The latest addition to the GrantTree books stable is Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall B. Rosenberg. It’s spreading rapidly through the company and having a very positive effect on our communications.

For the purpose of making it spread even faster, I decided to write a brief summary of the key points of the book.

I would like to start by emphasising that the book is incredibly worth reading, and this blog post is not a substitute. Go read the book!

4 Key Parts of NVC (Nonviolent Communication)

The book breaks down communication in four key elements: Observation, Feeling, Need, Request.

The key point is that when we express ourselves in this manner, people are much more likely to hear us, and to react favourably. This is not a guarantee – people may not be ready to receive this feedback. And they may disagree with our request for their own reasons. You can’t use NVC to compel or somehow manipulate people to do what you want – in fact, quite the opposite. You might change what you want when you listen using NVC.

And this is a first important point about NVC: it’s about both giving feedback, and about receiving it. It can be used both to deliver your own feedback to someone else, to disentangle what you’re observing, feeling, needing and requesting and deliver that in a way that’s not going to get the other person upset, and to disentangle other people’s requests. This is extremely powerful stuff, and means you can use NVC even if the other person has no knowledge of it, and it will still help.

But each of these steps has a catch, and can easily be misused. So here’s a quick overview of the “catch” in each step, based on my experience.

First, how to do it wrong

Here’s a great way to apply OFNR the wrong way. We’ll break down what’s wrong with this approach and fix it during this blog post.

Let’s say I’m in a meeting with John and he’s upset by something that’s being discussed. I’m not really sure what he’s upset about, because he is getting quite loud and, from my perspective, obstructing the progress of the meeting and perhaps even intimidating other people in the meeting. I find it difficult to pay attention to what someone is saying if they’re conveying it in what I perceive to be an aggressive way. I want him to speak at a normal level because he has a very loud voice and is a big guy so it’s scary to people when he shouts, and I don’t think that’s conducive for the meeting to progress. Here’s what I might say if I totally fail to apply the OFNR framework properly:

John, you’re being confrontational. It makes me feel you’re aggressing me in this meeting. I need you to behave more peacefully so I don’t feel so unsafe. I request you to stop behaving in this way, or else I will leave the meeting.

I could claim I’ve followed OFNR there – all the parts seem present, after all. But actually, this is a total disaster, a car crash of violent communication. Let’s look at why.

Step 1: Observation

The key with the observation step is that it needs to be non-judgemental, as objective and factual as possible. By throwing the label of “confrontational” at someone, I am not observing a behaviour, I am attacking the other person’s identity as retaliation for their behaviour. In some cases, that might get them to behave the way I want, through fear, guilt, or some other negative emotion, but it does not build a healthy relationship with the other person.

In the observation step, I need to be non-judgemental, to just observe a factual behaviour without categorising it. Here’s a better way to do it:

John, I see that you’re speaking loudly and sitting back with your arms crossed.

There. Either it’s true or it’s not. Either way, it’s not a judgement of the person and unlikely to be taken as such.

Step 2: Feeling

The second part is to state how I’m feeling. The problem with the example statement is that it’s not an expression of feeling – it’s yet another accusation. “It makes me feel” is a very poor choice of words here, because it pushes the responsibility for my feelings onto the other person. “I’m not responsible for how I’m feeling – John is!”

It’s quite uncomfortable to find yourself responsible for someone else’s feelings.  Generally, if the feelings are negative, it tends to elicit a guilt response. Again, John may react in a way that I find useful, but guilt-based relationships are, well, not ideal.

The other problem with “It makes me feel you’re aggressing me” is that it’s not a statement about my feelings at all. What’s the feeling? There is no feeling stated. There is just another accusation. Perhaps I am feeling angry, or sad, or frustrated… but “you’re aggressing me” is not a feeling.

Here would be a better way to phrase this, then:

I feel sad.

There, easy, isn’t it?1

Step 3: Need

The third part is to take ownership of the feeling. We don’t feel stuff because other people make us. We feel because we have needs that are being or not being met. This can be very difficult for many people to acknowledge, particularly in cultures or societal roles that are taught that it’s bad to have needs and acknowledge them2.

Stating the need is best done with a formula that combines it with the feeling, like “I feel X because I need Y”. When I say to John “I need you to do X” I’m not actually formulating a need, but a request. When I say “I need you to do X so that I don’t feel Y” I’m compounding the earlier error of pushing responsibility for my feelings onto John. Again, John is unlikely to react positively to this.

Another way that I could get this wrong while nevertheless using the “I feel X because I need Y” formula would be to say something like:

I feel scared because I’m being attacked by you.

That again would be an accusation rather than a statement of my need. I don’t know what’s going on in John’s head. Maybe I think he’s attacking me, but he probably doesn’t see it that way. Probably, he just thinks he’s being passionate. But once I accuse him of attacking me, what will he do? Defend himself, naturally. Whatever he does, it probably won’t be to calmly listen to my request and make a measured decision about it.

Here’s a better way to phrase my feeling and need together in a way that’s more likely to solicit a good response from John:

I feel sad because I need participants in a meeting I’m in to be civil to each other so that I feel comfortable that the meeting is going well.

I’m not going to even begin to suggest that this is easy. If identifying how you feel is hard, identifying why you feel that way, what is the need that you have that is being met or not met, is even harder. It often takes serious digging. I find that one trap I frequently fall into is to make the need sound more objective. For example, I could have said that I need participants in a meeting to be civil to each other so that the meeting can be productive. That may be a belief that I have, but it’s not the core, personal need I’m addressing when I request John to be civil.

This part probably takes the most practice of the four.

Step 4: Request

What could be simpler than asking someone to do something? Well, it turns out that even in this step there are ways to get it wrong. In the example, I did it in just the right way to make sure I don’t get a good outcome from the exchange. The best way to screw up the request is to make it a demand, and that’s what I did by threatening to leave if my request wasn’t met.

When we threaten people with consequences, we take away their ability to decide to help us out. If I clarify my observation of John’s behaviour, and open up by explaining how I feel about it and what needs of mine are not being met, and then request that John alter his behaviour, chances are John will agree to my request, because John is a human being and us humans tend to prefer to be helpful to each other.

And if he doesn’t, he may have good reasons to disagree. By threatening him with consequences, though, I’ve ensured that even if he would normally agree, he will not feel like it was him that agreed it was me that forced him. And because of that, this exchange will not help build up the trust between John and I.

Or, even worse, trying to force John to do something may well elicit the opposite reaction. Perhaps John will refuse to help, and continue to speak loudly, precisely because I threatened him. When we threaten people, we take responsibility away from them, and it’s not surprising that they often start behaving like children – being contrary just for the sake of it.

It is my observation through years of working in the Open Culture that is GrantTree that left to their own devices, allowed to make their own decisions, people typically prefer to be good to each other. They tend to make decisions that I would consider to be right. However, when you try and force someone, you often push them into an oppositional, confrontational mode where they do not make the best choices they can.

So here’s a better way I could have made my request to John, one that doesn’t involve a threat:

Could you please speak more softly?

Obviously tone of voice is important here too. I could convey that question with a very strict tone and body language that implies threat. Or I could ask it calmly and openly, accepting that John may well decide otherwise. It’s his decision what he does, after all. Ironically, the latter is much more likely to convince John to speak more softly than the former. Sometimes exposed weakness is a strength.

Review

There are many more subtleties at work in NVC, and so I really do recommend that you read the book. But in the meantime, if you’re going to take away anything from this concept, please take the following steps and caveats:

  • Clarify the behaviour that you’re observing and make sure it’s not expressed in a judgemental way.
  • Express how you feel, in a way that takes ownership for your feelings and does not imply that the responsibility for your feelings lies with the other person.
  • Connect this feeling with a need that you have – a personal need, not a falsely objective ideal, and a need which is about you, not about the other person. Try to use the formula: “I feel X because I need/want/like Y”.
  • Finish with a request which does not include any threat component, accepting that the other person may disagree with your request.

Using these concepts, you can turn:

John, you’re being confrontational. It makes me feel you’re aggressing me in this meeting. I need you to behave more peacefully so I don’t feel so unsafe. I request you to stop behaving in this way, or else I will leave the meeting.

 

into:

John, I see that you’re speaking loudly and sitting back with your arms crossed. I feel sad because I need participants in a meeting I’m in to be civil to each other so that I feel comfortable that the meeting is going well. Could you please speak more softly?

The power of this shift in language is impressive when you see it at work. I hope you do get a chance t practice it and see it for yourself soon.

 


  1. Actually it’s extremely hard and takes a lot of practice to work out how you’re feeling. I find myself stopping and starting constantly while using OFNR, as I do the work of figuring out what it is exactly that I’m feeling. This is extremely useful work though. It can also be very uncomfortable for people who have grown up or are living in cultures or societal roles that suggest that having feelings is somehow not appropriate – for example men in western cultures.

  2. For example, western culture tends to suggest that women in traditional, 19th/early 20th century standard gendered roles should let their needs be subservient to those of their husband and family.