Nonviolent Communication: How to get your needs met

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What is your habitual response to being hurt, annoyed or irritated by another person? Do you swear? Do you smash plates? Do you withdraw within yourself? Do you tell that person how wrong (insensitive, selfish, etc.) she or he is?

And now think of the habitual reaction that you get from that person, in response to your response. Most probably they will try to argue back to defend their cause or pull away and withdraw, too.

Too often, unfortunately, in our communication with each other we get trapped in the vicious circle of attack and defence, which often takes a form of a counter-attack and generates more violence. And here I am not speaking about physical violence (although situations can escalate to it), but about emotional violence. This type of violence permeates our daily life to such an extent that we tend to take it for a norm and may not be able straight away to identify it as violence.

Marshall Rosenberg explains that this is because we all have been educated in a ‘school of jackals’ where violence is the norm.

I have first heard about Marshall Rosenberg and nonviolent communication (NVC) from a friend several years ago. I bought his book and it really resonated with me, so since then I have been learning to practise NVC and also passing it on to my clients, who also found it very useful.

In this blog I want to introduce you to a few fundamental principles of NVC, which is designed to help you being heard and have your needs met while maintaining good healthy relationships.

 

  1. Differentiate between feelings and interpretations

How our message will be received depends a lot on how we convey it. The words in which we package our message may either help or prevent it from being adequately understood.

For example, let us say that at a party your partner has been speaking to other people and did not pay much attention to you. As a result you are being hurt and upset. Yet when you finally get to talk to your partner and let him or her know how you feel you say “I felt ignored by you!”

Now ‘hurt’ and ‘upset’ are feelings, while ‘ignored’ is an interpretation that entails an assumption about your partner’s behaviour or intention. If their intention was not to ignore you they will understandably respond to you in a defensive way, denying that what you said is correct. Then you will feel even more hurt because your message hasn’t been heard. But it hasn’t been heard because you used the wrong words! If you say “I am feeling hurt” your language is matching your emotions and your partner will be more likely to hear it and less likely to get on defensive.

Marshall Rosenberg suggests that it is very important that in expressing ourselves we differentiate between feelings/emotions and interpretations or assumptions that we make about another person. It doesn’t mean that we cannot make an assumption, but we have to clearly identify it as our assumption (e.g. “I began to think you were ignoring me”).

 

  1. Stick to the facts, focus on yourself and give the reason

Very often when instead of stating our feelings we jump to interpretations, we also omit mentioning the exact thing that caused us distress. Furthermore, we formulate our message in a form of an attack (blame or accusation) on another person. Thus, continuing with the same example of the party, we may express our feelings in the following way: “You ignored me the whole evening!”

From the point of NVC, this sentence contains three communication mistakes:

  • It substitutes feeling/emotion (‘hurt’ or ‘upset’) by interpretation (‘ignored’);
  • It contains an accusation (“you ignored me”);
  • It doesn’t explain what your partner actually did that has upset you.

The example of a correct statement may be as follows:

“I am feeling upset because you talked to all other people at that party for the whole evening and haven’t said a word to me!”

In this sentence you keep the focus on you and your feelings. The explanatory statement, of which your partner is a subject, describes what exactly about his or her actions you found upsetting. When you express yourself in this way your partner won’t feel the target of an accusation or the blame. They won’t feel the need to defend themselves from an imposed interpretation and will learn what to do and what not to do in the future so that not to hurt you again.

 

  1. Express your needs clearly

 More often than we realize we expect another person to intuit our needs. When they fail to do so we get disappointed and upset. A vivid illustration is a story my mother told me about a falling out she had with my father during the early months of their marriage. She had a bad toothache and needed to see a dentist. She was anxious and wanted my father’s support. However, she didn’t ask him to come with her; she expected him to guess that this was what she needed from him. You can imagine how disappointed and upset she was when instead of offering to come with her he went to play football with his friends!

I am quite similar, in some ways, to my mother and share a number of her inhibitions and defence mechanisms (including withdrawal). So I know how difficult it is to bring yourself to articulate what seems to you plainly obvious! Yet it is plainly obvious only within your own emotional system of references. Alas! Sometimes it is healthier and helps create happier relationship when we treat another person a bit as an alien. If they don’t guess our needs it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t love us. It may simply mean that on their planet 2 + 2 doesn’t make 4!

 

  1. Listen to the message behind the words

The counterpart to Marshall Rosenberg’s character of ‘jackal’ is ‘giraffe.’ I believe he says somewhere that he has picked up giraffe because giraffe has the biggest heart of all mammals. (This assumption is erroneous by the way… Do you know which mammal has the biggest heart?) In contrast to ‘jackal,’ ‘giraffe’ speaks from its heart and listens with its heart. It means that ‘giraffe’ listens to feelings behind the words and not just to the words as such.

Consider this conversation between the ‘jackal’ and the ‘giraffe’:

Jackal. You ignored me the whole evening!

Giraffe. Are you saying that I have hurt you?

Jackal.   Yes! I am very hurt.

Giraffe. Oh… Is it because I haven’t spent much time with you?..

Jackal.   You haven’t spent any time with me at all! You were busy talking to all these other people.

Giraffe. And you thought I was ignoring you…

Jackal.   Yes! And I am very upset.

Giraffe. Of course, you would be upset. I am very sorry.

When your child screams at you “I hate you!” you know that it doesn’t mean she or he hates you, but that they want your attention (or something you are not giving them). In the same way we can practise understanding emotional needs behind the words and the behaviour of other people. It is not easy – but it is possible!

 

Video of Marshall Rosenberg’s workshop

Well, this turned out to be quite a lengthy article and we have only covered the basics!

If you are interested, you can learn more by watching this video. Enjoy and have a good laugh!

www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBGlF7-MPFI

 

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8 thoughts on “Nonviolent Communication: How to get your needs met”

  1. Renee

    Turns out I’m certain jackale. But all this thing sound to me unreal, unnatural and even dangerous – because though the statement “Listen to the message behind the words” is very true and powerful, we shoudln’t – om ny opinion – forget about the importance of the FORM (container) we choose our message to be held in. The form is not the less important as the content. otherwise the form can hurt somebody’s feelings and dignity so badly while the content could be just.

    1. Ludmila Post Author

      Words are also a container, as well as the tone, facial expression and other body language. The whole problem is that we package our message (which is essentially a message about our vulnerability) in such harmful and hurtful containers that it becomes very difficult to receive it. It requires a remarkable level of emotional security to be able not to take personally hurtful stuff that is being hurled at you. I am certainly very far from being there! But when I succeed — even a tiny little bit — I can see that it works. Basically, in the same way as it works with children: when our emotions are acknowledged our anger dissipates.

  2. Anna

    I really enjoyed reading your summary of NVC and I think it’s an extremely relevant topic. I find this method of compassionate communication highly effective for creating harmonious relationships and deeper, more authentic connections with others whilst remaining true to ourselves. I find when I try to ‘say what I mean and mean what I say’ thus expressing my needs or feelings from a place of compassion and empathy without blaming others or without any hidden agenda I feel empowered and in turn am better able to perceive the needs or the meaning behind the words of others without becoming defensive or upset. Shame I’m not able to do it all the time yet but as you say even a little change makes a big difference. It has allowed me to start to become more aware of the fact that we have a choice in how we communicate and understand others by taking responsibility for our behaviour in a way that can improve and enrich our lives. Changing the negative patterns or neuro-pathways for good is my biggest challenge, but here’s to hoping. Thank you Ludmila for your interesting and thought provoking post.

    1. Ludmila Post Author

      Thank you Anna for your inspiring account of NVC in action and how you find your life enriched by it. Hope it will encourage and give hope to other people too!

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