Nonviolent communication — or compassionate communication — comes from a place of understanding and empathy that individuals must cultivate. It allows people to take stock of themselves so they may respond and make requests with compassion for both themselves and those with which they communicate.
What is Nonviolent Communication?
Nonviolent communication focuses on communicating in a way that’s gentle and empathetic, yet still assertive rather than passive or aggressive. It doesn’t involve demands or manipulation. Instead, it relies on understanding what happened, how it made you feel, what you need going forward, and how to request that in a way that won’t place an unfair burden on your communication partner.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, created the nonviolent communication framework through his work with civil rights activists. His goal was to develop a method of communication that could contribute to peacebuilding and reduce conflict when dealing with controversial and tense subjects. More than 60 countries worldwide have conducted nonviolent communication trainings based on this framework.
Why is Nonviolent Communication Important?
Nonviolent communication is important because it allows us to strengthen our interpersonal relationships and empower ourselves by redefining our approach to communication. Rather than communicating to win, we communicate to understand and create harmonious relationships where everybody feels heard and respected.
Nonviolent communication also can change the way people approach conflict. For example, it helps individuals develop an emotionally intelligent vocabulary that allows them to better understand and express themselves. When people approach a conflict through empathetic communication, they can focus on the heart of an issue without projecting unfair moralistic judgments and interpretations onto that issue.
How to Practice Nonviolent Communication
Communicating in a compassionate, nonviolent way involves focusing on four aspects of communication: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Taking time to focus on all four will help you learn to approach difficult conversations in a way that takes into account the objective occurrence that caused a problem, how it made you feel, what needs remain unmet for both you and your conversation partner, and how to move forward to remedy the situation.
When you need to say something to someone, start with a factual observation. The key here is to avoid including any kind of moral judgment. Instead, ground the observation in your senses. If you waited for a phone call that never came, for example, the observation would simply be: “You didn’t call me.” This avoids adding any evaluation to the observation, such as: “You didn’t call me because you don’t care about me.”
Next, consider how a situation makes you feel as well as how the other person may feel. Again, try to refrain from making moral judgments about the person with which you’re communicating. Your goal is to connect with them in a way that’s empathetic to both their needs and your own. So, you might say: “You didn’t call me, and it made me feel forgotten.”
Once you identify your observation and how that situation makes you feel, you can look at what unmet needs caused you to feel this way. Unmet interpersonal needs often cause people to act in unpleasant ways. To achieve true empathic communication, try to understand the needs of those around you as well as your own.
Using the same example of someone not calling you when they said they would, you could say: “You didn’t call me yesterday (this is your observation), and it upset me (this is your feeling). We needed to discuss our plans for the weekend (this is your need). Did something come up?”
Finishing with a question allows you to understand what happened and provides context for the miscommunication so you can progress in a more empathetic way toward your partner.
The fourth aspect of nonviolent communication involves determining what you want to get out of a conversation and how to request exactly what you need without making the other person react out of guilt or manipulation. The key here is to focus on what you want and need rather than what you don’t want. You want people to willingly and compassionately respond to your requests instead of responding from a sense of obligation or shame.
Once you cover your observation, feelings, and needs, you can make a request to remedy the situation. For example, you could say: “You didn’t call me yesterday, and it upset me. We needed to discuss our plans for this weekend. Could we schedule a time for a call that works better for you?” This approach clearly states your request and gives the person an opportunity to choose a convenient time for them.
Barriers to Nonviolent Communication
Several common behaviors can hinder compassionate communication, but people often don’t realize they engage in them. To successfully practice nonviolent communication, individuals must break these unproductive habits.
Using Violent Communication Strategies
Nonviolent communication is all about making requests based on needs. However, some people have a tendency to use whatever methods they have to make someone agree to something. This often involves making demands rooted in implied consequences for not performing or using manipulation to achieve the desired result. These “violent” communication strategies ignore the needs and feelings of the other conversation partner.
People who can’t take responsibility for their actions can’t engage in genuine empathetic communication with others. These individuals waste time trying to disguise their weaknesses or shift blame rather than being honest with themselves and their communication partner. While fear of repercussions can make it challenging to own your mistakes, this is a necessary part of creating an environment in which nonviolent communication practices thrive.
Making Moral Judgements
Perhaps the worst barrier to effective nonviolent communication, making moral judgments about a person just covers up the issues and feelings that actually bother someone. To practice compassionate communication, individuals must avoid judging people and instead focus on understanding them.