An Intro to Non-Violent Communication (NVC)

June 13, 2009 § 2 Comments

What’s it all about? It’s easy to communicate without violence isn’t it? One would have thought that the majority of us would be able to convey a linguistic subtlety without having the need to head-butt the other person in the face (unlike some of my neighbours, but then that’s a different story :-)).

NVC is about communicating without getting people’s backs up; their heckles raised. It’s the ability to enter into a discourse with compassion and empathy, and to uncover what the real wants are that people have during a conversation, including those that we have for ourselves. And while it may seem like it comes naturally to some, it’s actually very difficult for the vast majority of us. In society we’re conditioned to think in certain ways, for example to judge and to offer our immediate evaluations; we are unconscious of some of the blockers that we have towards effective communication. This results in an inherent violence that stirs in each of us.

So what specifically is NVC? Thankfully it’s actually quite simple. It’s a four-step process. I’d ideally advise people to pick up a book on it, as it’s one of those things you really have to take on board and to heart, rather than to simply acquire an intellectual grasp of the concepts.

1: Separate observation from evaluation

It’s habitual for many of us to combine observations and evalutions. For example, if my wife tells me that I always leave the place looking messy, then I’m bound to feel defensive about that. “No, I don’t”, I’d probably say, “I actually spent a couple of hours doing some cleaning at the weekend”. I’d feel attacked, and bad mood for both myself and my wife would probably ensue.

But if she were to state that there were a couple of socks on the floor in the bedroom, then I probably wouldn’t really have much of a feeling about the situation at all. I’d likely instead develop a want to pick up the innocuous pair of socks, and I might just darn-it go and do it.

Confronted with an evaluation, we typically either defend ourselves or submit. Confronted with an observation, and it’s a different story. According to the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti, the ability to separate out evaluation from observation is the highest form of human intelligence. Does it always rain in England? Or did it simply piss it down last year at Wimbledon? (2007 rings a bell)

2: Feelings

When you communicate, state your feelings. I feel X about Y. I have to admit, I’ve found the acquisition of this particular skill to be particularly difficult. Why? Because for a great many of us we haven’t really delved into the workings of our emotions. I don’t always know if I’m feeling mostly angry, mostly frustrated, irritated or even aggressive (life on the London tube does that for you). Like when I taste a glass of wine, what’s actually at play here? Is it the vintage, the oak in the barrel that it was fermented in, the field it came from, or the blend of grapes? There’s a lot going on in people’s minds that it can become difficult for us to categorise our various emotions and to label them.

People can spend a lifetime in the pursuit of unpicking their various emotions (Buddhist scripture states that there are eighty four thousand negative emotions alone). In the west we’re starting to label the ability to recognise one’s emotions as Emotional Intelligence (EQ). People also use the term ‘awareness’; e.g. are we aware of ourselves?

So communicating a feeling requires an awareness of the feeling in the first place. And it can be remarkably powerful. If I can be aware, open and honest to state what I’m feeling, then I invite empathy. If my wife were to say to me “I’m feeling a bit frustrated with the state of upstairs”, rather than “you’re pissing me off leaving these socks around”, then I’d probably have a connection with that. I’d understand and gain some empathy for the emotion she is experiencing, and I’d likely develop a want to do something about it.

As I said it’s difficult. At work one time someone asked me why I seemed a little down, in contrary to how I was when I first joined the project when I was more upbeat and positive. Rather than state my feelings of frustration at my apparent inability to influence some positive change fast enough, I defaulted to bravado. What me? Nah, I’m cool…. honest. I’m a bad-ass ninja-type character. Seeing as the person asking me about my feelings was an influential person on the client-side (I’m a consultant), it was an opportunity missed.

3: Needs

I really like this part of NVC. Like the all 4 components of the methodology, it’s an independent skill that one can muster (and is therefore in-turn measurable by the lovable Dreyfuss model of skill acquisition). I wanted to call this skill “needs based thinking” as I think it’s so powerful.

If my wife were to say to me “I’m feeling frustrated as upstairs has some clothes on the floor, and I have a need for the place to be tidy this weekend so that we can enjoy it”, then we’re really on the money. I know some more of what her needs are, and I therefore know better how to meet them.

Frustration, some people say, is the feeling one gets when their needs aren’t met. A big personal realisation for me is that I’m not totally aware of all my needs. I didn’t quite appreciate my need for engaging with others, having challenging intellectual skirmishes, my needs for adventure, for approbation… (goes without saying that not all needs are admirable). I, like others, am a complex person with complex needs. If I can identify them better, them I’m sure to have a happier life right? Conversely, one should ignore their needs at their peril.

It follows therefore, that if I can communicate them, then there’s a much greater chance of having those needs met. I’ve found that when I’m honest about my needs to others (without wrapping them in bravado or dressing them up likewise), then I tend to get some compassion back.

4: Making a request

So, now I know that my wife is feeling frustrated because there are some clothing items on the floor in the house upstairs, and that she has a need for the place to be tidy so that she enjoy the weekend. Great. But what I really want to know is what the next steps are. Thankfully in this situation I can infer that the action item should be to get off my arse and to pick up my clothes.

But it’s not always this clear. I can reveal my observations, feelings and needs to others, but without solid requests we can’t be sure that the other person knows what to do to make a situation better. I’m anxious that we have more preparation to do for this presentation and I need to get a handle on it… any chance we can hook up tomorrow evening to go over some things?

In Conclusion

NVC is certainly challenging to embrace, and of course there’s a fair bit more to it that the quick primer I’ve just given. I myself am probably on the journey to becoming more aware of it’s impact, and am hopefully a little more “consciously incompetent” than “unconsciously incompetent”. I’m a novice, but it’s a communication technique that I really, really want to learn. If you’re interested, I’d recommend that a good place to start is by picking up this book:

Non violent communication

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