Nonviolent (Courageous) Communication (NVC)

Imagine the scene: Jane, who is a bit OCD, comes home to find some shoes in the middle of the hall.  She flashes with anger.  ‘How dare he treat my home with such disrespect?’ she says to herself and she storms into the lounge to give him a piece of her mind.

Imagine the scene: Peter’s boss is angry because he thinks Peter has lost a key account.  He has come right up to Peter and is giving him a piece of his mind.  Peter doesn’t seem to be responding and this is winding his boss up even more.

Imagine the scene: David’s long term live-in girlfriend is packing the van with all her stuff.  He is standing, dumbstruck, on the side of the road watching.  Will he ever see her again?

Nonviolent communication

Eckhart Tolle says that if you are not comfortable in a situation then you have 3 options:

  • Completely accept the situation as it is (i.e. suck it up)
  • Change the situation
  • Move away from the situation (preferably having accepted it first)

The question is, when you would prefer to stay and other people are involved in creating that situation, how can you change it without resorting to some kind of coercive tactic using reward or punishment?  For years I’ve been teaching clients a way of doing this.  Recently I’ve come across a very similar structure, developed by Marshall Rosenberg which he calls Non Violent Communication. In this case violence is not limited to the physical but could include the induction of sadness, fear, guilt, or the promise of some reward if the other person does what you want.

In this article I’ll introduce my personal take on this way of communicating and provide a link to a brilliant YouTube video of Marshall introducing NVC.

If not violent then what?

Anyone who has worked with me will know that I often ask clients to discover the positive in the negative.  For example, if a client says they are un-comfortable then I’ll ask them ‘And when you are NOT comfortable, how are you?’  Their answer could be anything that is not comfortable: angry, stressed, afraid, or even happy.  Though these feelings may not be comfortable they are positive in that they are stating what IS rather than what is NOT.

In the same way, I’d ask Marshall Rosenburg, when communication is NOT violent, how is it?’  My guess is that he would answer could include the words loving, direct, compassionate, assertive, and honest.  If I had to choose a word to describe it I would say it is courageous.

What is courageous communication?

Courageous communication is not about compromise.  Compromise is where nobody gets what they want.  Courageous communication seeks something higher, a different way of relating in which everyone gets their needs met.

Courageous communication comes from the heart.  It tells it how it is without seeking to make the other person feel afraid of you or sorry for you.  By being open and honest about your feelings and the values that drive them and genuinely curious about the other person’s experience it bypasses adversarial patterns and encourages a natural co-operation.

The courageous communication process I teach has 5 parts:

  • Identifying the external behaviour / triggers
  • Describing your internal experience / reactions
  • Explaining your needs
  • Suggesting an alternative
  • Opening up the discussion

Identifying the external behaviours / triggers

Assuming that you have the other person’s attention then the first stage is to let them know exactly what is getting to you.  When you are doing this is is important that the other person does not feel threatened or blamed or they will close up and go into a defensive mode.  The way you do this is by using very specific sensory language in order to describe something in the way that any impartial observer would understand.  It is best to avoid metaphors or blaming labels.

For example:

  • ‘When you treat this place with disrespect’ becomes ‘When I see shoes in the middle of the hall’
  • ‘When you threaten me’ becomes ‘When I see you close to me and hear your loud voice’
  • ‘You betrayed me’ becomes ‘When you tell me you are leaving for a month and then I see that you have packed all your things’

Describing your internal experience / reactions

None of the internal stuff would be a problem if you didn’t have some kind of reaction to it.  These are either going to be thoughts or feelings.  Behind a thought is likely to be a feeling.  The next stage of the process is to explain what you are feeling.  This requires you to actually know what you are feeling.  A feeling has a location in the body.  It is your feeling so be sure not to describe it in terms of what has been done to you.  A useful checklist is: Glad, Mad, Sad, Bad, Scared.

For example:

  • ‘I feel disrespected’ becomes ‘I feel angry’
  • ‘I feel threatened’ becomes ‘I feel frightened’
  • ‘I feel betrayed’ becomes ‘I feel like the life is draining out of me’

Explaining your needs

The reason you are having the emotion is that one or more of your needs are not being met.  A need is the thing that you need to be fulfilled in order to achieve a certain outcome in a certain context.  A popular generalised model is called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In order to stay alive for an hour I need breathing.  In order to stay alive for a month I also need water, sleep, and excretion.  In order to live a happy and fulfilling life then there are many needs that need to be met.

When we have pre-existing emotional wounds we can need certain things in order to avoid these being triggered.  If, for example, you have a broken toe then even a slight tap could hurt like mad.  In this case you may need extra space around your foot in order to feel safe.  It is not unreasonable to ask for special treatment while you are healing from something.  It is unreasonable to EXPECT it.  Not everyone carries the same wounds so not everyone has the same needs.

Talking about your needs in a certain context helps explain what is going on for you in a way that the other person can think ‘Oh, OK, I get that’.

For example:

  • ‘I need things to be really tidy in order to feel relaxed.’
  • ‘I need to feel safe in order to take in information.’
  • ‘I need honest communication in order to make a relationship work.’

Suggesting an alternative

Your listener may well be somewhat surprised at your openness and honesty so far.  This is a great time to suggest something new.  Paint a picture of how things could be.

For example:

  • ‘I’d like it if we could agree where things are stored.’
  • ‘I’d like to talk about this after lunch so that we can understand what has happened and learn from the experience.’
  • ‘I’d like you to leave some bags here now and for us to talk on the phone this evening.’

Opening up the discussion

Your suggestion is not a demand.  It does not require the other person to comply with it.  But it could be the start of a negotiation.  A conversation in which you find out what their needs are and how you can help them fulfil them.  The way I would suggest you ask this is:

  • ‘How would that be for you?’

Is courageous communication always enough?

I’m not sure if Marshall would agree but I believe there is still a place for violence.  In my opinion the only legitimate use for violence is to get someone’s attention.  (And I’m open to having my mind changed on this one too.)

  • If a child is walking towards the dangerous cliff top then just grab them … leave the conversation till later.
  • If someone is ignoring you then a shout may surprise and shock them a little but get their attention.
  • If someone is in a panic and action needs to be taken a slap around the face could break them out of that pattern.

If you have the other person’s attention courageous communication may not change their behaviour.  You must accept that.  It could be that their values are very different to yours, if they are then it could take a lot more than a simple script to come to an understanding.

The basics of Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

Here is the first video in a series by Marshall Rosenberg.  I warn you that he will get his guitar out and sing a song.  Get over it.  Continue watching.  And find your inner giraffe 🙂

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