Many times we ask each other “How are you?”, followed by an automatic response: “Good.” Just like that, without thinking how we’re really feeling. Recently I’ve learned about the Nonviolent Communication theory by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). Nonviolent Communication is about communicating from the heart. About being honest with ourselves about our feelings. Firstly and most importantly, to connect with ourselves, in order to later be able to connect with other people.
This has happened with many of us: treating family or friends poorly because we aren’t on good terms with ourselves. This may happen because you’re disconnected with yourself. It could be that you’re forcing yourself to avoid feeling your emotions because you don’t want to go through them. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t mean that it’s fair to the people around you, but it certainly demonstrates that the way we treat ourselves determines our capability of treating others.
Once I read the following quote from Persian poet Hafiz: “the words you speak become the house you live in”. Words are extremely powerful, they have the ability to heal and make peace when they are genuine and kind, while they can also be very destructive when intended to cause harm. So be careful with your inner dialogue. The way you speak to yourself matters. An example of a positive inner dialogue would be to embrace and accept your strengths and weaknesses, so telling yourself “I might not be the best at this, but it’s okay because I have many other qualities”. By doing this you can create a healthy relationship with yourself, and with others. It’s essential to keep in mind that having a toxic mindset inevitably equals having toxic relationships.
The core aim of the Nonviolent Communication theory is to increase empathy in communication, because when both parties will take the time and effort to listen to each other’s feelings, it will be easier to cooperate and understand each other. The theory follows four steps: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
The first step is all about observations. The goal will be to make observations without interpretation. To give an instance: “When I see…”, “When I hear…”. Imagine a romantic relationship. You’re upset because you feel that your partner(s) don’t or doesn’t listen to you and you need their attention. In order to solve this problem, it is fundamental to be able to distinguish an observation from an evaluation. “There are times when I talk to you that you use your phone. What’s happening?” (this is an observation) instead of “You’re always on your phone when I talk to you. Why don’t you care about what I’m telling you?” (this being an evaluation). See the difference? With the first sentence you’re giving your partner(s) the opportunity to explain themself/themselves, space for your partner(s) to feel comfortable to share with you what’s going on. While doing evaluations, you’re making assumptions and blaming your significant other(s) without giving the chance to your other half to express themself/themselves. The tone of the observation is more relaxed and friendly. It suggests that you’re open to receiving their explanation to achieve a win-win situation. As opposed to this, since the tone of the evaluation is clearly hostile and combative, it will immediately make you perceive each other as enemies in a confrontation in which necessarily one has to win and the other has to lose.
The next step is to address feelings of both parts in relation to what has been observed. Here you have the opportunity to express your emotions and sensations rather than your thoughts. So using the example mentioned before, “When I talk to you and you are using your phone, I feel sad”, “I feel upset”, “I feel disappointed”. Usually suppression of feelings is at the heart of failed communication. Hiding your emotions to the other won’t make the problem fade away, it will actually worsen the situation and lead to misunderstanding.
The third step. As humans everything we do is moved by our attempts to fulfill our needs. These needs enrich our life and are universal, such as love, belonging, respect, trust, honesty. For this, transparency is key. You must be very clear when communicating to the other person what you want. An example of how to do this is: “Because I need or want your attention, you being on your phone when I talk to you makes me feel upset”.
The last step consists of making do-able and specific requests to the other. You can do this by telling the other what exactly could be done, according to your observations and feelings, so that your needs would be met. There are many ways of phrasing this respectfully and non aggressively: “Next time, would you be willing to not use your phone while I’m talking to you?”, “I would like you to not use your phone while I talk to you. Is that okay with you?”. During this step, remember to focus on what you want (and not on what you don’t want) and be mindful of not impeding others’ self-determination.
Rosenberg used animals to represent his theory. A dominant jackal was the image of aggressive communication. A giraffe was the symbol of compassionate communication, because giraffes have the largest heart of any land animal. This metaphor clarifies that when communicating with others, you can choose to be a jackal – someone who seeks to accuse, judge, and criticize – or a giraffe – someone who seeks solutions that make people come together in harmonious relationships. It’s up to you to decide what values will guide your communication. Do think this through, because it will not only impact your inner-communication, but the bonds you establish and maintain with others will depend on it.
Nonviolent Communication is something I definitely think is worth implementing in our lives. I think our society needs to work on how we talk to each other, since numerous crises and polarization have driven people away from one another. The power of words can minimize the distance between us. If we all tried Nonviolent Communication, I truly believe that the world would be a nicer place to live in.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Nonviolent Communication, here’s the link to Rosenberg’s podcast.
Rosenberg, M. B., & Chopra, D. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life: Life-changing tools for healthy relationships. PuddleDancer Press.