Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a compassionate form of communication that seeks to resolve conflicts and reconcile differences in all types of relationships. Marshall Rosenberg, author and pioneer of NVC, believes that it is in our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner. He claims to have been preoccupied with two questions his whole life:

“What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?”

Rosenberg was struck by what he perceived as the crucial role of language and our use of words in determining the nature of our relationships and interactions. Drawing on this insight, he identified

“a specific approach to learning and communicating – both speaking and listening – that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish”.

The aim of NVC is to provide people with the language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human even under very testing circumstances. Rosenberg admits that the NVC approach contains nothing new and that humans have known for centuries how to relate in skilful ways. NVC has merely integrated and systematised this knowledge.

“NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of habitual, automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on what we are perceiving, feeling and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathetic attention. In any exchange we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviour and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in any given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative”.

Rosenberg argues that NVC replaces the old habitual patterns of defending, withdrawing, and attacking when faced with judgement and criticism, as we come to a new understanding of ourselves, others and our relationships. As a result, resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimised. Instead of diagnosing and judging, we come to focus on what is being observed, felt, and needed.

NVC emphasises deep listening (to ourselves as well as others) which cultivates respect, attention, and empathy, and develops the desire to give generously. Ultimately, NVC is about redirecting our attention:

“I developed NVC as a way to train my attention – to shine the light of consciousness – on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking”.

In order to develop this mutual desire to ‘give from the heart’, we focus our attention on four areas. The four components of the NVC model are observation, feelings, needs and requests.

Rosenberg summarises the NVC process as follows:

  • The concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being
  • How we feel in relation to what we observe
  • The needs, values, desires etc. that create our feelings
  • The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

The first step is to simply observe what is happening in any given situation without judgment or evaluation. We are simply learning to skilfully articulate the words and actions that are affecting us. We state what action is taking place that we either like or dislike.

Secondly, we learn how to state how we feel in relation to these actions – do we feel sad, angry, joyful, annoyed? Then we express what our needs are in relation to these feelings. Rosenberg illustrates the process by way of example:

“A mother might express these three pieces to her teenage son by saying, “’Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the T.V., I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common’…She would follow immediately with the fourth component – a very specific request: ‘Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?’”

The fourth component involves making a request of the other person that would enrich our lives or make the situation easier for us. This, it must be noted, is distinct from a demand. It is an invitation or an offering that the other person is free to accept or decline without guilt or negative repercussions.

NVC, therefore, is in the first place about learning to express ourselves clearly, concisely and without evaluation or judgement. However, NVC is a two way system and the second aspect of this communication system is learning to receive this information on these four components from others. This process goes to the root of the true meaning of communication by learning to connect with the other person by “first sensing what they are observing, feeling and needing; then we discover what would enrich their lives by receiving the fourth piece – their request”.

“As we keep our attention focused on the areas mentioned, and help others to do likewise, we establish a flow of communication, back and forth, until compassion manifests naturally: what I am observing, feeling, and needing; what I am requesting to enrich my life; what you are observing, feeling and needing; what you are requesting to enrich your life…”

However, NVC, Rosenberg emphasises, is not a set formula but something that can be adapted to different contexts, situations, personal and cultural styles. While the process is usually referred to as a language it is also possible to experience all four components of the process without speaking a word. The essence of the process is in our awareness of the four components not in any set of words or language used.

NVC can be used in all types of interactions – with ourselves, personal relationships, and larger groups. Through the process we become “grounded in our natural state of compassion”. It is an approach that can be used in all types of communication and in a diverse range of settings including intimate relationships, families, schools, organisations and institutions, therapy and counselling relationships, diplomatic and business negotiations, and disputes and conflicts of all sorts.