The Power of Nonviolent Communication

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

Have you ever gotten an email or text from a friend, your romantic partner or even a co-worker that really ticked you off? Did you respond in kind, with some sarcastic or biting reply that you knew would let them know how irritated you were? How’d that work out for you – did you get an immediate plea for forgiveness and admission that they were totally wrong? Of course you didn’t, because that’s not the way people generally behave.

A couple quietly talking

Even if the original comment was pretty dumb or rude, your reply instantly elevated that little bit of communication into a conflict. So, how should you have reacted? For one way to answer that, we turn to Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., an American psychologist who founded The Center for Nonviolent Communication. This international organization is dedicated to helping people strengthen their skills in peacemaking and collaborative problem solving. If you become familiar with the tenets of nonviolent communication (NVC), you can learn to defuse conflicts before they escalate, which isn’t a bad skill set at home or in your professional life.

Writing for Psychology Today, Michelle Tennant Nicholson cites the four components of NVC — Observation, Feelings, Needs and Requests — and offers examples of how she puts her NVC training to use in real life.

Observation. “Stick to communication that deals with what you can observe, not interpret,” Nicholson says. “To be practical, I like to ask myself, What would a fly on the wall see?’ For example, if I held up a mug for you to see, you might not describe the handle if I hid it from you. Think about your senses. What can you see, touch, hear, smell, or taste? Sticking to describing such details versus dwelling on interpretation is the first step to defusing short fuses, quelling hot tempers, and clarifying misunderstandings.”

Feelings. One of the fundamental elements in therapy or counseling is the effort to acknowledge your feelings and then name them. It’s also helpful not to blame yourself for any feeling you have — the first step is simply identify it. In terms of conflict, the trick then is to empathize with the person you’re communicating with and acknowledge that they have feelings, too, and not blame them in any way. It gets even more complicated from there, as Nicholson points out: “Don’t discount your generational conditioning, too. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Y are all conditioned by culture and the time in which they’re reared. Your generational bias may affect your ability to step outside your own perception to see another’s point of view.” The goal here, despite how difficult it may be, is to try and objectively look at both the “other” and yourself.

Needs. There is a basic pattern of cause-and-effect behavior that goes like this: unmet expectations lead to frustration which leads to anger. The problem in interpersonal relationships is that the original expectation is so often left unsaid. Spouses can often trace the problem by looking at a situation in reverse order: I’m angry because he/she didn’t do X, which I had every right to expect them to do. A therapist can then calmly ask, “Did you let them know you expected them to do X?” Which obviously points to the basic and all-important need to communicate. Nicholson sums it up nicely by simply saying: “Unfulfilled and unexpressed needs fuel many upsetting interactions and interpretations between people.” What’s more, it’s important to differentiate between a relatively unimportant expectation and a true need and then verbally express it. “This is where direct requests can make a difference,”  Nicholson says. “First, get in touch with what you need and then make a request to fulfill that need. Doing so is fundamental to building strong relationships and communication with other people.”

Requests. Identifying a need and then communicating with another person is the final step. It’s based on the previous process of empathetically listening to another in a non-judgmental way, identifying your needs and then clearly communicating them. Practice that process and see if it reduces the conflicts in your life. It’s worth a try.