Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenburg


Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a way of communicating that manifests compassion and “leads us to give from the heart”. The four components of NVC are: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. This is a process where each one feeds into the next.

There are other ways of communicating that block compassion that Rosenburg refers to as “life-alienating” communication. One kind is using moral judgments that imply others are wrong or bad when they don’t act in harmony with our values.

[!definition] Values are the principles that you work toward that make up the core of your identity. Morals are what you believe to be right or wrong, especially when it comes to others.

Another form of communication that blocks compassion is the use of comparisons. Comparing robs others and, especially, yourself of joy.1 Another form is denial of responsibility. This usually comes in the form of “You make me feel …”, as if we are not responsible for our thoughts and feelings. We deny responsibility when we attribute the causes of our actions to factors outside of ourselves. Yet another form is communicating our desires as demands. A demand implies that there is some kind of negative consequence of the listener does not comply.

It is important to separate observations and interpretations.2 This is the first component of the NVC process. Observations are specific things that you see or hear without judgement/interpretation added on top. When we first focus on specific observations rather than adding our interpretation, we avoid the listener hearing criticism and resisting compassion.

After making specific observations, it is important to properly identify and express feelings. “I feel” should be used cautiously and avoid using it to mean “I think”. That is, don’t follow “I feel” with “that”, “like”, “as if”, or a noun or pronoun. Feelings are not thoughts, what we think we are, or how we think others behave toward us. They are specific emotions.3

What others say and do may be the stimulus but they are never the cause of our feelings. We are responsible for our own feelings and we can express that by saying “I feel … because I …” The better we are at expressing our needs rather than spitting judgements, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately. There are three stages that we go through to get from believing we are responsible for others’ feelings to accepting full responsibility for our own but not for others'.

The last step in the NVC process is requesting action based off of the observations, feelings, and needs that were discovered earlier in the communication. It is important to use positive action language that includes what we want the listener to do rather than we we don’t want them to do. Requests also need to be complemented with feelings and needs to avoid the request becoming a demand. Requests should only be completed willingly and not through fear of consequences if they don’t comply. Otherwise, it is a demand. Demands usually contain words like “should”, “supposed to”, or “deserve”.

NVC is heavy on compassion and empathy.4 Listening completely and connecting with others empathically is crucial for this method. Listening empathically means fully focusing on another person and giving them the space they need to express themselves fully. Sometimes people need an ear rather than a hand so check before advising, consoling, story-telling, interrogating, explaining, etc.

Empathy applies to yourself also. It is easy to get into a mode of self-hatred when things don’t go right rather than learning from our mistakes. “Should” is a destructive word that causes us to resist learning. Instead, use NVC to analyze what needs of yours you were trying to meet when you made a mistake. When we switch our mindset and choose to pursue our needs and values, we become much happier in life.

This is not an anger management book but Rosenburg looks at expressing anger through an NVC lens. Going back to the concept of emotional liberation from others, the first step in expressing anger is divorcing the other person from any responsibility for our anger. Then, go back and ask what needs of yours are not being met and make strong requests.

Lastly, NVC can be used to express appreciation for others. A good expression of appreciation contains the actions that contributed to our well-being, the needs of ours that have been met, and the good feelings that we feel from those needs being met. When you truly appreciate those around you, let them know.

My Thoughts

While I am skeptical of these big best-selling books, especially when there is some product or workshop to pay for at the end of it, there are some good tools and nuggets throughout this book. I don’t foresee myself following this method to the T as I picture my shy self in one of the many example dialogues. The method emphasizes that it takes a lot of time and exploration which means extended amounts of time in awkward conversations. This would be fine for my deep relationships but for everyday interactions, I am going to cherry pick tools from the book to use.

  1. I was reminded of this by Peace Corps Morocco Country Director Susan Dwyer when she drew a connection between Charlie Brown getting a rock for Halloween and the Volunteers getting their permanent sites. ↩︎

  2. Rosenburg actually calls it the separation of observation and evaluation. However, this concept is very similar to the DIVE model of cross-cultural competence that I have significant experience with. I believe we tend to interpret rather than properly evaluate so I switched it here. ↩︎

  3. Rosenburg offers lists of feelings to make it easier to find the language that describes your feelings. I prefer using the Feelings Wheel. I know it’s kind of cheesy but it is an excellent tool for finding the language you need. ↩︎

  4. I stumbled on one of my favorite quotes of all time here: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” I first heard this from John Green in his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed. It is easy to immediately try to solve others’ problems or turn the spotlight to yourself to avoid awkwardness but most of the time, people just need an ear to listen to rather than a hand. ↩︎

Last Modified: 2023-05-20