What is Nonviolent Communication?

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What is NVC? Is it a way of speaking and listening? A way of thinking? A way of connecting? In a training session earlier this year, people were asked to reflect on their definition. Some of the answers were:

  • A “revolutionary system for transforming culture”,
  • A way of being that “enhances my inner spiritual being”,
  • “A culture and consciousness as well as a language”,
  • “A way of life in which I aim to connect to myself and others”,
  • “A practice to support us to live and create the world we wish to live in”,
  • “A consciousness that attempts meeting and connecting to my and other’s humanity”,
  • A consciousness that “strives to create a world that works for all”,
  • A way of being that “attends to needs with natural giving, quality of connection, and seeing each other’s humanity and equally valuing the needs of all.”

Everyone has their own definition of NVC and every time I share my definition, it is different. My definition leans towards the consciousness side, as NVC can be embodied without saying a word, and I think of it as a state of being more than anything else.

Then Marshall said, if there was a definition, it would be the integration of the following five elements.

The trainer in this session was Kathleen Macferren. She shared that she attended a training session in 2005 with the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, in Switzerland, where he said:

“There is no such thing as NVC. As soon as we call it a thing, we’ve lost sight of what we’re seeking, like this direct connection with the life in me and the life in you. As soon as we called a thing, we’ve removed it from its actual purpose of that deep connection to that divine energy and sacredness of life. But, then Marshall said, if there was such a thing called NVC, it would be the integration of these five elements…”

Trainer Kathleen Macferren, quoting Marshall Rosenberg

Marshall’s five elements of NVC:

Kathleen worked with Marshall during the last ten years of his life. The books were already written, and he was continuing to grow and cultivate his own understanding of NVC. She said this is one of the directions that he was exploring.

The following is mostly my reporting of Kathleen’s interpretation of what Marshall said.

  1. Consciousness of interdependence, compassionate giving, and power with:
    There are three points that make up the spirituality and framework of NVC, and combined, these are the most important of the five elements. This is the essence of NVC.

    a. The first part of this framework, and the foundation of NVC, is the consciousness of interdependence. It’s impossible to fully meet anyone’s needs at the expense of another person’s needs because we are all linked. Marshall has said that his need for food will never be fully met if there is a hungry person on the planet. This speaks to the consciousness of interdependence.

    b. The second part of the framework is the idea of natural or compassionate giving. We want to give and receive and this giving and receiving is what keeps the interdependence going.

    c. The third part is the sense of power with as opposed to power over and power under. We use power all the time and want to use power to influence each other in terms of how we co-create the world together.

    Collectively, these tie into the web of life. We are all related to each other and for true interdependence, we must have an awareness of the impacts of our choices and how they impact each other, individually and globally.
  2. Language
    The second element is paying attention to our language, which is the software for our thinking. Paying attention to how we use language can bring our thinking into alignment with our consciousness in the first element above.

    The language is the form of NVC, being Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests. It’s an attempt to be congruent with a world viewpoint of interdependence, rather than one of separation or domination.

    It’s not (just) about the words. Without the consciousness, the same words that can be used for connection can be used for manipulation.
  3. Thinking/Thoughts
    To use a language of interdependence, we need to really pay attention to our thinking and the core beliefs, worldviews, and filters though which we see the world. What are your core beliefs that drive your thinking and actions? Are they in alignment with the consciousness of interdependence? For example, a core belief might be that you have to prove yourself in the world, which might inform how you communicate in certain situations.
  4. Communication beyond language
    Is your unspoken body language, your expressions, your energy, your tone of voice, and all the other messages you’re sending beyond the words also congruent with this consciousness of interdependence? Communication is much more beyond words.
  5. How we use of power
    What strategies of influence do we use to get other people to join us to create the kind of world we want to create? How we use power is critical to how we use NVC.

When NVC doesn’t work, for her it means that one of these five elements is out of balance.

Kathleen concluded by saying that when NVC doesn’t work, for her it means that one of these five elements is out of balance. To her, NVC not working is an indicator to pause to examine where she is coming from. Where is she being incongruent?

I think this is a critically important exploration. For example, there are often times where I have noticed that a core belief has tainted my communication. While part of me was trying to be helpful, another part of me was trying to meet the needs of a core belief that is no longer serving me well. The more aware I have become of that, the quicker I can catch myself and reevaluate why I was about to say what I was about to say.

Marshall shared (and I presume developed) this definition of NVC after his books were published. I have kept hearing that Marshall’s thinking was continually evolving. I imagine that if he was still alive today, his thoughts on NVC would be inclusive of new information and ideas that have introduced since he shared these five elements.

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John Reel

Want better relationships? Get in touch for coaching on how to connect on a deeper, life-affirming level. I’m trained in Nonviolent Communication mediation, and on the path to NVC trainer certification. I'm also a coach, currently training to specialize in relationships.