• By Jessica Vickers, MFT •
Many of my clients come in asking to “learn better communication skills.” Common complaints can sound like this:
- “No matter how I approach him, my partner just shuts down.”
- “I can’t help but get angry every time we try to talk about moving!”
Communication is the mode in which we get problems solved, or not. When we struggle to communicate effectively, we don’t get our needs met, and frustration ensues. In this blog post, I will share some of the basic tenants of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a technique founded by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.
Rosenberg offers four components of NVC: Observations, Feelings, Needs, and finally, Requests. Let’s start with the first component, Observations:
1. First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation without judging or evaluating the event.
This is much easier said than done! Imagine a woman is frustrated with her roommate. The woman feels she has much more cleaning responsibilities around the apartment. A perfect observation would look like this:
- “I’ve noticed that there are dishes left in the sink from last night’s dinner.”
In the heat of the moment, however, observations often come out with judgment, emotion, or language that creates a barrier. She might say something like:
- “you never clean your dishes until the next day.”
The ‘you’ in the statement immediately puts the blame on the roommate, and the ‘never’ used in that statement is probably an exaggeration. So, you can bet her roommate is going to become defensive in response.
2. The second part of the NVC process includes stating how we feel after observing an action.
Sometimes these feelings are easy and happy. Other times, they are difficult and vulnerable. Let’s continue with the roommate scenario. If the woman were to use NVC, she might say something like:
- “when I see the dishes left in the sink, I feel anxious and frustrated. I worry that I will have to be the one to clean them up.”
The key here is to put the feelings on ourselves using “I” statements. That way, we take the blame away from the other person. When we do this, the person we are speaking to won’t feel like the need to be defensive.
3. Third, NVC teaches us to state our needs in the situation.
This need should be connected to the feeling we have identified. You can think of it as the feeling response. For example, if you were feeling frustrated, then your need may be to feel reassured. Or if you’re feeling sad, then your need may be to receive comfort. It can be uncomfortable to identify and express your feelings/needs–especially if you are not used to being this vulnerable. However, it is this vulnerability that can help resolve conflicts. It’s hard to stay angry with someone who states they are lonely, fearful, embarrassed, or anxious.
4. The final component of NVC is to make a request.
This request should be productive, enrich your life, and/or fulfill a need. This request should also be specific, and should use positive action language. Try to avoid using negative language. In the heat of an argument, we’ve probably all said things like: “can you not be such a jerk?” However, we know that this kind of language will likely elicit a defensive response. The requesting party will also benefit from showing empathy and awareness of the other person’s needs. A successful request for the roommate scenario may look like this:
- “I know we both feel tired at the end of the day. However, I want to make it a priority to do all the dishes at the end of each night.”
That request is clear, specific, shows empathy, and uses positive action language. To put the entire process into action, NVC for the frustrated roomate could go like this:
- “I’m noticing that there are dishes in the sink from last night’s dinner. Seeing the dishes makes me feel anxious and frustrated because I think I will have to be the one to clean them up. Moving forward, let’s have all the dished cleaned by the end of the night. How does this sound to you?”
This may seem like a mouthful, and it may take getting used to. Be patient with yourself as you put these new communication skills into practice. While it may be hard at first, the NVC process can allow you to resolve conflicts naturally and peacefully.
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BONUS- Here are some other examples of how NVC may come into play:
A woman feels insecure when her boyfriend goes out clubbing with his friends: “When you go out to clubs without me, I feel insecure, nervous, and scared. I worry that you might find someone better than me. Can you stay home with me instead tonight, or can we go out together?”
A parent is struggling with his child’s poor grades: “I feel disappointed when you fail a test because I want you to have a bright future, as I know you are capable of. I need to know that you are trying hard at school, so I’d like you to ask for a tutor if you need it.”
An employee is unsure of how they are doing at work: (to their manager) “I have not received a formal review yet, which makes me feel unsure of the impact I am making at the company. I would like to have a formal review so I know my strengths and areas for improvement.”
Take a stab at this new way of communicating, and check out Dr. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication, 3rd Edition.
Jessica Vickers, Marriage & Family Therapist