Practice Empathy with Nonviolent Communication

Empathy and emotional intelligence are the focus of management and leadership research. Not only that but it’s considered a core skill for just .. being human. The success of teaching children empathy brought the idea that adults can be taught too. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools to learn empathy, and here’s one of them.

These are questions that nonviolent communication (NVC) finds answers to. NVC was created by Dr Marshall B. Rosenberg that teaches institutions and individuals through his international peacemaking organisation, The Centre for Nonviolent Communication. Dr Marshall has taught and applied this approach to mitigate conflictual discussions in war-torn countries like Rwanda, Nigeria, Malaysia, Serbia, Croatia, the Middle East, etc.

In this post, I will explain the NVC process, and give examples, having as basis Dr Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication. A Language of Life. I’ll also exemplify how it can be used to build relationships, personally and professionally, but also to coach teams.

The NVC Process

The NVC approach is based on the belief that humans are capable of empathy, understanding and compassion, but we do not have effectual strategies to express our needs in a non-aggressive manner. NVC teaches us a new way to express and have our needs met and avoid conflict.

The NVC model is made of four components, that need to be expressed clearly to the other person: observe the facts, identify the feelings and needs these feelings to refer to and make a clear request to meet them (here’s a one-page instruction on how to apply of NVC.

The NVC process is made of two parts:

Express honestly through the four components (observe, feel, need, request), without blaming or criticising:

Receive empathically through the four components (understand what they observe, feel, need, request), without blaming or criticizing:

1. Observations

Observe what is happening, without judgement; state the facts.

The key to fruitful observation is to release it from any evaluation or judgement. It’s essential that we state the facts as we see them, clearly and honestly. If we add evaluation to the observation, the message might not be received by the other person (who, remember, might see things entirely differently).

Here are some examples from Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:

2. Feelings

State how you feel: hurt, amused, irritated, annoyed, joyful, etc.

Identifying our feelings is highly dependent on our cultural upbringing, life experiences, and how well we know each other. It might require some deep digging to identify the real feeling behind anger for example (which, in many cases, hides a different emotion, like fear).

Dr Rosenberg puts emphasis on the need to distinguish between feelings and non-feelings:

  1. Using the word”feel” doesn’t necessarily mean a feeling will be expressed. Here are some examples of Nonviolent Communication:
    1. Feel + that, like, as if: “I feel that you should know better”; “I feel like a failure”; “I feel as if I’m living with a wall”.
    2. Feel + I, you, he, she, they, it: “I feel I am constantly on call”; “I feel it is useless”.
    3. Names or nouns referring to people: “I feel Amy has been pretty responsible”; “I feel my boss is being manipulative”.
  2. Distinguish between actual feelings and what we think we are:
    1. What we think we are: “I feel inadequate as a guitar player” (there is no feeling expressed, but an assessment of my abilities).
    2. Actual feelings: “I feel disappointed in myself as a guitar player.”; “I feel impatient with myself as a guitar player.”; “I feel frustrated with myself as a guitar player.”
  3. Distinguish between feelings and we think others react or behave toward us:
    1. “I feel unimportant to the people with whom I work” (unimportant describes how I think others see me, not how I really feel)
    2. “I feel misunderstood” (misunderstood is not my feeling, it is an evaluation of another person’s evaluation).
    3. “I feel ignored.” (this is not a feeling, it is an interpretation of the actions of others).

Some words that describe feelings when our needs are met are: excited, fulfilled, hopeful, merry, peaceful, thankful, wonderful, etc. Some words that describe feelings when our needs are not met are: afraid, angry, bored, confused, disappointed, fearful, frustrated, hurt, lonely, nervous, sad, scared, surprised, worried, etc.

3. Needs

State what needs of yours are connected to your feelings.

The third component of NVC represents taking charge of our feelings, acknowledging that they result from how we choose to receive what others do or say, but also from our needs and expectations at that moment.

Dr. Rosenberg presents four ways we can react to a negative message (context: we’re told: “You’re the most self-centered person I’ve ever met!“):

  1. Blame ourselves: our reaction: “Oh, I should’ve been more sensitive…” we accept the criticism and blame ourselves; we feel shame, guilt, and depression, and our self-esteem takes a hit.
  2. Blame others: our reaction: “You have no right to say that! I am always considering your needs. You’re the really self-centred one.“; we feel anger towards the other.
  3. Sense our own feelings and needs: our reaction: “When I hear you say that I am the most self-centred person you’ve ever met, I feel hurt, because I need some recognition of my efforts to be considerate of your preferences.“; focusing on what we feel, we become aware of what need of ours is not met.
  4. Sense others’ feelings and needs: our reaction: “Are you feeling hurt because you need more consideration for your preferences?“; in this case, we might ask further questions to understand what the other is feeling, to try and help them.

We accept responsibility for how we feel and do not blame others when we acknowledge our needs, desires, and thoughts. Dr Rosenberg points out that we need to watch out for common speech patterns that mask accountability for our feelings (we place accountability somewhere else):

  • Using “it” or “that“: “It makes me angry to see spelling mistakes in our brochure“; “That bugs me a lot.”
  • Using “I feel (something) because...” followed by a person or personal pronoun other than I: “I feel angry because you said you don’t love me.”;I feel sad because my manager broke her promise.
  • Statements that mention only the actions of others: “When you don’t call me on my birthday, I feel hurt.“; “Mama is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.”

What’s essential in these situations is to build our awareness of what we really feel and take responsibility for the feelings by using instead the phrase “I feel… because I…“:

  • “I feel really angry when spelling mistakes appear in our brochures because I want our company to project a professional image.”
  • “I feel angry because my manager broke her promise because I was counting on getting that long weekend to visit my brother.”
  • “Mama feels disappointed when you don’t finish your food because I want you to grow strong and healthy.” (on a side note, I’m more of an eat-as-much-as-you-need parent, no need to finish what’s on your plate).

Our feelings are our responsibility and it’s essential to take accountability for them in order to build healthy relationships – with our partners, kids, or in a professional environment. Changing how we talk about them helps us build awareness and self-understanding and get our needs met, as we are able to communicate clearly how we feel and get the right reaction from the other person.

One incredible learning for me was that we are not responsible for other people’s feelings (as we understand they are not responsible for our feelings). We need to understand their needs and try to meet them to the best of our abilities, but we can’t make people happy, nor are we responsible for it. What we can do is use NVC to help them understand their feelings, own them, and express clear requests to have them met.

4. Requests

Express a request, make it specific, and explain what you want from the other person that would enrich your life.

After we observe, feel, and need, without judgement, criticism, blame or diagnosing of others, the next step is to make a request. How do we formulate a request that will make it crystal clear what you need?

  1. Express what we do need, not what we don’t by using positive language. Example: “I wish you didn’t spend so much time at work.” versus “I wish you spent more time at home with your family.” Making a clear, positive request, in concrete language can reveal what we really want (to us also, not only to others).
  2. Make requests consciously: if our partner gets back from shopping and forgot the bread (nobody messes with my bread!), we can choose to tell him: “I’m annoyed you forgot the bread.” or “Can you please go back and get the bread?“. Which of the two would get my needs met? (and also get me the precious bread).
  3. Ask for a reflection: communication and understanding each other don’t come easy (especially if you come from different cultural backgrounds). To make things easier, you can ask others to reflect back in their words what they heard us say (whenever the question “Is that clear?” is not enough).
  4. Ask for honest feedback: “I would like you to tell me how you feel about what I just said, and your reasons for feeling as you do.” – will bring more clarity and help the other person open up.
  5. Watch out for making demands: demands push people to submit or rebel, not an option if your intention is collaboration. A request turns into a demand if the other person thinks they will be punished or blamed if they don’t comply (thinking about it, the bread request is definitely a demand 🙂 ). The difference comes from how we take the answer of the other person (if they reject our request, we accept it and empathise with their answer; if we become aggressive or defensive when they reject out request, we have actually made a demand).

The objective of making requests – and using the NVC framework as a whole – is to build relationships based on honesty, empathy and understanding. If our purpose in any conversation is to build a relationship, we will not fall into the trap of making demands.

How you can use NVC

I suggest using NVC consciously until it becomes part of normal communication (I’m still working on that myself). It can be used to build any relationship – from personal (with family and friends) to professional, and it can also be used as a coaching tool.

NVC works really well as a tool for group facilitation. You can use the tool to help the group build awareness, express requests honestly and emphatically and create a higher understanding of each other. It’s a great tool for team connectivity, conflict resolution and mediation, expressing appreciation and feedback, and daily conversations between teammates.

Remember this is not an easy tool to use, it takes practice to build the habit of jumping into NVC when interacting with others, so keep on practising.

NVC in a nutshell

Expressing how I am (without blame and criticism:

Empathetically receiving how you are (without blame and criticism)


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