Is the way that we communicate violent?
If we define violence as causing harm to ourselves and others, then much of the way we communicate with each other may fit this characterization.
All human beings have an innate capacity for compassion, but it is easy to become detached from this capacity in our pursuit to get our way. But when we get our way through fear, guilt, shame, or coercion, we are just as likely to suffer as those who give in to our will.
Violent communication need not be malevolent; often, it is automatic and habitual. In this article, we will explore Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a process through which we can learn to express ourselves clearly and honestly while listening to our needs and others.
Read on for a foundation in NVC and ways to apply these skills in the different spheres of your everyday life.
This article contains:
- What Is Nonviolent Communication? 3 Real-Life Examples
- How to Practice It: 4 Steps
- Training in NVC: 5 Worksheets
- 3 Helpful Exercises and Games
- A Look at NVC in Relationships and Couples
- Employing NVC in Business
- A Note on NVC Meditation
- 3 Books on the Topic
- 3 Insightful Podcasts
- Relevant PositivePsychology.com Tools
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Nonviolent Communication? 3 Real-Life Examples
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a process of communication created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It is a compilation of ideas about compassionate human behavior, packaged to meet the needs of modern times.
Rosenberg refers to NVC as a “language of compassion” but emphasizes that NVC is more than a process or language (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). NVC, he declares, is “an ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking” (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
We will get into how you can start practicing NVC in the next section. For now, let’s begin with representative examples. Communication, both verbal and nonverbal, is a form of exchange and negotiation between partners. We can perform these exchanges with or without compassion.
NVC is based on the assumption that compassionate communication yields different results than uncompassionate communication and that these differences have a significant impact on both individual and societal levels (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
NVC can be used in intimate relationships, families, schools, organizations, institutions, relationship therapy and counseling, diplomatic and business negotiations, disputes, and conflicts of any nature (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015, p. 4). What follows are a few examples of NVC from Rosenberg’s writings.
1. NVC in school
A special-ed teacher uses NVC in her classroom. She has taught the skills to her students as well. A child in her class with behavioral difficulties has become increasingly frustrating for the teacher. This child becomes aggressive when other students get too close to his desk (spitting, swearing, stabbing with a pencil).
When the teacher prompts him to use NVC, he stops, changes his posture and demeanor, and says, “Would you please move away from my desk? I feel angry when you stand so close to me.” The other child responds in kind. Using NVC herself, the teacher realizes the unmet needs at the root of her frustration with the child.
Spending so much time on behavior management has stifled her sense of freedom and creativity in the classroom. Understanding this, she learns to respond to the student more effectively and compassionately (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015, p. 7).
2. NVC in medicine
A doctor uses NVC with her patients to understand their needs. Her patients have complicated life-long conditions, such as hemophilia and AIDS. These conditions tend to breed frustration and resentment with medical care providers.
The doctor uses NVC to show a genuine interest in the patient while providing help with how they can enjoy their everyday life. This interest is felt in her patients, who express gratitude. In turn, the doctor feels energized and motivated, while experiencing an increased ability to see her patients holistically, as human beings defined by factors beyond their diagnoses (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015, p. 10).
3. NVC in international relations
Rosenberg himself used NVC during a presentation at a refugee camp in Bethlehem when one of the listeners interrupted to call him a “murderer” (Rosenberg, an American, was seen as a representative of his country, which supplies weapons to Israel).
Rosenberg used NVC to resist his impulse to defend himself and listen to the man. By listening, he learned that the man wanted what everyone else wants: a clean and safe place to live, quality education for his children, political freedom, and autonomy.
This listening had the effect of defusing the man’s anger. He began to see Rosenberg as a fellow human, rather than an “American.” This exchange resulted in a dinner invitation for Rosenberg at the man’s home (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015, p. 15).
How to Practice It: 4 Steps
There are four steps and two parts to Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015):
NVC emphasizes observation without judgment. This means presenting the simple facts we have observed. For example, instead of saying, “You often don’t listen when I’m speaking,” you can say, “In our meeting today, I noticed that you were on your phone.”
Learning to practice NVC entails learning to separate what you observe from personal value judgments on that observation. Reserving these judgments helps prevent the triggering of defenses, opening up the possibility for an exchange that leads to understanding. Sharing these observations with others is the start of NVC.
NVC involves taking responsibility for your feelings. This requires a change in perspective of how others’ words and actions affect our feelings. In NVC, what others say and do is considered the stimulus, but never the cause of feelings.
Instead, it is how we choose to respond to these stimuli and our needs and expectations at the time that causes feelings to occur (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
When faced with a negative message from someone else, NVC illuminates four options. To illustrate these options, let’s use the example of criticism, “You’re so selfish”:
- Take it personally:
“I really am selfish…”
- Fight back:
“I’m not selfish; you’re selfish!”
- Consider your own feelings and needs:
Say something like: “When I hear you say that I am selfish, I feel hurt because I need some recognition of the effort I make to consider your preferences.” By connecting their feelings with their needs, the speaker makes it easier for their partner to respond compassionately.
- Consider the other person’s feelings and needs:
Ask something like: “Are you feeling hurt because you need more consideration for your preferences?” (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). This response opens space in the conversation for the other person to express their underlying needs.
To bypass the first two likely automatic reactions, the person practicing NVC must be tuned instead to options three or four.
In this way, the individual is empowered to take responsibility by making different choices when interacting with others. By making these different choices, they are more likely to understand their conversation partner and meet their own needs. Rosenberg writes that the goal of learning to communicate one’s own needs is to reach a stage called “emotional liberation” (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
Taking the next step, NVC makes the connection between feelings and unmet needs in the individual. These needs are common and fundamental to all human beings (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). The outer expression of feelings, such as anger and frustration, are seen as indicators of needs, such as love and acceptance, that are unfulfilled.
In the third step of NVC, the individual learns to look inside themselves for these needs. NVC training facilitates this through practice and by expanding the vocabulary of feeling words, thereby increasing the nuance with which individuals can pinpoint and describe their needs. Speakers then use this information to make effective requests from others.
NVC’s final step is to make specific, doable requests for things that enrich the requester’s life. They are made in such a way that it enables the person to respond compassionately to the request. Requests are never demanded. NVC considers demands always to be violent, intimidating, and forceful – the source of many ineffective and unhelpful communication exchanges.
Requests in NVC are positive. This means requesting what you want, rather than what you don’t want. An example of this would be saying: “I’d like you to spend more time with me at home” rather than “I don’t want you to spend so much time at work.”
The most effective way to separate a request from a demand is to include in the statement your own feelings and needs. This requires being conscious of what you are asking for and why you are asking for it (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). The clearer your request, the more likely you will get what you are requesting.
Since NVC is a reciprocal exchange, it can be broken down into two parts: 1.) Expressing honestly through the four components, and 2.) Receiving empathically through the four components (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). The second part depends on listening abilities, which NVC views as just as, if not more, important than speaking abilities.
It is important to remember that NVC is not a set formula, but something adapted to each individual context. The essence of the process is in the consciousness of the four components, rather than the words exchanged (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
Since NVC is not merely a language or a set of techniques, but also an empathic stance, a consciousness of deeper needs, and a compassionate intent, Rosenberg claims that NVC can be done with silence, with no words exchanging between partners (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
Training in NVC: 5 Worksheets
1. Listening Accurately Worksheet
Listening is half of the process in NVC. Use the Listening Accurately Worksheet to improve your listening skills so that you can become more skilled at identifying the feeling and need underneath your partners’ words.
2. Conflict Resolution Checklist
When using NVC in a conflict resolution situation, this helpful Conflict Resolution Checklist will help you keep track of which aspects of the conflict have been resolved. Use this to eliminate loose ends and prevent unresolved conflicts from festering.
3. Anger Exit and Re-Entry Routines worksheet
Anger is the emotion that may be most likely to block compassion from occurring. If anger holds you back in your pursuit of using NVC, use this Anger Exit and Re-Entry Routines worksheet to learn a strategy for defusing your anger.
4. TRAPS to Avoid and TIPS for Success
This worksheet breaks down some of the common traps in an emotionally loaded conversation. Consider reviewing this sheet with a client preparing to have a difficult talk with an important other.
5. Using “I” Statements worksheet
Using “I” statements is a vital component of NVC, as it allows the speaker to own their statements and take responsibility for their needs and feelings. Use this worksheet to help yourself or your client with this important skill.
3 Helpful Exercises and Games
1. What was my intention?
Sometimes conflicts arise because of our intentions for an action. For example, when we do someone else’s chores, we can do this with the intention of helping lighten the other person’s load, or we can do it to make that person feel guilty.
If we do not take time to check in and examine our intentions, we may cause conflict without realizing it. Use this exercise to become more adept at understanding your intentions:
- Write down something you did or said.
- Describe the act on paper, and write down the intention behind it.
- Dig deeper – were there other layers of intention beneath your stated intention?
- Looking back, would you change your intention? Would you change what you did or said? Write down and explore the thoughts and feelings that result from this exercise.
Role-playing lends itself to NVC practice. You can lead either of these role-plays in a group of dyads or one on one.
Spend the first five minutes of the role-play in conversation, with one role-player acting in a way that embodies the opposite of empathy. Switch roles. Then spend the next 10 minutes or so practicing NVC. Afterward, debrief. How did it feel in each phase? On either side?
- Practice self-empathy
This exercise is especially useful in front of a group or audience. Have a brave role-player embody both sides of an NVC conversation. In this way, they get practice not only with both sides, but also with identifying their needs and growing familiarity with what it sounds like to have their needs met.
3. NVC card games
The components of NVC have been developed into several different card games, which are great for children, couples, and groups working on these skills.
If you are interested in more communication exercises and games to work on with your clients, please see our PositivePsychology.com resource section below.
A Look at NVC in Relationships and Couples
Relationships can be a great source of joy and satisfaction or stress and distress.
Effective relationship communication helps couples enhance and strengthen their love relationship, while ineffective communication can cause conflict and rifts between partners.
NVC forms the foundation of the Emotion Focused Couples Communication Program (EFCCP), designed to help couples communicate with nonviolent and compassionate language, rather than disconnecting and demanding.
EFCCP repackages the four steps of NVC, emphasizing appreciation and gratitude, two emotions that help facilitate bonding (Vazhappilly & Reyes, 2017).
Couples go through the program together, with interventions taking place in both group and couples-only settings. There are also out-of-session activities for couples to complete, such as journaling and making an effort to thank/appreciate the partner for specific acts of goodwill.
In a three-week intervention utilizing EFCCP, couples experienced notable behavioral changes, including a higher level of effective communication and marital satisfaction (Vazhappilly & Reyes, 2017). This research supports the hypothesis that effective and compassionate communication leads to greater levels of wellbeing and marital satisfaction.
If you are a marriage and family therapist, or a therapist who does relationship work, consider working NVC into your practice for couples who struggle to communicate. For more information on EFCCP, consider reading the article cited above.
Employing NVC in Business
Some of the most significant stressors at work come from challenging interactions with coworkers and clients. Many employees are involved in interpersonal conflicts with their coworkers, causing high stress and difficulty recovering on weekends (Wacker & Dziobek, 2018).
The assumption behind NVC is that this stress can be avoided by adopting a compassionate and nonviolent style of communication. The hope is that NVC can prevent both burnout and coworker-related stress in the workplace.
A study was conducted with healthcare workers to test the hypothesis of whether NVC can prevent empathic distress and social stress at work (Wacker & Dziobek, 2018). The three-day training provided was a classic version of NVC training, emphasizing difficult emotions such as frustration and anger.
Participants were encouraged to role-play with real-life situations that they had experienced at work.
After tracking the participants for three months post-intervention, the researchers found evidence that the NVC training effectively fostered emotional and interpersonal skills and prevented empathic distress and interpersonal conflict (Wacker & Dziobek, 2018).
Participants showed enhanced use of NVC skills in everyday conversation and increased verbalization of negative emotions in conflictual conversations (Wacker & Dziobek, 2018).
The study is promising and demonstrates that NVC has utility in promoting a workplace where coworkers can take care of themselves and work through conflicts effectively and compassionately together. If you are interested in bringing NVC to your workplace, consider undergoing training yourself and bringing both the interventions and your newfound skills to work.
A Note on NVC Meditation
Meditation and NVC go well together. The process of NVC requires slowing down and becoming aware of the feelings and needs within you. This process can be aided by meditation practice since the skills developed in meditation cross over with the NVC process.
NVC trainers and educators have been developing content on NVC meditation. In addition, below is a guided meditation tailored explicitly to practicing NVC.
Guided NVC meditation
We recommend this article as well, which provides an excellent selection of meditation podcasts.
3 Books on the Topic
1. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life : Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships: Vol. 3rd edition – Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD & Deepak Chopra (2015)
This is the definitive text on NVC and provides the backbone of this article.
Complete with real-life examples and exercises for each chapter, this well-written book is a must-read primer for anyone interested in NVC.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Living Nonviolent Communication: Practical Tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situation – Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD (2012)
This is another of Rosenberg’s books on NVC.
While the first book provides a foundation in NVC’s theory, this book offers practical training in using NVC in various settings.
The focus is on exercise and things to try in real life. This text may be especially useful when looking for activities to try in your clinical practice.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Being Me, Loving You: A Practical Guide to Extraordinary Relationships – Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD (2005)
This shorter booklet consists of an adapted Q&A session on NVC in relationships.
This book provides real-life examples of how you can improve your intimate relationships’ quality by using NVC.
Find the book on Amazon.
3 Insightful Podcasts
1. The Art of NVC podcast
Hosted by Micah Salaberrios, this podcast shares the fundamentals of NVC with examples and interesting stories.
Salaberrios is dedicated to helping listeners discover Rosenberg’s work for themselves.
This podcast is an easy way to absorb more information about NVC and is full of tips for applying the process in everyday life.
2. Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC training – Joe Public
This podcast is essentially an audio archive of Rosenberg’s talks and pieces of training on NVC.
For those looking to go straight to the source, this podcast is the closest to attending training with the founder.
3. Conflict Hotline podcast – BayNVC
This podcast consists of various role-plays (real-life examples submitted by listeners) in which conflicts are resolved using NVC.
For those looking for examples of NVC in action, look no further than this podcast.
Relevant PositivePsychology.com Tools
The PositivePsychology.com Toolkit provides many different tools relevant to NVC; see below for a brief list of tools to help your clients with the different facets of the process.
1. The Four-Step Nonviolent Communication Process
If you are looking for a place to start working on NVC with your clients, this tool is the answer.
The worksheet accompanying this tool breaks down the four steps of NVC and provides tips and examples for clients going through the process. If it is your first time working on these skills with clients, this tool will help you do so skillfully and effectively.
2. Universal Needs Inventory
At its core, NVC is about communicating personal needs. The Universal Needs Inventory is a tool to help your clients become familiar with their needs.
It provides a list of some of the most common human needs, to be used as a starting point for clients struggling to express themselves.
3. Making an Effective Request for Action
Use this Effective Request for Action tool to help your client formulate effective action requests.
The worksheet provided in this tool provides a step-by-step process for making a request for action within the NVC framework. Having this skill will help clients to help those around them understand and meet their needs.
4. Brief Nonviolent Communication Exercises
As mentioned above, this tool provides many different in-session exercises to help your client understand and practice NVC. These exercises are quick, easy to run, and perfect for individual sessions or group settings.
5. Feelings When Needs Are Unsatisfied or Satisfied
Clients often need help expressing their feelings. This applies to pleasant and unpleasant feelings when needs are satisfied or unsatisfied. Use this Feelings tool to help your client expand their feelings vocabulary and increase their ability to communicate their feelings.
6. 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Nonviolent Communication is a fascinating approach to communicating that anyone can learn.
It is useful as a self-help strategy, a clinical technique, and a consulting solution. It is versatile and relevant in contexts both local and global.
The information above is a primer to get you started learning about NVC. Use the resources to start your journey, and watch your relationships improve and grow over time.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, don’t forget to check out our Positive Relationships Masterclass©. The Masterclass is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their wellbeing.
- Rosenberg, M. B. (2005). Being me, loving you: A practical guide to extraordinary relationships: A nonviolent communication presentation and workshop transcription. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.
- Rosenberg, M. B. (2012). Living nonviolent communication: Practical tools to connect and communicate skillfully in every situation. Louisville, CO: Sounds True Publishing.
- Rosenberg, M. B., & Chopra, D. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life : Life-changing tools for healthy relationships: Vol. 3rd edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.
- Vazhappilly, J., & Reyes, M. (2017). Non-violent communication and marital relationship: Efficacy of ’emotion-focused couples’ communication program among Filipino couples. Psychological Studies, 62(3), 275.
- Wacker, R., & Dziobek, I. (2018). Preventing empathic distress and social stressors at work through nonviolent communication training: A field study with health professionals. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 23(1), 141–150.