You may say to yourself, “Why should I care about nonviolent communication? I’m not a violent person. I don’t shout at anyone, I don’t insult or attack people. I’m a decent human being. This doesn’t concern me.”
If that is truly the case, then that’s great in itself. But if you delve deeper, you’ll find that nonviolent communication also addresses forms of violence that aren’t immediately apparent. We often aren’t even aware of them. Their impact can be even stronger and more destructive as a result. If you want to learn more about what this violence entails and what we can do to learn how to deal with it, so that we can be more like giraffes than jackals, read on.
Marshall Rosenberg, the author of the concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, grew up in a time and place in the United States where racial conflicts, anti-Semitism, and various forms of violence were rampant in schools and on the streets. He studied psychology and worked as a mediator, focusing on conflict resolution on various levels (personal, professional, political) around the world.
He sought ways to improve our relationships with each other and resolve conflicts. He wanted to minimize the violence that people inflicted on each other (and unfortunately continue to inflict).
He developed a communication model that presents a way to communicate with respect for oneself and others, express one’s feelings and needs, find common ground, and resolve conflicts in four steps.
So what is Nonviolent Communication?
Before describing the aforementioned model, which is essentially a practical tool and guide on how to formulate our expressions and adjust our language to minimize violence and increase the chance of achieving our goals through peaceful means, let’s take a moment to consider the ideas that form its core. Understanding them is the most crucial part, without which nonviolent communication is not possible.
Nonviolent communication is much more than just a four-step guide on “how to do it.” It is a way of thinking and approaching oneself and others, a way of life. The fundamental idea and goal of nonviolent communication is to achieve connection between people. In order to work together, it is essential to establish a connection, understand each other, empathize with each other, understand both sides, and find the best possible solution based on that.
How do we connect then? By focusing on our needs. Needs are a key concept in Nonviolent Communication because they are at the core of human existence, human nature. As human beings, we all have certain natural needs (from physiological and physical ones such as sleep, food, safety, to higher needs such as love, a sense of belonging, or self-realization). Throughout life, we try to fulfill our needs. We have to do it, otherwise we would not survive. However, we are different and we use different strategies to secure our needs (depending on our worldview, upbringing, preferences, taste, and so on).
For example, if someone has a need for greater security and fear, there are various ways to fulfill it. Someone will change locks or install security doors, someone will buy a better, stronger (and therefore safer) car, while another person will attack a neighboring country and occupy it…
We see that the range is diverse and the possibilities are almost endless. The catch is that it is precisely in moments when we do not agree on a given strategy, or we feel touched or threatened by someone else’s strategy, or we simply do not understand it, that conflicts arise. When we do not understand why a person is doing what they are doing and what leads them to it. And along with that, when we do not understand why we ourselves are doing certain things, what we need, and when we deprive ourselves and harm ourselves.
But an even greater catch is that the needs that hide behind all our behavior (behind each chosen strategy) are common to all of us. The fact that we are human, we all have in common, no matter how different we may be on all other levels. Each of us needs to eat, drink, breathe, needs love, security, understanding… and everyone knows what it’s like to have them and what it’s like when they are missing. The idea that Rosenberg offers, therefore, lies in the fact that if we succeed in penetrating to the level of these needs in our communication, revealing the true motives of ourselves and others, we will achieve this connection. We will understand that every person has a very good reason for doing what they are doing. Perhaps it looks like nonsense at first glance, but if we see what need they are trying to fulfill with it, we will achieve understanding on a deeper level and we can empathize with their skin – because we also have such a need and we are trying to fulfill it (although maybe differently). If we penetrate to the level of needs, we will understand in a fundamental way that we no longer have to quarrel about insignificant superficial differences between us and nourish violence and tension. But that we can look for effective solutions together based on the essence of things. So that we protect ourselves and others, and take care of each other.
The Nonviolent Communication Process
So let’s get straight to how Nonviolent Communication looks in practice.
It consists of four steps, four components, that should be included in our expression:
- OBSERVATION (what would the objective eye of a camera see?)
- FEELINGS (what feelings does the situation evoke in me?)
- NEEDS (which needs are met or unmet that give rise to my feelings?)
- REQUEST (what would I like to achieve?)
- In a sentence, it would look something like this:
When I see/hear/perceive… (observation)…, I feel… (feeling)…, because I need… (need)…, so I ask you to…. (request).
Here’s an example:
When you arrived half an hour late to our meeting without letting me know in advance, I felt disappointed and angry because I need more respect for my time and the agreement we made, as well as more certainty, so I’m asking you, could you come on time next time, or let me know if you’re running late?
I guess you might be thinking, “Is this how I’m supposed to talk?” It sounds unnatural! Definitely not! We’ll get to why it sounds unnatural and what to do about it in a moment. However, what’s important to realize right now is the impact of the individual phrases and their meaning. Also, how they differ from most of what we commonly say.
The sentence starts with an objective observation. The person arrived half an hour late. We didn’t start with any provocation like “You always keep me waiting” or “You’re late, as usual,” etc., which would only irritate the other person and make them want to explain, defend themselves or oppose and persuade us to think otherwise. We can’t argue with an objective fact, as long as it’s accurately formulated. Therefore, we made the first step towards avoiding conflict and continuing communication (and also increased our chances of being heard).
We continue by saying that I feel disappointed and angry. Compare that to “You disappointed me” or “You made me angry” – do you feel the difference? Again, we avoided escalating the conflict situation by taking responsibility for our own feelings and not blaming the other person for them. That our reaction was disappointment and anger is practically “our problem” – after all, we could have had 10 other feelings. However, the other person didn’t cause them. They arose from a combination of everything that was already in us before and this situation.
In the next step, we will add that we feel this way because we need more respect and security. We take responsibility for ourselves and communicate to the other person that we are aware of what is happening within us. If we have enough self-reflection and insight into our own functioning, it is not necessary to accuse the other person of “disappointing us by being late again” – and thereby giving them a bait to argue and defend their own truth. How does that sound to you?
Completing these three steps is already a powerful tool in communication that can make things easier for us. However, sometimes it is ideal to end by making a request. Giving the other person some sort of “guide” on what would make it easier for us to avoid an unpleasant situation next time. Of course, the other person can decide whether to comply or not. We must take that into account. However, if we provide such a “guide,” we primarily increase our chances of achieving the desired state and fulfilling our need. If we do not name what we are missing or what we need from others, even with the best intentions, they may only guess and hit blindly (and potentially create a new conflict unconsciously).
Watch out for traps
Now I will return to the moment when all of this may sound unnatural. And not just that. There are several traps that can cause difficulties, especially at the beginning when we are just getting acquainted with Nonviolent Communication (it is sad that it is not natural to us, and we have to get acquainted with it!).
Trap no. 1 – prioritizing form over content
In Nonviolent Communication, although language, word choice, and phrasing play an important role, without an internal intention and conviction that is in line with its ideas, even the most perfect form is useless. If your goal is not to connect with the other person, understand, and find mutually acceptable solutions, the rest is pointless. Therefore, we often do not need to utter the entire series of four steps, or we do not have to say them in a particular order, or we do not have to say them at all, and yet we can positively influence our relationships. But like everything new, it is clumsier at the beginning. And like in all beginnings, an unnatural structured form is a useful crutch that will support us until the moment when the nonviolent style of communication becomes more ingrained and natural. And with it, specific phrasings. So what is the most crucial ingredient? To always have our nonviolent intention at the forefront. And not to fall into trap no. 2.
Trap number 2 – confusing concepts with feelings
To briefly summarize the main points from the example above, the goal of nonviolent communication is primarily to separate the situation from the person, distinguish feelings from judgments, needs from strategies, and finally – formulate a specific request as a proposal for what to do next with the situation. Regardless of the words or form used, this should be constantly kept in mind. Unfortunately, we live in an environment where we have learned to use language very confusingly and imprecisely, and instead of helping us in nonviolent communication, it rather complicates things.
It is quite common to say “You never listen to me” or “You always interrupt me” – where we generalize one specific situation and turn it almost into an inseparable characteristic of the person we are talking to. We do not perceive the facts in the specific situation separately from the judgment.
We speak with absolute certainty of things like “You made me angry” (and not “I am angry”), “You disappointed me” (and not “I am disappointed”), “My boss ruined my day” (and not “I am sad and upset”), “I have to get upset because of her” (and not “I am upset”) but also “You made me happy” (instead of “I am happy”) – thus handing over responsibility for our own feelings into the hands of others. As if they created those feelings in us. Which is absolutely impossible. But we have learned to think so. Because it’s easier.
And a note about feelings – how many times have you heard from your own or someone else’s mouth words like “I feel stupid”, “I feel like an idiot”, “I feel humiliated”? Stupid, idiot, or humiliation are not feelings. Feelings are felt in the body. It is, for example, fear, anger, joy, surprise, helplessness, agitation, satisfaction… They are not associated with intellectual judgment (humiliated means I suggest someone else humiliated me – but how I feel is sad or disappointed; stupid or idiot is also a label that comes more from my head than my stomach – feelings I may feel at that time are, for example, disappointment, sadness, anger). Distinguishing feelings from judgments is extremely important for developing a nonviolent approach to ourselves. To be able to respect that we experience the feelings we experience and not to condemn ourselves for them. Because feelings cannot be turned on or off. They can only be accepted. More about this perhaps next time 🙂
And what about expressions like “he/she has a need to constantly drill into me,” “he/she needs to take it out on me,” or “I need to scold him/her”? Do you know what I’m talking about? I bet you do. And yet, none of what we label as a need in such (and similar) cases is actually a need. They are strategies that we use to meet deeper needs. If someone is “drilling” into me, they may need to be heard. If someone is “taking it out” on me, they may be disappointed and in need of support, empathy, etc. According to Nonviolent Communication, a need is something that we, as human beings, have in common. It is something that we can all agree on, that all other people have and need equally.
We could go on for a long time about requests and their specifics, and write an article at least as long as this one. But I believe that you have already grasped the main idea 😉 You can find more about the definition of individual terms as well as lists of words describing feelings and needs in Rosenberg’s basic book on Nonviolent Communication.
Pitfall #3 – wanting to change oneself and the world overnight
I don’t know what you think of Nonviolent Communication, but I was very enthusiastic about it and immediately felt that this was what our relationships and communication needed. That this was something I had to introduce into my life and the lives of my loved ones right away, and oh, if only everyone started using Nonviolent Communication, the world would be much more beautiful. But that’s not reality. Firstly, because changing deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and communication doesn’t happen overnight. And secondly, if you start using such a radically different language overnight, you will encounter a significant response from your environment, which is used to something else from you. You must be prepared for reactions ranging from surprise and confusion to misunderstanding and irritation.
As in all areas, it is not recommended to exaggerate anything here. Ike Lasater, in his book on Nonviolent Communication (Words That Work In Business), even recommends explicitly informing your loved ones that you will be expressing yourself differently from now on because you are learning a new way of communication and asking for their consent – so that neither you nor they get into uncomfortable situations.
However, it is sufficient to begin by simply paying attention to how we talk to each other and what words we use. Try to think about how else it could be done, or uncover where there are observations, evaluations, named feelings and needs, and whether a request was made. A significant change can also be made with so-called nonviolent communication – towards oneself. This involves reformulating the language we use to speak to ourselves, which we often only think about. We learn to sensitively distinguish between individual concepts and experiences and provide ourselves with valuable empathy that is independent of others. And that is one of the many beauties of nonviolent communication – for it to work and bring about positive change, it is not necessary for people in your surroundings to know and use it – you alone can make a difference by changing your perspective on people and situations. If you decide to use it, the results will come.
Alright, but what do giraffes have to do with all of this!?
If you have read this far, you are probably really interested in how giraffes fit into all of this. So, I’ll reveal it to you 🙂
Rosenberg, during the development and teaching of Nonviolent Communication, chose two mascots – a giraffe and a jackal – for a more vivid illustration of his ideas.
The jackal, as a relentless predator, symbolizes an aggressive way of communicating towards others and towards oneself, which includes blaming, judging, condemning, humiliating, instructing, punishing, and more. It is associated with incomprehension, unwillingness, denial of responsibility, and isolation.
The giraffe, on the other hand, is a symbol of nonviolent communication, connection, and respect towards others and oneself. As an animal, the giraffe is a peaceful creature that does not attack, but is also strong enough to defend itself when necessary. In addition to all of this, thanks to its long neck, it maintains distance and perspective, but with its feet, it remains firmly on the ground.
So let’s perk up our giraffe ears and sharpen our nonviolent giraffe tongue!
We wish you good luck 🙂