In his influential book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg proposes that most communication is about getting our core needs met, specifically, our need for connection. (Something like 70% of human communication is in some way about relationships). Solid healthy relationships (connection, intimacy, love, belonging) are at the core of mental wellness. So the key to nonviolent communication is the question, is this style of communication creating connection or disconnection? Am I feeling seen, heard, and valued, and is the person I am communicating with feeling seen, heard, and valued? If not, how can we change the quality of communication so everyone’s needs are being met compassionately?
Rosenberg argues that moral judgment, labeling someone as “good” or “bad” immediately creates disconnection. If you have ever had someone point a finger at you and pass judgement the desire to move away or disconnect is palpable. And weirdly the “good” label creates distance in a sneakier way, because while validation feels pleasurable at first, “good” can be revoked, and most of us immediately feel pressure to hide any shadow that might put the “good” label at risk, and that hidden stuff can become a writhing ball of shame and fear. “If anyone knew this about me...“ Either way, the judgment good/bad creates distance, walls, fear, and thus communications that contain moral judgment are not effective at getting our needs for connection met.
Removing the moral judgment doesn’t mean that you remove all judgment, you are still using your judgment, but instead of deciding if a person is good or bad (this includes you), you are trying to determine if communication and behaviors are meeting needs and creating connection. If a behavior appears to be harmful, instead of judging the person/behavior (including you) as bad, you get curious about what need they (you) are trying to meet. Hint: if basic survival needs are met, then it’s usually about connection.
Rosenberg gives us a four step process.
Observations. Describe behaviors, factual, and without evaluation.
Feelings and Stories. Label our feelings frequently and with great granularity. Then notice the stories that arise from our feelings. What do these feelings and stories tell us about our own unmet needs?
Needs. Needs are universal and life enriching and it can be a challenge to separate them out from desires, strategies, and preferences. When we can identify and articulate the needs we are trying to meet in communication strategy and see the needs others are trying to meet, we see more clearly the root of the communication and can connect humanly across the differences.
Request. Clear, specific, do-able. Part of this being human is that we delight in being able to meet each other’s needs. Communicate clear boundaries: this would work for me, that will not work for me. No strings: when a request becomes a demand it is no longer non-violent. It sets up a submission/rebellion dynamic, it removes the joy from giving and makes it obligation, and sets us up for resentment and power struggles.