As part of my Processwork training, I recently took an exam relating to Worldwork, the application of Processwork to working with communities, conflict resolution and organisational change. In part, the exam involved demonstrating comparative knowledge of other conflict resolution paradigms. When I was asked what I had studied, I spoke about Nonviolent Communication (NVC), my experience of which consisted of attending one NVC practice group meeting several years ago. In my exam I admitted that I did not know much about NVC and that I felt critical of it, which is why I hadn’t invested more time into its study. My impression of NVC was that it feels restrictive and imposes a specific style of communication, which could lead to stifling more unpredictable or spontaneous forms of expression.
My examiner encouraged me to use my critique as a guide for future learning, suggesting I study what I am critical of. “What am I really against and not interested in? What if I enter it and try to understand it from its own perspective? How might it be needed?” Such an approach aligns with a Taoist principle that informs Processwork: follow and learn from what comes up in the moment. By doing so, one practices deep democracy, the philosophical underpinning of Processwork proposing that all voices are needed and in need of unfolding in order to reach deeper and more authentic forms of democracy. When we are feeling polarised, deep democracy supports us to become more related through developing greater awareness of all sides, bringing them into relationship and recognising how what we consider as other is also within us. This text is a product of my becoming more related with the perspective and practice of NVC.
Philosophy of NVC
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by American clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 70s, informed by the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, who asserts that humans are inherently good and striving towards self-actualisation. NVC can be defined as a communication tool, set of values, educational method, spiritual practice and philosophy designed to improve compassionate connections to others and support change on multiple interrelated levels: within the self, with others, with the collective and within social systems.
NVC philosophy emphasises an innate human capacity for compassion, which it suggests is often obscured by learned violent behaviours that have been taught and perpetuated by a dominance-driven culture. NVC distinguishes between two modes of language:
– Jackal language, deriving from a paradigm of domination, alienates us from one another and from life and is characterised by blame, moralistic judgements and dualistic ‘either/or’ thinking. This is symbolised by the jackal who is said to be a vicious, competitive scavenger moving close to the ground.
– Giraffe language, deriving from a paradigm of partnership, serves what is alive in each of us, inspiring compassion, connection, community and speaking from the heart. This is symbolised by the giraffe, which has the largest heart of any land animal and the longest neck, affording it a wide overview of the world around it.
Based on the idea that mainstream culture has conditioned us to react to one another unskillfully and forget our compassionate nature, NVC stresses that we have the ability to develop new responses and reframe how we express ourselves and hear others. Rather than passing intra- or interpersonal value judgements, the approach encourages an understanding of all humans as multifaceted living beings with varying combinations of feelings and needs, including a universal need for respect and appreciation. When we have a reaction to a situation, NVC suggests we are not being made to feel something by a thing or a person. Rather, our response is based on whether or not our needs are being met. To be able to recognise these feelings and needs in ourselves and others, and express these needs in a non-judgmental and non-accusational way supports greater empathy, understanding and relationship on all sides.
NVC contends that in a culture where Jackal language prevails, concepts of good/bad, competent/incompetent, etc. categorise people into fixed states and values dictated by an authority, which promotes submission. Rosenberg refers to this as a manifestation of staticlanguage, which induces a lifeless conception of ourselves and others. In contrast, through asking “what is alive right now?” NVC defines itself as a processlanguage. In process language, valuing still occurs but comes from a different intention and is based on transient moments in process guided by the questions “What is alive in me, what is alive in you and how can we work together to make life richer and more beautiful?” Rosenberg calls this a language of life. The key to applying this language is empathy – empathy for one’s rage, for one’s needs, for what is.
In the application of NVC, two aspects of empathic communication are given emphasis: (1) Honest self-expression, which involves expressing one’s feelings and needs in a way that will inspire empathy, and (2) Empathetic listening, which involves listening with deep compassion, both for oneself and for the other person. In order to identify and clearly express one’s feelings and needs – informed by the exploration of what is, without blame, judgement or analysis – NVC proposes four components: Observation, Feeling, Need, and Request.
Observation relates to observing the conditions that have led you to feel the need to say something. It is important to distinguish this from judgement, diagnosis, evaluation, opinion, etc. Stating an observable fact, “it’s 2am and I hear your music playing”, provides a common ground for communication, whereas, “what are you doing making such a racket?! It’s much too late!” can lead to disagreement because people value things differently.
– “When I see/hear/notice…”
Feeling relates to the experience the observation triggers in you. NVC involves avoiding moral judgement and differentiating between what you think and what you feel. Thoughts such as “I feel like…” or “I feel that…” are not the same as identifying how something affects us. An initially angry reaction such as, “you reckless idiot should learn how to drive!” might actually be brought on by fear, “when you changed lanes right in front of me I got really scared and felt in danger.”
– “… I feel…”
Need relates to stating, or empathetically guessing in another person, the need that is the cause of the feeling. Doing so provides clarity about what is alive in you or the other person. Positive unmet needs in NVC are defined as universal and common to all people, and not tied to a specific means for fulfilling them. For example, wanting to do something with another person is not itself a need but might be a strategy for fulfilling a need for companionship. This need could be met in many different ways. NVC claims that all underlying needs are compatible and never in conflict. Conflict arises when there is a clash between strategies for meeting needs.
– “… because I need/value …”
Request relates to asking for an action to meet the identified need in the present moment. This does not mean demanding or attempting to force somebody to do something we want them to do, nor does it mean stating what you don’t want. A request differs from a demand when we are open for the other person to say no or propose an alternative and only fulfil our request if they are truly ready. “I don’t want you to work so much”, has a different quality to “I’d like you to tell me whether you’re willing to spend one evening a week with me.” The second statement keeps the request open and enables both sides to take responsibility for getting their own needs met.
– “Would you be willing to …?”
Challenges of NVC
Simple in its essence, Rosenberg states NVC can be difficult to put into practice because we are so conditioned to interact based on the dynamics of criticism, blame and demand-making. Even when we apply the sequence of steps relating to our honest self-expression, the other person is still likely to hear disapproval. Rosenberg suggests that one way of addressing this is to incorporate the following requests “Would you be able to tell me what you heard me say? How could I share my needs with you, without you hearing blame?” This contributes to both sides becoming more differentiated in how they express themselves and receive what is expressed.
A further challenge to the application of NVC is that the formulation “When you do this, this happens in me. I feel this and need this. This is what I’d like to request from you”, is not enough to address and transform the underlying culture of Jackal language. If the intention behind our formulation of needs and feelings is still to control or get the other person to do what we want, nothing has really changed. The underlying principle of NVC is not to follow a formula or technique but to cultivate a culture of relating based on being honest and keeping everyone’s needs in perspective. It proposes a fundamental shift in attitude from which a new culture can arise.
Becoming precise about our own experience and hearing the experience of others requires courage. Rosenberg claims that most people don’t know what they feel, need and want and many find it difficult to make a request. It means you need to be aware of what you want. According to Rosenberg, asking for something simple can transform the world but many people are scared to ask. It means taking responsibility and co-creating the world in which one wants to live.
Reflections on NVC
In the process of studying and writing about NVC I am becoming aware of my own reluctance to identify and express my needs. I notice how this is partly influenced by a judgement I have towards ‘neediness’ and admitting that I have needs. Something underlying this relates to wanting to protect and avoid exposing myself, thus minimising the risk of being hurt. I wonder whether, from a NVC perspective, this instinct to protect myself correlates with living in a culture dominated by Jackal language. It makes me realise that expressing and connecting with needs requires trust. How do we foster the conditions to feel safe enough to express our needs? I imagine Rosenberg might say that we can support this in the wider culture by being more real with ourselves.
Through the development of NVC, Rosenberg’s aim has been to radically change what he deems destructive thinking and power structures based on blame and judgement. Rosenberg speaks about the need to unlearn these structures, also in relation to ourselves. When we make a mistake, we immediately beat ourselves up about it with thoughts such as “you idiot!” Rosenberg suggests that a more realistic understanding of mistakes would be to see them as part of a process of practicing and learning. I notice in myself how automatically my inner dialogue of blame occurs. It is eye opening for me to realise the extent of this internalised criticism and to consider how a more compassionate attitude towards myself is part of a broader political challenge to an in- and external culture of oppression.
The skepticism I expressed towards NVC in the introduction of this text related to my sense of the approach as formulaic and emotionally stifling. Since learning more about NVC and its philosophical intention, I recognise that prevalent everyday forms of interaction too follow an unconscious formula of blame and judgement, which goes unnoticed because it is so habitual. However, without having experienced the approach more deeply, it is still difficult for me to imagine how NVC is applied in relation to spontaneous emotional reactions without suppressing experiences that have validity and are in need of expression.
Upon researching NVC’s approach to anger, I have come to consider that if a NVC practitioner prescribes a neutral or unemotional communication style, this is a misunderstanding of the approach. NVC is not about losing emotional intensity but transforming it through accessing and using it in an intentional way. According to Rosenberg, anger arises from the story we tell ourselves about the trigger of our experience, the belief we hold about the event that happened. Identifying this belief points us towards distinguishing what we need to have happened instead, providing us with more clarity to clearly and directly express this. Through this process of differentiation NVC proposes that we are able to express our anger more fully, precisely, and consciously.
NVC suggests that needs aren’t being met because we are not making clear and concrete requests. Returning to the context of conflict resolution and community work, I wonder how this relates to broader social issues and imbalances of power where the experiences of discriminated and oppressed groups, for example, are not being heard or acknowledged by the mainstream. Surely it is too simplistic to attribute this to an imprecision of needs and requests? Perhaps a NVC practitioner would suggest that more conversations are needed where the experiences on both sides are given the space to be empathically expressed and heard.
I still wonder whether it is possible to reduce the complex facets of experience to the four components Rosenberg suggests, or whether other information or contextual dynamics are lost in this process. NVC focuses specifically on verbal language but it is commonly agreed that communication takes place on many other, often unintended non-verbal levels, which is something Processwork explores, for example. Does change take place on a deeper level when I restructure how I formulate my experience after feeling deeply affected by what another party has done? Perhaps I am reverting back to my former understanding of NVC when I focus on the linguistic aspect of the approach, rather than the underlying attitude of empathy it promotes.
In the NVC communication process, I recognise the value of slowing down and becoming more conscious about our triggers and the feelings and needs behind our own and other’s reactions. It makes sense to me that an increased capacity for empathy towards myself and others, and a deeper understanding of my needs and ability to express these cultivates more direct and honest forms of relating. Through relating to NVC in more depth, I have observed how untrained and unsupported we are in mainstream culture to identify and express what is alive in us. Not only can connecting with this support us emotionally, it also has a political dimension in challenging the power structures that disconnect us from ourselves and one another.
For further reading on recent developments in the NVC community regarding engagement with issues of power and privilege I found this article by Dian Killian to be useful: https://workcollaboratively.com/2017/08/17/nvc-conversations-about-privilege-and-power-over/