I realized (in retrospect) that I was basically shooting in the dark every time I spoke. Instead of a gun, we’re shooting words, and our target are fundamentally our wants and our needs. But many of us just speak without really thinking twice about what we want to achieve with our words. More often than not we speak reactively, often defending our emotions from a place of ego (and fear), which can result in some rather messy situations.
Words are powerful, and today I’m sharing a method that has completely revolutionized my way of not only communicating, but also understanding my own emotions, wants, and needs. This method was pioneered by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, and is called Nonviolent Communication. Although it was developed for conflict-resolution, you needn’t think it’s only used to resolve fights; in a way we are engaging in conflict resolution all damn day, negotiating and trying to figure out how to achieve our goals, alongside the goals (wants and needs) of everyone else in our family, community, at work, and ultimately of every person on this planet. By reframing interactions in this way, we begin to see that everyone is indeed doing the same: just trying to get their needs met, the only way they know how.
Now I’m no expert in this method, I’m just sharing from my own understanding and experience using it. In reading this article you’ll get my takeaways, I’ll share some personal examples, and I’ll finish off with all the resources you need to dive deeper. Rosenberg’s work is profound, and I truly believe it should be explored by all humans who communicate (so unless you’re living in a cave by yourself- that means you!)
I recently watched a peacock try to impress about 6 female peacocks (peahens), in the area of Knossos (on the island of Crete, in Greece). It was hilarious to watch because to say that the females were uninterested would be the understatement of the century. He tried so hard, shaking his crown of gorgeous blue feathers trying to attract a female… with no success. When I look at most people, I see parallels between not only the peacocking going on to attract a mate, but our ineffective methods of achieving any of our goals when we fail to clearly express what it is that we want. Peacocks might not have any other option, but if you’ve been gifted the experience of a human life- gosh darnit, take advantage and learn to communicate!
Nonviolent Communication: My Takeaways on The Ultimate Method To Express Yourself, Be Understood, and Get What You Want Out Of Life
Why Are You Speaking: Expressing Wants and Needs
The key to NVC is not reacting/ getting triggered, but instead learning to clearly express your wants and needs, and clearly understanding the wants and needs of the person you’re communicating with. At the end of the day, that’s pretty much what conflict (or debate) hinges on: finding a compromise that satisfies our mutual desires. Very often we engage in any degrees of debate with a very defensive tone, and are quick to just react (snap) when we get triggered by something the other person says. By engaging in conversations from a reactive manner, it’s nearly impossible to achieve anything productive.
Nonviolent communication teaches us to observe a situation for what it is, connect to our emotions, understand what it is we want/ need, and finally make a concrete and sensible request, to which the other party can either accept, or deny. You may think this is a simple progression of conflict-resolution, and indeed it is! But until we take the time to really examine our own behaviours, rarely do we actually communicate in such a way.
FEELING HEARD AND UNDERSTOOD
We all want to feel heard and understood, and to do so we have to commit to hearing and understanding other people too. How can we expect people to do something for us, if we’re not willing to do it for them? The way to do this the NVC way is by using reformulation/ repeating, to make sure we do indeed clearly understand what the other person is saying. You will be shocked at how often you repeat something to another only to realised either A) you totally didn’t get what they we’re trying to say or B) the other person will hear their thoughts repeated to them and realise how absurd it sounded. Either way, NVC will never accuse with certainty (ie. “you think, say, or feel”), but rather use repetition of what the other has said to confirm that you understand them clearly (ie. “what I think you’re saying/ feeling is…”).
For example, if the other person says: “You never want to spend time with me, I just don’t think it’s working between us…”
You would not say, “You want to break up with me!?”
You would say: “If I understand you clearly, you’re saying that you think I don’t want to spend time with you, and so you want to break up with me?”
It’s a subtle difference, but it prevents triggering the other person to react from a place of passion, anger, or any other emotion. Learning to repeat/ confirm what the other is saying effectively removes the guesswork; it takes a little more time, but it will transform your life. From there you can take your own turn to explain how you feel, and what your wants and needs are in relation to what that person has expressed.
Assuming: The Root of Expectations and Disappointment
If we reach a place of knowing what it is we want or need, so often we rely on the other person to figure it out. Many people require this telepathy as some sort of proof that they are loved by their partner, parent, or friend. We conjure up this thing that we need, and then we wait until the other gives it to us, as a proof that they love or understand us. We will give them hints (like complaining of a sore back), and will feel a growing lack of rejection when our partner fails to offer us a massage. We will have a terrible day, and feel resentment at our friend when they don’t ask us about how we are feeling or notice that we are upset. It’s absurd!
The more we rely on others to guess how we feel, the more disempowered we become.
If you want to be understood: learn to communicate!
Following the previous example, person A could have been thinking that all she wants is to spend more time with her partner, but she has a deep rooted fear that because he is always busy, that he doesn’t love her. Instead of being clear, she decides to hint that she wants to spend more time with him by suggesting its him that wants to break up, and all he hears is her wanting to break up. The lack of clear communication fuels unnecessary emotions, confusion, and ultimately might actually result in an actual break up… when all she wanted was to feel loved. This is not to say that a break up might not happen either way, but unless you learn to communicate clearly- you won’t ever actually know what the best possible outcome can be.
Understanding Your Emotions First
Non-violent communication hinges on your ability to effectively convey your wants and needs to others, which requires you to know what your wants and needs actually are. You may think this is silly, but real talk: I don’t think the majority of people actually know what they want to achieve in entering the majority of conflict-based conversations.
It’s not about being robotic and calculated with every single thing you say, but it is about knowing fundamentally what it is that will satisfy your desires. When I overhear arguments these days (be it the couple arguing in a café or the political debate happening around a dinner table) it seems most people just argue for the sake of arguing, with no end in sight.
Before engaging in a confrontational conversation or situation, or any type of exchange in which you are trying to express yourself: understand what it is you are trying to achieve. It seems that almost all of our desires boil down to emotional needs, like being loved, and feeling safe, or happy. You don’t necessarily need to take it that far, but do see your needs in the bigger scope of your existence, and understand how it is important to clearly convey that to the other person.
An example we can probably all relate to is being unhappy in a job. Whenever we’re given the chance to speak up about how we feel, it is in my experience that 99.99% of people fail to do so, because they’re afraid (first and foremost), but this fear is generally rooted in not actually knowing what it is that they want. Take the time to examine how you feel about a situation, and why you feel that way. Write down the problem areas, and what your wants and needs are. What will make the situation palatable for you, or even (dare I say it) pleasant? What suggestions do you have that could be a realistic solution to your problems? Once you have a framework about how you feel, what your wants/ needs are, and suggestions on to resolve it, you will be empowered to speak up and communicate!
make a request
Once you have figured out what it is that you want and/ or need, now comes the time to make your request(s)! The non-violent communication principles are there to be the bridge between you and the other person, for them to clearly understand how you are feeling, and what it is you need; all of this hinges on you making clear and concise request(s). If you’re trying to resolve a conflict or come to some sort of agreement- it’s important you bring a solution to the table. If you don’t know what the solution is, that’s ok, but be honest with the other person that you know how you feel, but you’re not yet sure how to solve the problem. Too often we expect the other person to feed us a solution to our own inner turmoil- which is not only disempowering, it’s also incredibly difficult. If you yourself haven’t found a plausible solution, why would you expect another person to?
If the other fails to understand you, rephrase yourself and don’t be afraid to correct them if they project something onto you that you do not believe (this is especially important if the other isn’t familiar with NVC). Make sure you engage in reformulation/ repeating what the person is saying, to make sure you understand what it is they are saying/ thinking/ feeling. NVC leaves no room for assumptions!
Once you find the strength to express yourself, and make requests- know that your next mission is to remain non-reactive/ non-attached to an outcome.
”Getting What You Want”
Although it’s a catchy title, I must say this bluntly: learning to express yourself clearly will not guarantee you are always granted your every request. It is, however, your best bet at achieving them. Our wants and needs are always competing with the wants and needs of every single other person involved, which can often mean that we don’t actually get what we want. This, my friends, is life.
Some people fear that if they express themselves clearly, that they will be rejected… and yes, that is always a possibility. The thing is, learning to cope with rejection is like a superpower that everyone ought to cultivate. Equanimity is the art of observing what is, and being ok with whatever comes our way. Nonviolent communication is the ultimate partner in crime to equanimity, because you learn to express yourself clearly, and then detach yourself from expectations of any particular result. This is all you can ask for: for people to know how you feel, what you want and need, and then allow what will be, to be.
Speaking the Truth/ having difficult conversations
Related to the previous concept of getting what you want, is the importance of speaking your Truth. Nonviolent communication is intrinsically connected to speaking the truth, which is another thing certain people fear deeply. In relationships, we worry that if we speak our authentic thoughts, that we will be rejected- and I’m going to let you in on a little secret: when you speak the truth, the best possible outcome will always transpire. The best possible outcome might not be your dream outcome, but given all the variables at hand, it will always be the best long term outcome.
Let me give you an example:
You’re in a job you hate, and you’re having a quarterly meeting with your boss to see how everything is going. She’s very happy with your performance, and asks you how you’re settling into your first 3 months in the job. Your options: lie and say everything’s going great or speak the truth and express your discontent with the current situation for reasons x, y, or z. Now most people autopilot and lie, because it avoids confrontation and because they fear losing their job if they say anything… they would rather live in pain long term than possibly undergo a painful conversation and risk losing a position that they dislike. Now I don’t suggest you start bashing the company or your co-workers, but if you clearly express the issues you’re having, and offer sensible solutions, your employer will either accommodate (best outcome) or you will quit/ get fired (second best outcome). But if you remain in a job you hate, that (although avoiding any confrontation) is the worst possible outcome.
This has happened to me recently, let me elaborate:
I was contacted about a month ago by a lovely Italian woman asking if I wanted to come live with their family in Crete (a Greek island), in exchange for a few hours of daily help with the house/ kids. Now I am a new freelance writer, so I am still finding the balance of income/ expenditure, especially since moving to Europe (life is pricey here!). It sounded like the perfect opportunity, because I absolutely love Greece, I love kids, and she understood I needed flexibility and time to write and explore.
After one week with the family, I knew this exchange was not going to work for me. I’m 28 years old, and I love my independence; it was very difficult to be living in a family home, with kids crying at 6am, and at 9pm before bed. It was hard living on other people’s schedules (even though the family is so incredibly kind and accommodating), and ultimately I don’t need a cheap (/ free) living situation… I’m earning a great pay as a writer and although it’s scary to be a new freelancer, it was time for me to just own it.
The mom asked me at the end of week 1 how I was feeling and my brain auto-piloted to “everything is great!” even though I recoiled in my own psyche about 0.5 seconds later and asked myself why the hell did you just lie?! Fear, I guess. Fear of confrontation; I wasn’t prepared for that conversation, I didn’t want to upset her or cause trouble. I gathered my thoughts over the next 24 hours and really tried to understand why I wasn’t happy there. Long story short: I mustered up the strength to have an open conversation with the two parents, we spoke for a very long time about all our wants and needs (they are both familiar with nonviolent communication), and in the end we agreed it was ultimately in my best interest (and thus everyone’s) if I left early. There was no animosity, no anger, no frustration; just three adults speaking openly about their needs, their emotions, and how we can indeed work together to find the best possible outcome.
NVC with Children
This is a topic so big, that it could (and indeed is) the topic of entire books. Using NVC with kids is a profound way to raise children. A huge aspect of using the method with children hinges on the fundamental belief that children’s emotions are just as real and as valid as those of adults. Using the method with kids requires a high degree of patience, because instead of just ignoring a crying child or sending them to their room, you have to get down on their level and speak about their wants and needs, and explain how they don’t align with your own wants and needs.
Part of this is also not resorting to “because I said so” or “because I’m the adult” mentality, as a reason why a child must or mustn’t do something. If Billy throws a tantrum because he wants candy at the store, many parents just say no, and end of story. When Billy cries and yells and asks why, the parent says some (slightly kinder) variation of “STFU”. A nonviolent communication approach requires first asking Billy how he feels, and what it is that his needs are in the moment. If he expressed frustration and that his needs are indeed to have something sugary, you would then explain that candy isn’t a healthy food, and that because you love Billy you don’t want to feed him processed sugar regularly. That you understand he likes the taste, but that we can’t always follow mouth pleasure, otherwise we make ourselves sick. You might be able to find a compromise with Billy, and get some other type of fruit or food he likes, or tell him that you hear his desire for candy, and will think about how you can possibly make it work (or not). If it’s a cost issue, explain that to him. Whatever the reason is (and yes, this can get tedious with kids that are young and trying to figure out the world), but whatever the reasons are you’re saying yes or no- NVC turns off the dictatorship, and turns the relationship into a loving exchange with open-communication, and compromise.
Using NVC with children is also eye-opening for parents and caretakers. It forces you to examine why you say what you’re saying. It also forces you not to put yourself on a pedestal/ take on the role of God (which, newsflash: you aren’t). The more we take on this God figure position with our children, the quicker they will run from us as soon as they get the chance. Treat them like equals, and they will not only learn to respect you, but also to respect themselves (and develop self-worth).
Raising children with these concepts not only makes for an easier life and healthier relationships, but it enables children to connect with themselves at a time when emotions can be very confusing and overwhelming. Even as an adult, I can get overwhelmed by emotions sometimes, but children don’t even have the framework to understand mind vs. body, or have any developed sense of consciousness, so using NVC in care-free times will help them better express themselves when times are chaotic (a tantrum). The video below explains well how to teach the method when children are calm, so that it can also be used in more turbulent times.
NVC for couples
Again, huge topic. But the key here is to engage in conversations without assuming anything about how the other is feeling or what their wants/ needs are- and instead using words to ensure you get it right. We often accuse other people of things, which are rooted in our own insecurities and perception. Successful NVC with your partner means that when you’re arguing (or eventually- negotiating), you only speak about your own personal side of the story. After the other expresses themselves (and you actually give them the time to do so), it is useful to say “so if I understand correctly, what you’re saying is… *insert thought*” It might seem tedious, but you will quickly realise how useful it is. Very often people will say the “so if I understand correctly, what you’re saying is…” and actually have it totally wrong. Even when we think we’ve expressed ourselves clearly, the others perception of what we said can be totally off.
Esther Perel speaks about passion in a couple, and how quickly the fire can fizzle once we think we “know” the other person. This sense of completely knowing another person is detrimental not only to passion, but also our ability to communicate. People are always growing and changing, you shouldn’t ever assume you know what your partner is thinking. If you want to keep the spark alive, you should always act as if this person in front of you is an ever transforming being, capable of thinking or doing anything.
If you’re interested in Perel’s work, listen to her (fabulous) interview on the Goop podcast (attached).
Another pillar of NVC is listening. When we get in an argument or a debate, rarely do we properly listen to the other person. We’re so caught up in what we want to say that we spend all our time rehearsing it in our head instead of fully listening to what the other is saying. Turn the volume down on your ego, and take the time to digest the others point of view before deciding how or with what you want to respond.
If you decide to explore the concepts of nonviolent communication, I highly suggest you invite your partner to join you. It can get incredibly frustrating if your significant other can’t comprehend the efforts you’re making to communicate in this way, and it can almost come across as patronising if they don’t understand that you’re doing it from a place of love. If both of you are on board, however, you’re in for a magical ride.
NVC As A Highway Towards Awakening
No matter who you decide to use it with, this method is essentially rooted in taking responsibility for your wants and needs, and being able to frame them within the context of your emotions, and of compassion and empathy. This method is rooted in speaking your Truth, and perhaps even more important: understanding your Truth. For these reasons, I truly think NVC is actually one if the greatest tools to enhance your self-awareness, and elevate your consciousness. The more you practice, the more you begin to feel connected with your higher Self, the less you resort to auto-pilot behaviours that often degenerate into pain triggered by ego-fuelled mind games.
Communication is not easy, but the more you get in touch with what it is you really want to say, the more effort you make on actually hearing what other people have to say, and the calmer you can remain- the more doors will begin to open for you, and the more peace you will find in all aspects of your life.
I hope this gave you a sneak peak into the wonders of nonviolent communication, and needless to say reading about the method in depths is worth it, tenfold. Marshall Rosenberg’s book is a bible, and there are even instructors available if you want to seriously dive down the rabbit hole.
You can also visit the Center For Nonviolent Communication website for more information about NVC, their international intensive training programs, how to become a NVC certified trainer, and more.
Although Marshall has passed, there are also many videos of him and his marvellous wisdom floating around the web. A quick google will yield much wonder…