“Criticism, analysis, and insults are tragic expressions of unmet needs.” – Marshall Rosenberg
It’s not uncommon for an ayahuasca ceremony participant to see that a damaged relationship needs to be healed. Sometimes ayahuasca gives us the very words that need to be spoken. I remember a message to give my father I received in a dream a few nights after ceremony. Waking up, I immediately wrote and sent the email, which proved to be just the right thing to say. But ayahuasca seldom provides direct dictation. Often we are left knowing that we need to do something to reconnect, but not understanding exactly how or what to say. Familiarity with a skill like Nonviolent Communication can give us practical guidance in fulfilling our mission.
Nonviolent Communication is a set of simple skills meant to bring conscious empathy to human speech. More than a set of talking guidelines, it opens up into a spiritual practice, an entire worldview. NVC is based on empathy and honesty—sensing the needs and feelings of others, and communicating what is alive in the present moment. It’s a way to grow past the defensive, superficial exchanges that throttle genuine connection, and enter the territory of honest vulnerability.
Marshall Rosenberg developed NVC based on the principle that we all behave in ways that attempt to meet our needs. While these needs are never in conflict, our unconscious strategies for meeting them can clash. By learning to express our needs clearly and cleanly, we can move past judgment to create situations where everyone’s needs can be seen and met.
NVC involves both listening (‘receiving,’ in NVC terms) and speaking. On the receiving side, we empathize with what the other is saying, sensing or guessing their needs, and frequently checking in with them to refine our understanding:
Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked more appreciation?
Are you wanting me to tell you my reasons for doing what I did?
On the speaking side, we learn to take responsibility for our own feelings and needs and state them clearly, while taking into account those of others. For example, mother to teenage son:
When I see dirty dishes on the coffee table, I feel irritated, because I need a clear space to relax in. Next time your friends come over, would you be willing to clean up before I come home? Rather than: You’re such a slob; this place is a mess! If you don’t clean up your act, I’m going to kick you out!
It’s not always easy to discern what you’re feeling or needing, especially in the heat of the moment. A very useful NVC tool is this list of common Feelings and Needs you can download here. A quick scan can help you start to put words to what’s going on inside of yourself in a blame-free way. You might make it a simple practice to look at these every evening for a few weeks, to figure out the basic feelings and underlying needs you experienced during the day.
NVC has many uses and subtleties, but a common method is this simple four-step formula:
1. Observation: When I (see, hear, notice) ________
Start by describing what’s actually happening, as reported by your senses, in a way that’s free of judgment or evaluation. This can be trickier than you first imagine:
You’ve been late three of the last four times we’ve met, rather than You’re always late.
When I asked if we could order takeout, you didn’t respond, rather than You always ignore me, you selfish bastard!
I can hear you all the way upstairs, rather than Your video game is so f*** loud!
2. Feeling: I feel _______
Tune into your emotion or body sensations—not your thoughts.
I feel frustrated and disappointed.
I’m feeling a knot in the pit of my stomach.
I feel irritated and exhausted.
Note that any sentence starting with I feel that _______ (I feel that my boss is unfair, that you don’t love me, etc.) is not a genuine feeling—it’s a projection onto another person. Similarly, I feel betrayed (misunderstood, rejected) attributes actions to other people. NVC leads you to the feelings beneath the perceived rejection: I feel sad. I feel angry. A good way to avoid these pitfalls is to check the Feelings List to make sure the feeling you’re experiencing appears on it, and if not—feel deeper.
3. Need: Because I need/value _________
From an NVC perspective, our feelings depend on whether or not our needs are met. Others can be a stimulus for our feelings, but not the cause. Identifying the needs underlying our feelings is thus crucial to stepping out of blame and judgment.
(I feel frustrated and disappointed), because I need predictability.
(I’m feeling a knot in the pit of my stomach), because I value our connection.
(I’m feeling irritated and exhausted), because I need sleep.
4. Request: Would you be willing to __________?
Here you are requesting a specific, immediately doable action—not demanding it, so it needs to be okay if the person proposes an alternative or refuses the request altogether.
Would you be willing to commit to arriving on time next time we meet?
Would you be willing to acknowledge my suggestions?
Would you be willing to put on your headphones?
There’s a vast body of NVC techniques, books, groups and facilitators to develop your practice, but these four simple steps have the potential to untangle chronic knots of blame and confusion and get to the bottom of seemingly dead-end arguments. By drilling down to the essential needs involved in any situation, NVC offers a set of remarkable tools to clarify what’s really happening between people.
Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
Lucy Leu, Nonviolent Communication Companion Workbook
Many excellent short posts covering specific issues in NVC: