Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

Nonviolent Communication describes a communication style centered around sharing vulnerability and offering empathy. One of its biggest strengths is in how it highlights common patterns of lazy communication that exclude personal feelings or critical thinking. I also found its discussion of empathy illuminating, as it made me realize ways that I could improve my skills at listening empathetically.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was how commonplace it is for people to say, “I must do this,” without thinking about whether they truly “must” or why they feel that way. After reading the book, I try to avoid saying things like, “I have to write this email.” Phrasing it in those terms needlessly disconnects me from the choice I’ve made to write the email.

The distinction between “I must do X” and “I’m choosing to do X because…” seemed silly at first, but it grew more reasonable the more I thought about it. Now, I default to, “I want to do X.” If I don’t want to do it, I evaluate whether it’s an intermediate step to something I ultimately want or if it’s something I don’t need to do at all.

The book bears many similarities to Crucial Conversations. Both emphasize the importance of separating judgments from facts during high stakes conversations. They also both advocate making everyone feel comfortable and heard.

Nonviolent Communication is a bit mushier in that it focuses on vulnerability and feelings, whereas Crucial Conversations is more clinical and process-oriented. Although both books advocate using their techniques in all contexts, I view Crucial Conversations as best-suited for professional relationships and Nonviolent Communication as a good match for friends and loved ones.


What I Liked

  • Highlights the many ways that we unthinkingly use language that implies choicelessness and helplessness:
    • e.g., “I have to respond to this email,” “You made me upset.”
    • I appreciated the idea of accepting responsibility for your choices and your reactions to others.
  • I’ve found many of his ideas helpful in improving communication with loved ones.
  • It made me re-evaluate the ways I try to empathize with people and comfort them when they’re upset.

What I Disliked

  • The book advocates a style of reflective listening that feels patronizing to me.
    • A: “I’m having a terrible day!”
    • B: “It sounds like you’re unhappy because the day isn’t playing out the way you had hoped.”
  • Many of the illustrative stories feel exaggerated or implausible.
    • e.g., The author describes a time that he presented to violent gang members and told them how scared he was of them and then just kept asking them questions about why they weren’t taking him seriously. At the end of the presentation, they declared him the best speaker they’d ever seen.
  • The grammar in his example dialog is odd and reads as if a non-native speaker wrote it.
    • e.g., “I am needing more respect in our dialogue.”
  • The second half was mostly stories about people putting the ideas of the first half into practice, which I found not so interesting.
  • The author likes quoting lyrics from songs that he and his fellow therapists have written, but they didn’t resonate with me.

Key Takeaways

Nonviolent communication (NVC)

Nonviolent communication (NVC): a way of communicating that leads us to give from the heart.

  • NVC is a way of communicating more thoughtfully by focusing on our own emotions and withholding judgment.

  • NVC process:

    1. Observe concrete events that have affected your mood.
    2. Identify the feelings that arise in yourself in relation to those events.
    3. Trace those feelings back to your needs, values, and desires.
    4. Request concrete actions from others to help satisfy your needs.

Judgmental thinking

  • Thinking in terms of judgment (e.g., “She’s lazy,” “He’s unreasonable”) places blame on others when the issue is really our own unmet need.
    • Judgmental language detaches us from the issue and allows us to shirk responsibility for the feelings we’re experiencing.

Choicelessness language

  • People often describe choices in terms of “have to do X” or “need to do Y.”

    • This language implies that the speaker is not voluntarily choosing the action when they, in fact, are.
  • During the trial of Adolf Eichmann (Nazi officer), he said that Nazis discussed atrocities in the language of “amtssprache” (“office talk” or “bureaucratese”).

    • When pressed to explain why they committed war crimes, Nazis would give responses like “I had to.”
  • Examples of responsibility-denying language:

    • Vague, impersonal forces — “I cleaned my room because I had to.”
    • Our condition, diagnosis, or personal or psychological history — “I drink because I am an alcoholic.”
    • The actions of others — “I hit my child because he ran into the street.”
    • The dictates of authority — “I lied to the client because the boss told me to.”
    • Group pressure — “I started smoking because all my friends did.”
    • Institutional policies, rules, and regulations — “I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s the school policy.”
    • Gender roles, social roles, or age roles — “I hate going to work but I do it because I am a husband and a father.”
    • Uncontrollable impulses — “I was overcome by my urge to eat the candy bar.”
  • Styles of communication that minimize individual agency may be artifacts of living in hierarchical societies.

    • In a society where a small number of people control large populations, it’s beneficial to leaders if citizens communicate using language that implies choicelessness and powerlessness.

Compassion-denying language

  • The word “deserves” often blocks the speaker’s compassion
    • e.g., “He deserves to be punished.”
    • “deserves” attributes badness to the subject and implies that they deserve no empathy.

Separating observations from judgments

  • People are more open to feedback that’s objective and indisputable rather than feedback based on our opinions or judgments.
    • We can separate the objective and subjective parts of our feedback.
Communication Example of mixing observation and judgment Example of separating observation from judgment
Use of verb to be without indication that the evaluator takes responsibility for the evaluation You are too generous. When I see you give all your lunch money to others, I think you are being too generous.
Use of verbs with evaluative connotations Doug procrastinates. Doug only studies for exams the night before.
Implication that one’s inferences about another person’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, or desires are the only ones possible She won’t get her work in. I don’t think she’ll get her work in.

or

She said, “I won’t get my work in.”
Confusion of prediction with certainty If you don’t eat balanced meals, your health will be impaired. If you don’t eat balanced meals, I fear your health may be impaired.
Failure to be specific about referents Immigrants don’t take care of their property. I have not seen the immigrant family living at 1679 Ross shovel the snow on their sidewalk.
Use of words denoting ability without indicating that an evaluation is being made Hank Smith is a poor soccer player. Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games.
Use of adverbs and adjectives in ways that do not indicate an evaluation has been made Jim is ugly. Jim’s looks don’t appeal to me.

Words like “always,” “never,” “frequently,” and “seldom” often accompany evaluations:

  • Evaluation: You seldom do what I want.
  • Observation: The last three times I initiated an activity, you said you didn’t want to do it.

Bonding by expressing feelings

  • Expressing vulnerability and feelings makes others feel more connected to you.
    • Specificity in articulating your feelings strengthens the communication.
    • e.g., “I feel excited,” is better than “I feel good.”

Accepting accountability for feelings

  • Other people’s actions might be the stimulus of our feelings, but they are not the cause.
  • Our feelings are the result of our own choices, needs, and expectations.

Four options for reacting to negative feedback from others

  1. Blame ourselves: Accept the person’s judgment and allow it to affect our self-esteem.
  2. Blame others: Reject criticism by faulting the speaker.
  3. Sense our own needs and feelings: Observe what feelings we experience in response to the criticism we’ve heard.
  4. Sense others’ feelings and needs: Probe to understand more about how you failed to satisfy the speaker’s needs.

Common speech patterns that obscure personal accountability for feelings

  • Impersonal language like “it or “that”
    • “It really infuriates me when spelling mistakes appear in our brochures.”
    • “That bugs me a lot.”
  • “I feel _____ because _______”
    • “I feel hurt because you said you don’t love me.”
  • Mentioning only the actions of others
    • “When you don’t call me on my birthday, I feel hurt.”

It’s possible to correct these speech patterns by connecting our feeling with the underlying need that caused it.

  • Use the format: “I feel [feeling] because [underlying need].”
  • Examples:
    • I feel really infuriated when spelling mistakes like that appear in our public brochures because I want our company to project a professional image.”
    • I feel angry that the supervisor broke her promise, because I was counting on getting that long weekend to visit my brother.”

State needs and desires in positive terms

  • We’re more likely to get what we want from others if we state our desires in terms of positive actions.
  • People commonly say what they don’t want, which leaves more room for miscommunication and misinterpretation.
  • The clearer we are about what we want, the more likely we are to get it.
  • In meetings and group discussions, people often unintentionally waste time by addressing the group without first thinking about what response they hope to achieve.

Requests vs. demands

  • The difference between requests and demands is how the speaker handles noncompliance.
    • If the speaker punishes the listener for noncompliance (including guilt trips or whining), it was a demand.
    • If the speaker accepts rejection graciously, it was a sincere request.
  • If we form a habit of punishing people for failing to comply with our requests, they will learn to interpret the requests as demands.
    • They will then either comply out of fear or rebel.
  • If we clearly express a desire and the listener chooses not to satisfy it, it’s important to accept the answer graciously so that we don’t create a dynamic where they feel we’re demanding they satisfy all of our desires.

Receiving empathically

  • People often fail to be fully present when hearing others’ feelings.

  • Common anti-patterns to listening with true empathy:

    • Advising: “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t…?”
    • One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait’ll you hear what happened to me.”
    • Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just…”
    • Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
    • Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
    • Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
    • Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing…”
    • Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
    • Explaining: “I would have called, but…”
    • Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”
  • To listen empathically, identify what the speaker is:

    1. Observing
    2. Feeling
    3. Needing
    4. Requesting
  • One way to uncover these four things is by making guesses and checking in with the person to learn if they’re correct.

    • “Are you feeling unhappy because you need to be heard?”
    • “Are you reacting to how many evenings I was gone last week?”

Self-evaluating with empathy

  • We should employ self-empathy when we evaluate ourselves.
    • If self-evaluation leads to shame, we may still grow and improve, but we’re letting self-hatred drive us.
    • Instead, translate self-judgments into inner demands.
  • Generally, when we say we “should” or “shouldn’t” do something, the underlying message is that we’re behaving in a way that’s misaligned with our needs or values.
    • Shaming (bad): “I shouldn’t have eaten that donut.”
    • Identifying underlying values (good): “My priority to stay healthy is higher than the short-term pleasure of eating the donut.”
  • Identifying the unmet need helps us forgive ourselves and avoid stewing in shame.

Limitations of punishment

  • When we seek to punish someone, we should ask ourselves two questions:

    1. What do I want this person to do that differs from what they’re currently doing?
    2. What do I want this person’s reasons to be for doing what I’m asking?
  • Example: Punishing a child for not cleaning their room

    • Teaches them to submit to authority but doesn’t help them appreciate the inherent benefits of cleanliness and organization.
  • An empathic discussion can often substitute the use of force or punishment.