On a regular day, we communicate with a number of different people like our loved ones, colleagues, and strangers. Sometimes, these conversations end badly when conflict arises, and we leave the conversation feeling overlooked or emotional.
This is not how it should be. You can avoid these situations by using the concept of Nonviolent Communication(NVC). Learn what is communication about and how to apply NVC in everyday life to maintain and even improve your relationships.
What is communication about?
In any society, communication is fundamental. When we want to function well in society, we need to learn how to communicate effectively.
Unfortunately, people tend to use language that cuts the flow of communication and, even worse, can harm the person we speak to and us.
It is a communication method that happens when we use words that put up walls instead of creating bridges. For example, when you call a friend selfish for taking the last piece of pizza, it is a judgmental statement that creates defensiveness. But a simple look into their motivation could help find a solution.
It is the kind of language that separates us from our compassionate selves; it makes us more violent as individuals and societies. OJ Harvey, a physiology professor at the University of Colorado, has investigated the connection between language and violence. He studied random world lecture fragments from different countries and looked for words that judged people, like good or bad.
The countries with more judgemental words in their literature also had a higher number of violent incidents, as the study showed. Harvey concluded that cultures that labeled people as good or bad reinforce the idea that bad individuals deserved punishment. This contributes to violent incidents.
But communication extends far beyond just good or bad. It features a range of linguistic devices that create gaps between people. Such a device is moralistic judgment, which are typical insults, critics, and labels. It implies a person who acts differently in your value system is behaving wrongly.
For instance, a daughter wants to move out of her parent’s house. The problem is they think that she isn’t ready and will put herself in danger. But instead of expressing themselves compassionately and trying to understand her point of view, the parents see her as selfish.
Instead of labeling her as selfish, they could take the time to identify their needs and their daughters. Then have a compassionate discussion; it might turn out what the parents are really worried about is they miss their daughter. So if they use compassionate language, they can bridge their differences instead of separating each other.
When we communicate with our emotions
Emotions are never straightforward, especially when they are negative.
Luckily the powerful method of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) helps. It is a way that allows us to connect with others and ourselves from the heart. The term nonviolence is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement. It refers to the nature of our hearts, which is a free form of violence and full of compassion.
The NVC concept of communication language defined the relationship we have with ourselves and others. When you combine these two, it creates a communicative approach that makes us more aware of the word we use and how we listen to others.
Also, the NVC approach helps us communicate our feelings clearly. It encourages us to observe objectively, identify our needs and communicate compassionately.
Imagine you have a son who left his toys all over the living floor for the third time today. Many would immediately yell at him to clean them up. But instead, it is better to observe the situation.
Try to sense how you feel when you observe the situation. Maybe you are scared of your son’s safety? Or are you angry you need to repeat yourself over and over?
When you question yourself, you might find out in reality; you are frustrated and irritated. Then you need to identify the needs from these feelings.
For instance, you want to have an orderly household. But before saying anything, think about how you can influence the other person to make your life better without hurting them. If you are ready, form a clear, honest, and compassionate request.
Something like:” When I see your toys in the living room, I feel frustrated because I want to have an orderly room. Would you be willing to move your toys to your room when you finished playing, please?
How to improve your observation and evaluation?
When you establish the connection between good communication and observation, you can improve your observation skills.
Focus your energy on being aware of the present moment. Listen carefully to what the other person says and ask yourself how this affects your well-being. Use your sense of touch, sight, and sound to connect as much as possible with the situation.
Avoid generalizing your arguments. This can be done by overestimation of specific situations. So instead of saying “you always…” refer to a particular moment that upsets you. For example, you can point out that your partner once again forgot to buy the milk for your coffee.
But you also need to differentiate between observation and evaluation. For many, it is difficult to make this distinction between observation and criticism or judgment.
The phrase “My boss is always late” is an evaluation; however, “My boss doesn’t arrive before 8.30 a.m.” is more exactly. Similar “You rarely take my advice” is an evaluation, while an accurate observation would be “The previous three-time I gave advice you refused to accept it.”
Both observations are specific, so in return, it reduces the likelihood of a misunderstanding. It is free of criticism, and this prevents the recipient of your message from becoming too defensive.
If you are not aware when labeling someone, you will struggle to relate to a specific situation or person. For example, if you know someone is liberal or conservative, you may already prejudice when discussing a certain issue. You have already assumed what the person is thinking.
How to express your feelings?
Clear observation is the first step of NVC. Now you need to learn how to fully express your feelings and to communicate as effectively as possible.
To archive this, you need to articulate your feeling accurately. This can be hard because we rarely analyze our true emotions. So the best way to express ourselves is to be specific.
For example, many people often use the verb feel without actually saying their true feelings. So using a common expression like “I feel a bit down” is vague because it fails to give your exact emotional state.
However, when you take the time to find the correct language, it will help you describe your situation more clearly. Instead of saying “I feel a bit down,” use better adjectives and clarify the reason why. Do you feel depressed, regretful, or betrayed? The best way to practice this is to expand your vocabulary. It will give a larger range of emotions to express your feelings.
But vagueness also applies to pronouns. A statement like “I feel everyone is ignoring me” is unclear and doesn’t address specifics. To avoid this confusion, relate experiences to real people and places ” Yesterday evening, I asked my brother for advice he didn’t respond. The same thing happened with my colleague at lunch today. It made me feel unappreciated.”
Try to narrate events and state to yourself how you felt as they occurred.
Finally, you need to learn how to express vulnerability. When you hide your true feelings, it can create unwanted tension among family, friends, and colleagues. Some professional codes(Military, Lawers, Engineers…) discourage the expression of vulnerability because it is a sign of weakness.
But instead of bottling up your feelings, use NVC to create bridges of communication. Observe and identify your feelings and needs and make clear requests.
How to take responsibility for your feelings?
As you get more familiar with NVC, you should be able to pay closer attention to your feelings. But it is also important to be responsible for your feelings.
When you interact with others, recognize your own needs first. Another person’s action can be the stimulus for our feelings, but they aren’t the cause. Rather it is the reaction the determines how we feel about what a person says to us.
Imagine a friend would tell you, “You are the most selfish person I’ve ever met!” you probably would react negatively. There are four different potential ways on how to react to this statement:
You might have a negative reaction to their words and think it is all your fault. But by blaming yourself, you can’t analyze the root of the message and address the other person’s sorrows. This might make you feel guilty or even depressed.
You become defensive or angry and might respond with, “That’s a lie, I have always considered your needs!” Here you are blaming the speaker and still fail to address the underlying issue.
A better reaction would be to state your own feeling “I feel down when you say I’m selfish because I try to make room for your demands.” When you use this process of verbalization, you can identify your own emotional response and address the reasons behind a conflict.
Ideally, you can observe the feeling and needs the speaker has. You can ask: “Do you think I am selfish because of specific actions I have done? How can I show that I also consider your needs?”
What are the roots of your feelings?
There is another challenging topic which is identifying your needs. It is difficult because most people don’t have enough practice doing it. Instead, they fall into the blame game.
The blame game is a trap because we don’t usually express our needs, and then we blame others for not fulfilling them. So, for example, you tell your roommate she is messy because she leaves unwashed dishes in the kitchen. But you didn’t communicate that the kitchen needs to be orderly. So you blame her; it is likely that she feels guilty and gets more defensive.
To resolve this issue, start by expressing your own needs as directly as you can. Unfortunately, many of us find it difficult and scary to express our true emotions. Women, in particular, often don’t communicate their own needs in order to take care of others because they are raised to do so.
But you can learn to be more direct. If you want to be understood by others, so they open their hearts to your needs, you simply need to express yourself directly. The more direct you are about your need, the easier it will be for others to meet your needs in a compassionate way.
So when your roommate leaves dishes behind again, tell her how it makes you feel and offer a solution that you can both agree on. Like “It stresses me out to clean the dirty dishes after a long day of work. Can you possibly clean them before I return? Or maybe make a schedule and share the responsibilities?”
If you don’t communicate your needs directly, you will cause yourself a lot of unnecessary pain. It is very important to pay attention to your own needs as soon as possible.
How to express your own needs?
You learned the three stages of nonviolent communication, which are observations, feelings, and needs. There is one final stage of NVC which is requests. But how can you express your requests in a way that others will respond compassionately?
A request should make clear what you really want. The clearer we express what we want from others, the more likely we are to get it.
To archive this, you need to make formal requests in a positive language. Positive language is when you ask for something to be done, while negative language is when you ask a person to stop doing something. The negative request can be unclear and may lead to misunderstanding or confusion.
For instance, a woman is frustrated with her husband that he always comes late for work. So she told him, “You spend too much time at work!” He understands from this negative language he was working too much. The following week he goes on a hiking trip with his friends.
But this isn’t what the wife wanted. Rather that he comes home so they can spend more time together. A better request would be, “I would like that you to spend at least two evenings a week with me.”
Also, formulate requests into concrete actions, so others know what they need to do.
Imagine an employer who wants feedback from his workers, but he knows most people are afraid to speak up. He might say,” Feel free to share your thoughts with me.” He is communicating to them that they should “feel free “to say what they want.
However, he doesn’t give a specific action they can take in order to feel free. To help them do so, he should request by using the positive action language: “I’d like you to tell me what I can do to make the work easier for you, so feel free to share your thoughts with me.”
How to not judge yourself?
NVC is a great tool to improve relationships with others, but it can also improve the relationship with yourself.
To better your self-relationship, you need to realize when you aren’t compassionate to yourself. A key indicator of this habit is the judgemental self-take which is the voice in your head that criticizes us for even the smallest mistakes. You might already say to yourself, “I am such an idiot!”, “I can’t believe I’ve done it again!” or “Why am I so stupid?”
Instead of getting trapped in a self-hating internal dialogue, try to better understand and identify the needs that fuel your self-judgment. The truth is self-judgments, like all other judgments, are an expression of unfulfilled needs. So when you hear judgemental self-take, stop listening and focus your attention on your unmet needs.
For example, when you are late to go to work just before you leave, you accidentally knock the class of water you wanted to drink over. You already hear the voice in your head: “Why am I so dumb?” But instead of listening to this negativity, pause yourself and ask,” What unmet need does this self-judgment express?”
It might take a while to figure this out. However, eventually, you might realize that by wanting to be on time at work, you overlooked your own need to care for yourself. You didn’t give yourself enough time to drink and rushed yourself, so you knocked the glass over. You might replace the self-judgment with a compassionate statement like, “It’s alright. I need to give myself more time for my own needs tomorrow.”
If you can fully connect with your unmet needs, you allow yourself to accept you are not perfect. While you might regret never being able to fulfill your ideal image of yourself, you will no longer hate yourself for it.
How to listen with empathy?
For accurate self-express, you also have to apply the four components of NVC to your listening skills. To fully understand the other person, you need to listen empathetically.
This means to create time and space so others can fully express their emotion, and you can try to feel what they feel.
Most people fail to do this; instead, they offer advice, solutions, or reassurance. But when trying to fix the other person’s problem, they are likely not truly listening to their emotions. Listen carefully and ask questions about their needs, feelings, and requests. Sometimes they actually might need advice or a hug, but other times, they might not even know themselves.
That is where the power of reflection and praising is helpful. Often what they really need is not the same as what they say and think they need. But with reflection and paraphrasing, you can help them understand what they try to communicate.
As an example, your boss says, “You are not a good communicator. This confuses you because she never complained about this before. So you reflect her statement back to her, “I am not a good communicator?” It allows her to expand on the message, and she says,” Yes, we missed a delivery in the morning because no one knew about it.”
To ensure you have understood, you paraphrase what she said in your own words.” We missed the delivery because none of the team members were aware of it.” It shows you understood her, and it allows her to correct you if necessary.
But instead, she confirms what you have said and replies, “Yes, we need to change the system to make everyone aware when a delivery is due.” Your use of NVC has helped her understand the problem she has, is with the currently used system and not with you.
How to resolve conflict?
Nobody can really escape every conflict in their daily lives. But luckily, the principles of NVC provide useful tools to resolve conflict.
First, establish a human connection. This is the starting point from which both parties involved can understand each other feelings and needs.
Next, ensure that the intention to connect comes from an honest place. It has to be clear that the goal is not to manipulate the other party but rather to create a safe space where each party can express their own needs. This can be achieved by observing and identifying feelings that are connected to both parties’ needs. They formulate concrete and viable requests.
These requests are used to archived satisfaction, not compromise. Satisfaction is when both parties needs are fully met. Indifference to compromise where both parties give something up, and nobody is fully satisfied.
For instance, imagine a conflict between a couple about taking the dog for a walk. One partner says, “you never go with the dog,” and the other responds, “I always take the dog out!” When they both observe and identify their felling, they might see that taking the dog out is overlapping with their schedules.
So one partner could say,” Could you please take the dog out in the morning because I would miss my train.” The other partner replies, “That is fine with me. But it seems fair that you can take the dog for a walk on the weekend so I can play tennis.” When they agree on their request, then both partners end up satisfied.
Nonviolent communication is a method to reduce conflict with ourselves and our relationship with others. By using compassion with every word, we speak and listen to everyone’s needs, including our own, we can create better and deeper human connections. It will help all of us to make the world a better place.