Four Steps of Nonviolent Communication
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a model which is based on the principle that our choice of language and style of communication can either facilitate or block compassion. Created by Dr Marshall Rosenberg, it considers how we express our feelings and needs and how we listen to others. Empathy is a key foundation. Rather than focusing on getting what we want, NVC is concerned with making a connection which enables everyone to share their needs and have them met.
Expressing Messages with Honesty
The model has four steps for providing an authentic and easily understood message.
This is what you can see or hear about a situation. Dr Rosenberg emphasises the need to distinguish observations from evaluations. If we were to say, “He always…” or “They never…”, these qualifiers may be perceived as a criticism and elicit defensiveness. It’s important that we describe without assumption or judgement.
“When I hear…”
“When I see…”
“I’ve noticed how…”
“What I remember is how you…”
The second step is to relate the observation to the feeling it evokes. A sample feelings inventory is found here: https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/2018-10/CNVC-feelings-inventory.pdf. Dr Rosenberg notes that many of the words we use actually describe thoughts. For example, “rejected” can be an interpretation of how others evaluate us rather than the feeling of “sadness” or “confusion” which their actions evoke. Similarly, we might say “inadequate” when we really mean “nervous” or “uncomfortable”. When we use phrases such as “I feel like…”, “I feel that…”, “I feel they…” and “I feel as if…”, we are straying into evaluations and at greater risk of blaming ourselves or others.
“…I feel pleased…”
“…I feel hurt…”
“…I feel frustrated…”
“…I feel worn out…”
We can sometimes struggle to express what we need, value or expect in a situation. Examples of needs can be found here: https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/2018-10/CNVC-needs-inventory.pdf. When an unmet need is expressed through a judgement or evaluation of someone else, the listener is more likely to react defensively. Compassion flows when we make direct links between our feelings and needs.
“…because I need more connection”
"...because I value honesty"
“Clear communication is important to me”
“This doesn't meet my need for safety”
The final step is to convey what specific action can be taken to meet our needs. The language should be clear, concrete, and positive; what you want rather than what you don’t want. If we simply say that we want to be treated fairly or included more in a discussion, there is nothing specific for the listener to act upon. Dr Rosenberg cautions that a request will be seen as a demand if there is a perception of blame or punishment for not saying “Yes”. We can reduce perceived demands by asking what the person is willing to do.
“Would you be willing to…?”
“Are you able to…?”
“Can I ask you to…?”
“I’d like you to…”
Examples of NVC for Education
“When I see you offering to help the younger pupils at lunch time, I feel thankful because kindness is something which I value. I’d like you to help Miss Watson set up the games for the younger pupils in the assembly hall tomorrow. Would you be willing to do this?”
“I’ve noticed how you ask for help during literacy activities when I come over to check on you. I feel worried because it’s important to me that everyone in class is seen and heard. I’d like you to choose a signal which lets me know that you need help”
“When I hear you say that you’re bored, I’m surprised. I need to make sure that everyone in class takes pleasure in their learning and I didn’t realise that there wasn’t enough of a challenge for you. Are you able to show me how I can make this task more interesting?”
“I’m disappointed when I don’t get a response to my emails. I need regular communication about my son’s wellbeing in school, as I want to find out what is making him so stressed. Would you be free to meet with me this week, so that I can learn more about what you see in the classroom and receive answers to the questions in my emails?”
Receiving Messages with Empathy
Not only should we be honest in expressing our feelings and needs, but we also need to receive messages from others in a manner which creates a genuine emotional connection.
Flipping the Script
The four stages of NVC outlined above, with a slight change in language, also apply here:
Observations: “When you see/hear…”
Feelings: “…you feel…”
Needs: “…because you need/value…”
Requests: “Would you like…?”; “I am willing to…”; “Do you want me to…?”
“When you say ‘No’ to the teacher’s requests, do you feel upset because Mrs Smith isn’t here today? Knowing what’s happening each day is important to you and a different teacher being in the room is a big change. Can you tell me what you would like the teacher to know about you and what Mrs Smith does to support you at this time of day?”
“During group work, are you feeling annoyed when you say, ‘No-one listens to me’? You need to know that you are accepted and heard. How about I pause the discussion right now and you can spend the next two minutes describing your ideas while everyone else listens?”
“When I’m speaking to someone else and you ask me questions, are you feeling nervous because you need to be kept in mind and you think I might forget about you? Do you want me to come and chat with you after I finish my conversation in five minutes?”
“You feel helpless when you hear your daughter say that school is a scary place. Her sense of safety is so important to you. Would you like to write down what she finds scary and what you think we can do differently to make school a safer place? Then we can arrange a date and time next week to discuss your views in more detail?”
This involves listening intently and focusing explicitly on the feelings and needs being expressed. Being an effective receiver means withholding judgements and evaluations of the person, regardless of our previous interactions or what others have said. Dr Rosenberg cautions that if we start to focus on these thoughts, these can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies and create a pathway to conflict.
This is one of many reasons why Dr Suzanne Zeedyk’s recent Twitter threads are so insightful. She is willing to receive challenging and controversial viewpoints and maintain “fierce curiosity” about longstanding perspectives when others would swiftly move into a more defensive and emotive stance.
Avoiding Spectator Language
This is a term which John Cunningham, a teacher experienced with Waldorf Schools, uses to describe responses which can be perceived as judgemental, critical, and isolating. Consider when you have said or heard something like the examples below and what feelings these words might have evoked.
- Blaming: “I think you were in the wrong”
- Shaming: “I’m so disappointed in you”
- Directing: “If I were you, I would…”
- Competing: “You think that’s bad? Wait until you hear about….”
- Sympathising: “I’m sorry you feel that way”
- Consoling: “There was nothing you could have done”
- Dismissing: “You just need to put it out of your head”
- Correcting: “That’s not how it happened”
What we hear may not be what the person meant. It’s important to clarify the feelings and needs being expressed. We might paraphrase what the person is saying and ask, “Are you saying that you feel nervous about…” or “I wonder if you’re feeling angry about…?” The speaker can then confirm or correct our understanding.
However, reflecting feelings and needs and listening for requests should not be restricted to neurotypical expectations. Some young people may need more time to process language and formulate their response. Some have difficulty describing emotions and identifying physical sensations associated with their state. Others are non-speaking, which of course does not mean that they don’t understand or can’t communicate in other ways. We need to respect individual communication styles and preferences.
Applications of NVC
A four-year study of NVC practices in 6 – 13-year-olds in a Swedish school (Hart and Gothlin, 2002) indicated a climate characterised by more empathetic listening, decreased conflict, and more effective interpersonal communication between staff and students. However, the precise drivers of change were unclear.
Case studies by Pederson and Rasmussen (2008) in Danish primary and secondary schools showed how NVC concepts can be introduced in a variety of ways. These included visual aids (a staircase with routes which resolved or worsened conflicts), roleplay scenarios and the use of giraffe and jackal puppets to discriminate between different types of language.
A larger study by Savic (1996) incorporated over 9000 children and more than 500 educators in preschool, primary and post-primary NVC workshops in Serbia. Empathetic attitudes and responses to “challenging behaviour” was a particularly strong effect. A combination of training and on-going supervision appeared to be a key factor in sustaining change.
Mixed methods research in three primary schools in Italy over the course of a year used pre and post training questionnaires with teachers, parents and children (Costetti, 2001). Reports by children indicated a significant impact of NVC training on some situations within the classroom, such as the respect for rules, relationships with teachers and academic achievement. A progressive reduction in conflicts amongst students was reported by teachers. It was clear that children, teachers, and parents had different perceptions of school climate, conflict, and language.
The use of NVC in developing the adaptive capacity of organisations was explored in research by Bonnell, Li and van Lingen (2017). This incorporated staff from a school, health setting and research institute. Positive to very positive effects were found for dynamics such as working together, team decision making, openness about feelings and resolving conflicts. A les direct effect was found for the development of common meaning, autonomy, and responsibility. This suggests that the benefits of NVC within an organisation can still be restricted or impacted by the overall ethos or top-down hierarchy within the system.
While more large-scale, longitudinal and peer-reviewed research is required, Nonviolent Communication is a useful model which can complement techniques from other approaches; such as Emotion Coaching, PACE, Motivational Interviewing and Restorative Practice. It emphasises connection, dialogue and shared understanding and seeks to reduce misattunements, stressful demands and shame.
References and Further Reading
Bonnell, H., Li, P. & van Lingen, T. (2017). Nonviolent Communication – a Communication Tool to support the Adaptive Capacity of Organisations? Thesis submitted for completion of Master of Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden. http://bth.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1119184/FULLTEXT01.pdf
Costetti, V. (2001). Nonviolent Communication Experimental Project in Primary Schools. Available at https://nvc-global.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Vilma_Costetti_Nonviolent_Communication_Experimental_Project_in_Primary_Schools.pdf
Cunningham, J. (2002). Compassionate Communication and Waldorf Schools. Available at https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/pdf_files/nvc_waldorf_jcunningham.pdf
Hart, S. & Hodson, V.K. (2004). The Compassionate Classroom: Relationship Based Teaching and Learning. Encinitas: PuddleDancer Press.
Pederson, A.K. & Rasmussen, C.S. (2008). Conflict and communication: learning a new language. Race Equality Teaching, 26 (2), 44 – 48.
Rosenberg, M.B. (2003). Life-Enriching Education. Nonviolent Communication helps schools improve performance, reduce conflict, and enhance relationships. Encinitas: PuddleDancer Press.
Rosenberg, M.B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas: PuddleDancer Press.