Today, we’re covering one of my favorite tops – non-violent communication. A powerful tool not only with your husbands, partners, or co-parents, but with any relationship. This little formula I’m going to teach you has the power to transform how you’re communicating in every relationship you have. For those of you, like myself, who hadn’t worked with non-violent communication before, it’s like learning a new language. A language that makes communication so much easier and makes people feel seen and heard and valued, rather than judged and attacked.
Non-Violent Communication – this framework was created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. You might be wondering, why the word violent? Today, that word is used loosely – but Rosenberg defined violence as one person’s needs getting met at the expense of another. So violent communication, it’s the paradigm of opposites and pitting us against each other – I’m good, you’re bad. I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m in pain = you caused it. I need you to apologize, meet my needs, and make me feel better. And this doesn’t work.
Think back to the last argument you had with someone where you felt like you were trying to express yourself or a need you have. It probably didn’t go well. We’re so programmed to do that in a way that leads to instant defense and justification from the other person. Because when we feel attacked with judgment, we feel like our identity and who we are is being attacked – it’s personal. So, we respond with justification and defensiveness to tell our side because no one is the villain in our own story. We’re always either the hero or the victim.
When we’re in conflict, what we ultimately want is for the other person to acknowledge our pain and take it away. When we blame, we put the focus on how the other person was wrong, and that doesn’t allow our pain to be seen and felt or dealt with. Instead, we’re just focused on who’s right/wrong, good/bad, reasonable/unreasonable, gets it/who doesn’t, who’s the hero/villian, and we’re not actually getting our needs met.
We’ve been taught to distance ourselves from our feelings to the point where we have no idea what we’re actually feeling. Which doesn’t make us better at communicating, it makes us worse! We say I feel, when really – we mean I think, I believe, my understanding is… we’ve gotten really irresponsible with our feelings. We’ve mistaken feeling words (actual feelings in the body) with criticisms, judgments, evaluations, etc.
The key to non-violent communication is that when we can label what we’re experiencing, we’re allowing that experience to be experienced. We allow it to be here. We’re not saying I am sad. I am angry. I am overwhelmed. Instead we’re saying I’m experiencing sadness. I’m experiencing anger. And this is a powerful part of mindfulness because we’re detaching ourselves from the emotion and understanding that we are not the emotion, but we’re simply experiencing it and it has come and it will go. It’s simply an experience we are being with. And it helps to lighten the load.
So I would venture to say that most of us were probably raised in an environment where we were taught to push our needs aside. So often, we can struggle as adults in identifying our own needs because when did we ever focus on them? Western culture, the time in which we were raised – learning to identify and express our needs wasn’t something we were taught. So if you’re in the minority, and from a young age you’ve been identifying your feelings and your unmet needs, good on you! But for most of us, we weren’t. It’s not an awareness that we were trained to have. Everyone’s needs matter. And the failure to notice and express our feelings and our needs, is the root of resentment. At the source of all conflict are unmet needs.
So, especially as partners and moms, maybe in our growth and maturity we start to feel or recognize this resentment, and we’re like, “I’ve got to be more clear in stating my needs. I need to set better boundaries. I need to take care of myself.” And we can do all the things and be more assertive and set those boundaries and speak up for ourselves, but we can find ourselves living in polar opposites. Either we’re people pleasing and letting everyone walk all over us, or we’ve realized that’s not self-honoring or sustainable. It causes us to be resentful, so we resort to being super closed off and assertive. What we’re looking for is good, but living in either of these extremes isn’t great. That’s where NVC comes in – it’s a beautiful middle ground. It’s a formula for a new language we can practice speaking.
This can change the game for any conflict you’re experiencing. A personal tool for life, this is transformative. This has been great in my relationship with Jeff. It creates a space for both of us to feel heard, feel considered and creates a compassionate space where there’s no loser. Both parties’ feelings are important and need to be heard.
Everything we do is in service of our needs. What do we actually feel? What do we actually need? And like any new practice, it’ll take time at first, but it’ll get easier. I’m going to give you some incredible tools today and a simple formula you can practice. Guys – do it! It’s so worth it.
So NVC is 4 steps and I’ll go through each of them in more detail:
- Make observations instead of evaluations
- State feelings instead of judgment
- Clearly state your needs
- Make clear and specific requests instead of demands
One of the best things about NVC is that while I would encourage you guys to send this blog post to your partners so you can learn and start doing it together, you don’t need two parties to be doing it. So you can use it at work, or with your in-laws, or with your kids, even if they’re not versed in NVC.
If I know how to use it , and we’re in a conflict and you’re coming at me with judgment, evaluations, demands, and I can listen and try to figure out what are your feelings under this? What are the needs under this? I can discern what those are without judgment and I can show up and try to meet those needs for the people in my life. And you are much more likely to try to meet my needs, if I’m trying to meet yours. If I show up trying to genuinely meet your needs, it’s going to change the whole dynamic of the conflict because it’s human nature – you’re going to soften up and let me in, and essentially that conflict is going to dissipate because you’ll feel compassion and feel like you’re really being heard and seen.
Essentially what it does, it brings us from that red-light dysregulated brain, back into the green-light learning brain where we are not in stress response but rather we can be communicating at a high level. Back to being open, curious, compassionate, loving because we’re not being blamed, judged, backed into a corner.
NVC says my needs matter, your needs matter. We both have preferences and they both matter. So let’s share our needs and try to meet them because that feels good, and it’s something humans innately want to do.
- Observing without evaluating
It’s telling what happened without any judgment. It’s like watching a video recording. Or if a neutral observer was watching, what would they see at that moment? Imagine a jury watching a surveillance video in your home – what would they see and hear?
It’s saying, I saw your clothes on the floor in the bathroom. That’s the observation without evaluation. It’s what actually happened. The facts. I saw with my eyes, your clothes on the bathroom floor.
Now if we’re evaluating, which is what we want to avoid, here’s how it would sound – you left your clothes on the floor again for the hundredth time because you are so disrespectful of my time and what I do around here to keep this place clean. That’s not necessarily what happened.
So the first step of the NVC formula is for us to be able to state only the facts of the conflict. No analysis. No judgment. No quantitative – always, never, sometimes, forever, etc.
When you’re doing it right, it leaves the other person able to say, yup that’s what happened. There’s no evaluation left for them to defend. They’re not villainized so they don’t have to justify anything.
This takes so much practice to keep those observations super clean. We’re so used to judgment and criticism and blame. Take your time. Before you open your mouth, take a moment, regulate – breathe – and imagine what would be observed on video? You can write it down and keep revising and removing the evaluation until you get it completely judgment free.
Keeping it evaluation free isn’t just in the words, right? Body language, tone, inflections, pitch, rate of speech are all so important here. How we say things are just as important, if not more, than what we actually say. So we can get the words all right, but if the undertone is screw you, I’m right – it’s not gonna work right. It’s about both of you deserving to be seen and heard and having your needs met.
Ok so after we’ve made the observation without evaluation:
- State your feelings (without reference to the other person)
Most people would assume they know what feelings are, but to truly understand feelings we must first understand what non-feelings are. Because a lot of us probably think our non-feelings are actual feelings. Let me explain. The minute we reference the other person when stating what we think are our feelings, we make someone else responsible for how we feel. Non-feelings are really just veiled statements of blame and victimhood masked as feelings. Non-feelings are actually thoughts about what someone is doing to us, rather than a true sensation we’re feeling in our body.
True feelings on the other hand, lead us to understand what our internal reaction is in the present moment. It’s often a physical sensation in our body.
It’s going to take some practice to distinguish the two so you can state how something is actually making you feel. So here’s an example. If we were using a non-feeling, it would sound like – “When I saw you left your clothes on the floor in the bathroom, I felt mistreated. I felt taken for granted. I felt disrespected. These are not feelings! These are not things we feel in our body. Rather, being mistreated, taken for granted, disrespected – they’re all references to something the other person is doing to you – what we’re really saying is you mistreated me. You took me for granted. You disrespected me. You are responsible for how I feel.
So if we’re rewriting our communication strategies to use NVC, we want to express true feelings. So that might sound like, “When I saw you left your clothes on the floor in the bathroom, I felt angry. Or I felt upset. ” Being angry or upset is an actual feeling in your body.
And the person you’re communicating with can relate to that. They’ve felt upset before. They’ve felt angry before. Otherwise, if we say I felt mistreated or taken for granted, the other person instantly thinks, well that wasn’t my intention and they start defending themselves.
So you can see how this is where it can get more complicated if we’re not well versed in feelings! I’m gonna go out on a limb and make an assumption here, and guess that most of us are in a practice of thinking that our judgments, opinions, understandings are feelings and they’re not! But this is how we’ve been taught to communicate. We want to create a new pattern of communicating in a way that doesn’t put the other person on blast. That doesn’t require them to feel backed into a corner and that they need to defend themselves. And the only way to do that is to make it about us. And our needs. If we’re in conflict, it’s always about an unmet need.
Another quick non-feeling check is asking, does the word you’re using to describe what you think is a feeling end in an “ed”? Most descriptive words that end in “ed” actually refer to a response to something or someone else (attacked, mistreated, abandoned, etc.) They all end in “ed” and they’re all non-feelings.
So if you’re like me, and this is new to you but you want to give it a shot, you’re going to print out the feelings inventory I’ve created for you, and you’re going to keep it somewhere you can see it and have it handy. Take a picture of it and keep it in your phone, and whenever conflict arises, you’re going to take a look at it and do an inventory and figure out what it is that you’re actually feeling. Sensations in your body. What would I name this? We’re so out of practice with this. Our brain tells us what we think we’re feeling – which is probably actually a judgment. But with this list, keep it handy so you can start a practice of noticing actual feelings, sensations in your body.
This is not about changing your feelings. It’s about speaking and acknowledging what you’re experiencing in your body, so you can get to the unmet need. And that’s where we can start showing up for each other.
- State your needs.
This is the heart of NVC. It’s all about getting our unmet needs met. This is it. As human beings, we all have universal needs. We can all identify with universal human needs. Our needs motivate our behavior. We’re all doing the best we know how, in any given moment, to get our needs met. Our needs are the direct cause of our feelings. If I can express a universal unmet need, maybe the person I’m in conflict with can relate to that need. Maybe they’ve felt it before and can consider what they can do to show up and help your needs be met.
As humans, we all have a desire to contribute to the needs of others. We’re wired this way. We’re wired for connection. But if we’re being attacked and accused, we’re not in a position to contribute positively to the other person. What we really need is empathy, compassion, being heard – but that’s what the other person needs too. So we want to create space in communication for both parties’ needs to be met and heard. It doesn’t mean we agree, but we can empathize with universal needs. By communicating from this perspective (rather than criticizing), we’re much more likely to get those needs met and create a space of compassion instead of conflict. We really want to communicate our needs clearly. Any time we do anything, that behavior is in service of a need. So getting to the need is essential. Everything is driven by our needs. Our behavior is always tied to our needs.
Again, sometimes it’s hard to identify what we need. Like what is it that I actually need that’s causing me to act this way? Or say these things? Our behavior is always tied to our needs. Because when we start communicating about what it is we actually need (appreciation, acknowledgment, to be heard, partnership, compassion, respect, security, comfort, rest), instead of what’s wrong with the other person, the chances of finding ways to actually meet each other’s needs really shoots up.
- Make a clear and specific request (and not a demand)
The last step in this framework once you’ve made that observation, shared how it made you feel, and then expressed the need you have, the last step is to make a request. Now friends, a request is not a demand! A request is not an ultimatum. Leave it open for other people to say yes or no. It has to be open – the other person can’t be coerced to say yes. It can’t be manipulative. It can’t create an environment of passive aggression. We make a request for concrete actions, positive actions, something you’re asking the other person to do, that will enrich your lives. How specifically can your needs be met?
How do we do this? We want to ensure we’re asking for positive actions – an actual “do.” So back to our laundry on the bathroom floor scenario – a don’t request would sound like – hey, can you stop putting your clothes on the floor in the bathroom? That’s a don’t – it’s not something your partner can actually do. Rather, a “do” request would sound like, next time you shower, can you please put your dirty clothes in the hamper?
So the whole formula altogether is:
When ____ happened (observation), I felt or felt ______ (feeling), because I needed ________ (need). Would you be able to__________ (request)?
So let’s go back to our example. When I saw that you left your clothes on the bathroom floor, I felt upset because I have a need for order. Is there any way that next time you shower, you could put your clothes in the laundry room or in the hamper in our closet?
Respect is so important at the beginning of any exchange or communication. If we’re disrespecting our partner or we’ve created a culture of disrespect, it’s gonna take some work to build a new culture. It’s gonna take some work for your partner to feel respected. So if you’re not there yet, you’re probably wondering, what if I do this NVC and make my request and the answer is no?
If you have a past with someone that is riddled with resentment, control, dominance, power, manipulation, blame – the other person may test if your request is actually flexible and they can actually say no. So if they do say no, and maybe say it with a little sting, you can actually use NVC to respond to that – I’m feeling frustrated because I really want to find a solution here that works for both of us. Maybe it’s not right now because I’m heated, but maybe later this afternoon once we’ve cooled down, would you be willing to talk to find a solution that works for both of us?
Your needs will be met when you show up in compassion. When you show up in responsibility. In ownership of your feelings and needs. Conflict is inevitable because we’re human. So why not approach it in this beautiful way for the people that matter most in our lives? So check the list below, share this post with someone you love, and get learning this new language of communication, friends. Because ultimately what we want is to feel more loved, seen, heard, loved on and NVC is a powerful tool for that.