Creating Closeness with Compassionate Communication: A Nonviolent Approach

Tribute to John Lennon, Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New York City.Personal communication too often fails us.

A conversation can go south in a second when a nasty feeling erupts in our gut. The other person did something that strikes us as wrong, and they’re going to pay. Blame and vengeance hijack the conversation. Or we duck out of the conversation ASAP and let this feeling fester for days – or even years – in effect, sticking ourselves with the price tag of simmering victimhood. Passive- aggressive actions may follow. All these scenarios involve inflicting harm on someone, an everyday type of violence.

A nonviolent approach

Another option is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), an approach developed by psychologist and educator Marshall Rosenberg to create respectful, compassionate interactions. The aim of NVC is to generate a quality connection in which each person’s needs are met through what Rosenberg calls “mutual giving from the heart.”

Rosenberg has shared his teachings worldwide through in-person trainings, DVDs, online resources, and his book, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life. He has also used NVC in mediation sessions with archenemies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other volatile settings. A number of local trainers and coaches are passing along his legacy in the Twin Cities.

According to Rosenberg, NVC is a path to “experience the deep pleasure of contributing to each others’ well-being” while living with ease and joy. When conflicts arise, the foundation for resolving them lies in deep listening to others with empathy, showing respect for what they are experiencing. Also needed is self-empathy, connecting with and respecting our own feelings and needs.

Empathy is in sharp contrast to violence, which arises from the belief that other people are responsible for our pain and deserve to be punished. Instead, Rosenberg proposes that whatever people do is simply an attempt to meet their needs. We may not like the way they try to do so, but their behavior is not the cause of our pain. Rather, Rosenberg, says, our judgments about their behavior are what generate our feelings.

Was she actually insensitive?

Case in point: I felt upset by how a friend responded to a comment I made about our travel plans. My feelings were not her fault. They arose because I interpreted her comments as dismissive and insensitive. The next day, my feelings intensified. I tried to suppress them. I tried to think of ways to get what I wanted from her. My lingering feelings were occupying my thoughts, interfering with my ability to give full attention to writing this article. I had to do something to clear my mind.

Feeling confident because of my past experience with NVC in generating a greater closeness with my friend in conflict situations, I gave her a call. I explained my present-moment feeling regarding the prior day’s conversation: “When I mentioned that I was paying an extra cost for the trip and the response I heard from you was, ‘We already talked about that,’ I felt frustrated because my need for understanding and appreciation wasn’t met. I’m continuing to feel distress over your reaction. Please let me know what you heard me say just now so I can make sure I’ve communicated what I intended.”

At first, my friend restated what I said had happened the day before and started to defend what she had said. I thanked her for responding, because any response during conflict is considered a gift in NVC, and I genuinely appreciated her willingness to engage in a discussion with me. Then, aware from her response that I had not been completely clear in making my request, I asked her again if she would let me know what she heard me say about my present feeling and needs.

From her own experience of NVC, my friend quickly caught on that I was not blaming her for doing something wrong but rather was asking for a compassionate connection with her in that moment. I was sharing with her my feelings and needs and asking if she understood. She quickly slipped into deep listening, and once I let her know that I felt fully heard, she was also able to let me know her feelings and needs regarding this situation. Both of us came away with a greater understanding of each other’s motivations (needs) and of the beliefs or judgments we had that led to our feelings. My heart opened to her, and I sensed hers opening to me as well. We had made a compassionate connection.

Once again, NVC contributed to greater closeness between us. Also, my lingering feelings subsided once my needs for understanding and warm connection were met, leaving me with an uncluttered mind and heart so that I could easily continue with my article writing.

The four elements of NVC

Our conversation illustrates the four principal elements of NVC: observation, feelings, needs, and questions.

Observations are noting the facts in the situation, which are whatever would show up on a video or audio recording. In the conversation with my friend, I reported my observation by quoting her words. Observations aren’t the same as evaluation or judgment. If I had said to my friend, “I was frustrated because you were insensitive of what I said,” the word “insensitive” would have implied that I was judging her statement as bad rather than just reporting what I saw or heard. In fact, “insensitive” is just one possible interpretation of the meaning of what she said. Had I used that evaluative word, my friend might easily have balked at hearing anything else I said.

The second element of NVC is expressing feelings, again without judgment or interpretation. Feelings are spoken of in the present moment. In the example, although I was referencing a situation from the day before, I kept the attention on my current feelings. I was no longer in yesterday’s conversation or feelings, and couldn’t change them. I only had today’s feelings available to deal with. It’s important in NVC to say what we feel now to allow for a genuine heart connection.

Saying feelings can get tricky. Sometimes people express thoughts or judgments in the guise of feeling statements. They are actually talking about what they think has been done to them. Examples: I feel manipulated. I feel violated. I feel pressured. More accurate statements might be: I feel scared. I feel powerless. I feel resentful. The latter statements reflect a person’s palpable feeling experience rather than lay blame on the other person’s presumed intention. Rosenberg has published an extensive list of words that can be used to describe true feelings, available on the website of the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

Since feelings arise out on our needs being met or not, stating our needs is another element of NVC. Surprisingly, few of us are aware of what specific needs we have that are giving rise to our feelings. Rosenberg names over 100 needs we might discover in ourselves. Harmony, clarity, learning, self-expression, safety, humor, inclusion, and order are just a few. When talking with my friend, I expressed a need for understanding and appreciation. By being vulnerable and clear about my needs, I was opening the way for a closer connection with her.

The fourth and final element of an NVC conversation is making a specific, present-moment request. In my example, I asked my friend to tell me what she heard me say. Another useful request might have been, “What do you feel when you hear what I just said?” Either request can help to gain clarity and connection when talking with someone. In NVC, the quality of the interaction in the moment becomes the center of attention. That’s “what’s alive in us right now,” as Rosenberg says. The goal is not to fix a problem, he says, but to explore together in the moment “what would make life more wonderful.”

Rosenberg emphasizes making requests rather than demands. Just as we want to be the one choose our own actions, so do others. A reluctant agreement hardly makes life more wonderful for anyone. Rather, Rosenberg says, “When they see what’s in our heart, we are more likely to get them to give to us in the way we want.”

NVC not only teaches us how to express our own observations, feelings, needs and requests in a respectful, open-hearted way, it offers the same tools for drawing out these four elements from others in conversation. When others experience our genuine interest in making life more wonderful for them – and also for ourselves, the way is paved for mutually supportive interactions.

Practice leads to progress

Reid Grano, who facilitates a twice-monthly NVC practice group on Wednesday evenings in St. Paul, has been a student and avid fan of this approach for decades. He says having open-hearted conversations requires practice. “It takes a lot of intentionality to measure our words – to really be authentic with what’s alive in us,” says Grano.

Compassion is also central to NVC. Grano defines compassion as “the will and the energy to put yourself with someone else in a space where healing can happen.” He adds, “Compassion is not a feeling of warm fuzzies or even deep connection. It’s this will to meet the needs of spiritual growth and healing in our life.”

In his practice group, Grano gives participants opportunities for role playing and receiving specific suggestions in “Needs Poker,” among other ways to gain experience with the four NVC elements. For anyone just starting out, Grano says, it can help to practice aloud statements such as, “When you told me you were going to be at work and I later found you at the golf course, I felt frustrated and my need for trust and predictability wasn’t met. How do you feel when you hear me say this?”

Grano has also applied NVC in political lobbying on behalf of peace causes. He cited a meeting with Congresswoman Betty McCollum in which she reversed her position on Afghanistan policies. “We didn’t make any criticisms or demands,” says Grano. “After presenting some observations [facts], we expressed our feelings and needs and then we asked her to clarify her feelings and needs regarding the issue.” As Grano’s group listened attentively and compassionately, and learned more about her motivations, it became easier for them to explore with her a course of action they desired that would also address her concerns. Grano says he also uses NVC to have respectful, compassionate conversations with family members and friends who have major political differences.


Pat Samples is a freelance writer and personal writing coach. She is the author of Self-Care for Caregivers: A Twelve Step Approach and other books. Visit her website: PatSamples.com

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