Transform Your Relationships One Word at a Time

Transform Your Relationships One Word at a Time

By Brad Dunning

I’m going to begin from a place of transparency and vulnerability. There were times while I was reading Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” that I felt it to be unrealistic and frustrating. Even though I found myself nodding along with its core principle, using empathetic communication free of judgment, I often condemned its practices as unrealistic and unnatural. Communicating in Rosenberg’s suggested manner often sounded scripted and out of character, to me. The thing is, to practice nonviolent communication with fidelity, I would need to examine how I’ve been “culturally conditioned” to communicate, and then discard my deeply ingrained practices of defending, attacking, judging, and criticizing. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like it should be difficult. Does anyone take pride in attacking, judging, or criticizing? The issue at hand, however, is that I regularly do all of these things in many of my interactions with others without intention. Therefore, in order to stay compassionate and to “give from the heart,” the key tenets of nonviolent communication, these are the very practices Rosenberg is asking me to abandon. What’s particularly challenging is that they are often difficult to recognize.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg

So what exactly is nonviolent communication? Maybe it’s easier to start with its inverse, violent communication. Violent communication results in harm regardless of its intention. Violent communication is often defensive and judgmental, couched in the binary of what’s right and wrong or good and bad with others. And, in the end, violent communication leads to hurt, pain, conflict, and even wars. Nonviolent communication, on the other hand, values relationships above all else. Nonviolent communication allows us to connect compassionately and empathetically. Above all else, nonviolent communication enriches both the giver and the receiver.

The first half of Rosenberg’s book sets up his approach to nonviolent communication. He lays it out in four components: separating observation from evaluation; identifying and expressing feelings; acknowledging the root of our feelings; and using positive language to make requests. I’d like to start by summarizing each. Finally, I will share Rosenberg’s definition of empathy and what it means to be fully present without judgment.

1. Separating Observation from Evaluation

The first component of the nonviolent communication process is the ability to separate observation from evaluation when we deliver a message to another person that we need them to hear. According to Rosenberg, this is a particularly difficult habit to break because of how we’ve learned to communicate. Often, we are prone to using labels like she is lazy, generalizations like he is a poor hockey player, and exaggerations like always and never. These phrases and words blur observations with evaluations, and the danger in combining the two is that the receiver hears criticism and will resist our message.

So, instead of an evaluative generalization like, “Franklin is a poor hockey player,” it’s more effective to make a time and context-specific observation like, “Franklin has not scored a goal at any away game this season.” Or, rather than an exaggeration like, “Susan never completes her homework,” try, “Susan has only turned in three of the last ten assignments.”

Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life

2. Identifying and Expressing Feelings

The second component is to identify our feelings and express them with nuance. According to Rosenberg, “...the difficulty in identifying and expressing feelings is common…[and] the toll is severe.” He posits that the ability to express our feelings is often hampered by our limited “feelings vocabulary,” so by building that vocabulary we can strengthen our intimate and professional relationships. Part of effectively building our vocabulary is learning to distinguish between feelings and “non-feelings.” A key differentiator between the two, surprisingly, is the use of the word feel. For example, saying, “I feel that you should know the answer,” does not describe a feeling at all. Instead, this is a thought and should be replaced with I think. Similarly, saying, “I am feeling sad,” can simply be stated as, “I am sad.” The word feeling is unnecessary. Sometimes, we use the phrase I feel to describe how we think others react to us or behave toward us. Rosenberg has a helpful example: “I feel unimportant to the people with whom I work.” This is actually a statement describing how I think others are assessing me.

One of the many wonderful resources in the book is the two-and-a-half-page list of terms that we can use to express our feelings both when our needs are being met and when they are not. The intentional use of words that refer to a specific emotion not only helps us to connect with others, but also to resolve conflicts.

3. Acknowledging the Root of Our Feelings

The third component, acknowledging the root of our feelings, was one of the most challenging for me as it asked me to accept that “...what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings.”

To help illustrate how this looks in practice, I’d like to share an example. According to Rosenberg, if someone is mad at me and says, “You’re the most inconsiderate person I’ve ever met,” I have four options for receiving it: blame myself, blame someone else, sense my feelings and needs, or sense others’ feelings and needs.

  • When I blame myself, I think that I need to be more self-aware of my actions, thereby accepting the other person's judgment of me. As a result, I feel guilt or shame.
  • When I blame others, I respond to the speaker by saying, "You have no idea what you're talking about! You're the one who is inconsiderate!" This typically results in my feeling angry or attacked.
  • If I choose to sense my own feelings and needs, my response sounds like, "When you call me inconsiderate, I feel hurt because I need you to recognize how often I've accepted your feedback." I experience hurt because my effort to this point has not been validated.
  • Finally, I can try to sense the speaker's feelings and hidden needs, when receiving a negative message. For example, my response could be, "Are you feeling hurt because you need me to take your ideas into account more frequently?" 

Rosenberg argues that we need to accept responsibility for our feelings, but we cannot own the feelings of others. And once we take responsibility for our own feelings, we need to connect them with what we need. According to Rosenberg, “Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.” The more directly we make this connection, the more likely people will respond to us compassionately, rather than engaging in self-defense or a counterattack.

4. Using Positive Language to Make Requests

The last component of nonviolent communication shows us how to “ our requests so that others are more willing to respond compassionately to our needs…” Rosenberg advises us to move away from vague and abstract language as it creates what he calls “internal confusion” and often masks what we truly desire. Instead, he shows us how to use positive action language. This starts by expressing what you do want, rather than what you don’t, and it needs to be followed by concrete, not ambiguous, phrasing. Perhaps, this is best illustrated using a cartoon by Danny Shanahan from the "New Yorker."

A cartoon from the New Yorker

Rosenberg states that “...we often use vague and abstract language to indicate how we want other people to feel or be without naming a concrete action they could take to reach that state.” To make sure that the message we send is the one that’s received, it is important to find out if it’s been understood accurately. This can be done by asking the receiver to reflect on what they’ve heard, thereby allowing us to clarify ideas and address misunderstandings.

5. Empathy

One of the many benefits of nonviolent communication is its power to strengthen our ability to connect with others empathetically. When we empathize with others, we give them the space to openly express their feelings. Being empathetic, however, is challenging. It requires that we avoid behaviors that keep us from being fully open and present. Rosenberg’s colleague, Holley Humphrey, shares the most common ones along with examples:

  • Advising: "I think you should..."
  • One-upping: "Wait until you hear what happened to me."
  • Educating: "This could be a positive experience for you if you just..."
  • Consoling: "It wasn't your fault; you did the best you could."
  • Story-telling: "That reminded me of a 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 now how it happened."

While our urge may be to resort to any one of these responses, it’s important to clear our minds and be free of judgment when we allow others to fully express themselves. While it may not be simple, Rosenberg simply states, “Our ability to offer empathy can allow us to stay vulnerable, defuse political violence, hear the work no without taking it as a rejection, revive a lifeless conversation, and even hear the feelings and needs expressed through silence.”

At 219 pages, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” is not a long read. It is, though, a deep one that forces us to take inventory of the language we use and reflect on its consequences. What’s particularly difficult is that so many of the phrases and responses we use are deeply embedded in our cultural norms. As a result, replacing an old way of communicating with a new one can feel unnatural and scripted. From my perspective, this doesn’t mean we should disregard the approach. Instead, I offer Rosenberg’s book as the first exposure to an idea that can be revisited again and again. If we take in the idea of nonviolent communication with open minds and really sit with it, I am convinced we will all be better for it. Just being aware of how our communication can cause hurt and harm, unintended or not, is an important step on the road to transforming our relationships and maybe even the world.

Explore recent articles