Nonviolent Communication highlights three modes of communication: honest self-expression, empathic listening, and empathic self-connection.
At the heart of everything is empathic self-connection. This is about connecting to what feels alive in us, about what we value. Self-connection grounds us, focuses our attention on what really matters to us, and provides a sound basis for subsequent communication and action.
A vital part of communication is empathic listening. People all long to have others understand their experience of the world. Most people are starved for this, and that starvation makes it difficult for them to hear us until they themselves are heard. Empathic listening is about listening for what is important to a person, what positive aspiration they are longing to achieve in any given situation. It doesn't mean that we necessarily agree with the other person, just that we sincerely try to understand what is going on for them. Empathic listening offers a gift to the other and to ourself, and paves the way for connection and satisfying communication.
Self-expression is something we are familiar with trying to do. Nonviolent Communication encourages a shift in what we focus on as we express ourselves honestly. Instead of using self-defeating patterns of expression that are pervasive in our culture, we focus on sharing what is really important to us in ways that allow the listener to connect to our humanity and aspirations. This supports the listener in not striving to defend themselves from us, but instead understanding what is going on for us. This is a step towards connection and towards creating what we really long to have in our lives.
Components of Communication
NVC delineates four components of communication:
Observations free of evaluations;
Feelings straight from the heart;
Needs, values and longings; and
Requests expressed clearly in positive action language.
We are trained to make careful observations free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others, and to identify and clearly articulate what we are wanting in a given moment. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed, rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.
Needs vs. Strategies
The word "need" as used in Nonviolent Communication only approximately corresponds to the way most people use the word. In Nonviolent Communication, a Need is a something that our humanity calls us to seek, something universal. Each need is something we can all relate to, though a given need might be more intense for some people or at some times or certain situations.
It is important to distinguish between Needs and Strategies. If I want a fancy sports car, that's not a Need because it's not inherent that all human want a sports car. However, I might want a sports car as a Strategy for meeting a Need for excitement. Valuing excitement is a universal experience.
Shifting our attention from Strategies to Needs has the power to transform conflict because (1) the universality of needs means that all parties to the conflict can understand and appreciate what is at issue, and (2) the focus on needs introduces flexibility, since there are likely to be ways to meet the need one wouldn't have thought of if one clung to the idea that the strategy was what was important.
Requests vs. Demands
People typically respond to demands by either giving in but resenting it, or by rebelling. As a result, getting things done by making demands tends to be something that you will ultimately pay for through degraded relationships.
Nonviolent Communication recommends learning how to pursue meeting our needs by making Requests. You know that something is a Request if a response of "no" does not provoke retaliation. Nonviolent Communication offers ways to appreciate receiving a "no" and treat it as simply one step along the path towards meeting everyone's needs, including your own.