aka Compassionate Communication
NVC, or Nonviolent Communication is a set of tools, a process, and a consciousness developed by Marshall Rosenberg. It’s also sometimes called “Giraffe” and distinguished from “Jackal”, which is our dominant cultural communication style of judgement, evaluation, and disconnection.
- Everything everyone does is in service of a need. People always do the best they know how to at the time to meet the needs that are alive for them.
- Needs are universal–we all share them. Some examples are sustenance, safety, compassion, play, challenge, meaning, belonging, contribution. I have created a list of needs (includes PDF).
- Sometimes people confuse their needs with their strategies to meet those needs. This leads to conflict if people are attached to one specific strategy (you should meet my needs in this way).
- Needs themselves don’t conflict (because there is an infinite number of ways to meet a need when you are connected and have access to creativity).
- Our deepest needs are fulfilled when we meet our own needs and assist others to meet their needs – i.e. we contribute to life. Contribution is one of our core needs.
- Empathy is the process by which we can understand our own and each others needs, by listening for the need underneath the pain or the strategy someone is using, or the need underneath our own jackals (painful voices).
- When people understand each others needs, a natural opening of the heart occurs. In this space, it becomes easy to work together to find a strategy that meets both people’s needs.
Needs don’t conflict; however, when we believe our needs won’t get met, our creativity shuts down and we become polarized and defensive. While we can always find a multitude of strategies to meet everyone’s needs, when we are in a shut-down, defensive consciousness, we don’t think creatively. We defend, protect, attack, or engage in strategies like submission or sneakiness. We set up others (or parts of ourselves) as enemies.
Learning NVC is not just learning to speak in the language of feelings and needs. It also means learning to identify unconscious strategies and shut-down consciousness, and intentionally return to the principles and practices above.
This takes more than intellectual understanding. The parts of our brain that shut down and create defenses are primal and deep. They evolved far earlier in our history, when scarcity was real and death was a daily threat. To embody NVC takes a re-orientation towards recognizing certain bodily signals of aggression or fear as messages about needs, rather than being directly and unconsciously mobilized by them. Therefore, body awareness and mindfulness are underlying skills that are vital to mastering NVC.
NVC for inner work
NVC is primarily focused on interpersonal communication, but the same tools can be used to connect with yourself.
Self-empathy. You can use the NVC process to understand your own needs and feelings, greatly clarifying your motivations. You can dissolve procrastination by understanding your needs and addressing them.
Compassion. NVC offers the view that you have never done anything “wrong”; only attempted strategies that were clumsy, ineffective, or had costs. You were always doing the best you could at the time, given where you were and what you had available to you then. Having compassion and forgiveness towards yourself releases the suffering of guilt and regret. It also gives you a roadmap for repair and reconciliation, through acknowledging your costly strategies, connecting with the needs you were trying to meet, and hearing what needs are alive now.
Translating jackals. We all have negative or critical inner voices. NVC gives you the tools to translate them into needs and feelings, so you can understand the purpose of the voices and meet them. For example, “I’m such an idiot!” might turn out to be, “I’m feeling very frustrated because I’m needing competence and efficiency!”. Then you might make a request of yourself: “I’m going to call someone and get some help with this.”. Turning judgements into clear needs and feelings empowers you to do something differently–to engage in better strategies that meet more needs.
It’s not a panacea
I like NVC because it offers immense clarity on why suffering happens and deeply practical skills for interacting differently with yourself and others.
However, it definitely is a system that does not stand well alone–at minimum, I would combine it with awareness of trauma and systems of privilege and power. I do see far too many people trying to use it as their One True System, and I do not recommend that.
A warning for beginners
When people first start using NVC, and then try to use it with loved ones, it can go over badly. This article on the Pitfalls of NVC goes into why, but basically before you have really integrated it, using the language in a rote way really comes across as inauthentic. It’s the opposite of connecting.
So as a beginner, I would focus on integrating the principles and developing your empathy skills and “giraffe ears” (ability to hear needs even if spoken in jackal), rather than trying to speak in the “Are you feeling X because you are needing Y” way (unless someone has explicitly agreed to use that format of language with you).
Please do not go out into the world and expect, demand, or feel entitled to other people talking in NVC with you. The way people use language is very personal to them, as well as cultural, and it’s all kinds of judge-y to try to make someone wrong for that. It’s definitely not going to deepen your connections or help you get your needs met.
Where to learn more
Marshall’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life will give you the basics.
My teacher LaShelle Charde has a large archive of newsletters that cover many aspects of NVC consciousness, especially in relationships.
I also recommend Miki’s blog The Fearless Heart – she engages directly with questions about privilege and power, which not everyone in NVC does.
Marshall is no longer with us, but there are several videos of Marshall on YouTube, and here is an interview – NonViolent Communication as an Evolutionary Imperative.
The official NVC organization is CNVC where you can find more books, teachers, trainings, and practice groups.