Taking Responsibility for Your Speech. Or: The Non Violent Communication Method.

“When I behaved in the way which I now regret, what need of mine was I trying to meet?”
Marshall B. Rosenberg

“You only ever care about yourself and you don’t give a damn how I feel about it. This has been going on forever and I’ve put up with it long enough and said nothing. But now it’s enough. I’ve had it. That’s it.”

An exaggerated example? Maybe, but perhaps it does evoke memories and associations for some of you — even though I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, of course. And while we have the keyword “wish”: In the previous example, who was the first to wonder what the speaker was wishing for? And who was more likely to wince inwardly, raise their hands in defense, and be glad not to be involved in such a situation (again)?

This example is also a certain kind of speech act. A way of communicating, behind which there may be despair, resignation — but without any doubt a lot of affection. But to hear everything that might be hidden behind the attack, that torrent of words; to understand and use them for each other instead of against each other, is far from trivial.

Interpersonal sharing demands a lot from us: calmness, empathy, and sensitivity. But it is possible — and insanely important, in all areas of life. The key is called “non-violent communication”.

‘We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.’

The model of “non-violent communication“ was developed by the psychologist Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg. It is about interpersonal communication and stands for more trust in relationships of all kinds: business, friendship, family or partnership. Core aspects of this model are appreciation, the ability to “pull together” as well as honesty and openness. For this reason, the model is sometimes called “connecting” communication — it is about what we have in common, what brings us together.

What can you gain for yourself and those around you by exploring and becoming familiar with the concept?

  1. Being able to express yourself
  2. Being able to listen empathically

‘Peace cannot be built on the foundations of fear.’

But what exactly does empathy mean? Again, there are two key aspects that work together and are both equally important:

  1. Empathy towards others: feeling with the other person.
  2. Self-empathy: On the one hand, the potential to gain clarity about one’s own emotional world and, on the other hand, the ability to find strategies in (conflict) situations that integrate the needs of all parties involved.

Even if we want to, we can hardly separate ourselves from this basis: According to Rosenberg, every human being seeks this empathy connection to his fellow human beings.

Here, the basic psychological need for recognition and understanding plays an essential role.

So, if empathy is apparently so strongly interwoven with us as human beings, it is important to be able to deal with it productively. And that’s what the Nonviolent Communication model is all about.

‘At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.’

Two basic assumptions are important for understanding and using empathy within the model:

  1. Communication is the strongest influencing factor on the level of empathy we feel toward others and ourselves. For example, when someone asks me to do something in a certain way, it has a strong influence on my empathic helpfulness. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “it’s not what you say but how you say it”, right?…? Exactly. That’s it.
  2. Behind communication and empathy are feelings — and behind feelings are needs. (Self-)empathy is therefore necessary to recognize and understand both my own feelings and those of my counterpart.

‘Focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging.’

Enough theory, more practice? Gladly. Let’s find out concretely how non violent communication is structured and put to use. Here are four steps to (self-)empathy that can be implemented when speaking.

  1. The Observation: expressing a description of the action that is as non-judgmental as possible so that the person (or myself) knows exactly what it’s about: “You didn’t clean out the dishwasher.”
  2. The Feeling: I express my own opinion as best I can without reproach: “…and I don’t feel supported in that matter.”
  3. The Need: I express what I wish for: “…this is because I wish for your understanding and support when it comes to householding.”
  4. The Request: This is about a concrete action in the here and now: “Therefore, I am asking you now that we make an agreement for this.” Note: Beware, no wishes! These are too abstract and are more of an option.

In summary, the model can be abstracted as follows:

When I observe 1), it triggers 2) in me because I have 3) the need and therefore ask for 4).

Empathic listening is also very possible with these four steps. Here you formulate steps 1–4 into questions so that the other person feels understood and valued.

  1. “What do you see? What do you perceive?”
  2. “What are you feeling right now? How does it make you feel?”
  3. “Do you feel the need for…? What need are you feeling right now?”
  4. “Do you want us to… now? What do you want now?”

Keep in mind that the first option is always more suggestive, the second is more open-ended. Here it depends on how you assess your counterpart and which option you consider appropriate as a result.

‘Blaming and punishing others are superficial expressions of anger.’

Sometimes a concept can be grasped even better by looking at the How-Not-To — so let’s take a look at so-called “life-alienating communication,” which is sort of the opposite of “non violent communication.”

  1. Morally judging the other person: “You don’t care how much work I have.”
  2. Comparing with a negative example: “That’s just like your father, he treats your mother the same way.”
  3. Denying responsibility for one’s own feelings (causal blaming): “You left a mess. That’s why I feel shitty now.”
  4. Demands instead of requests — these always have consequences if not met and quickly come across as threats: “Starting tomorrow, there’s going to be an end to this behavior, or I won’t put up with it any longer.” Requests, on the other hand, are more peaceful and less ultimate.

It is very important to avoid generalizations such as “never” and “always”. That’s why it’s crucial, especially in the first step, to be consciously describing a really concrete observation in the here and now.

‘Let’s shine the light of consciousness on places where we can hope to find what we are seeking.’

Of course, there is no denying that this communication tool is primarily a strategy to be used consciously and not so much an everyday way of communicating.

No one expects you to always and everywhere proceed with these four steps, as that would certainly seem alienating and unwieldy in many situations.

Also, good news: it is not necessary for both interlocutors to know the model. Even if only one person is familiar with it, more appreciation and a positive culture of conversation can already be created.

Of course, it is an advantage if both interlocutors know the model — it can be used to jointly enrich the relationship.

With the model of non-violent communication, unnecessary conflicts can be avoided. Conflicts are of course not bad per se — they allow us to grow, arise from different values and perceptions, and can certainly be resolved constructively. “Unnecessary” conflicts, on the other hand, are power struggles that arise because of bad tempers, wrong or unfortunate words, or an inappropriate tone. They contain no arguments, are often baseless, and mostly consist of endless discussions.

Among other things, there are three common triggers for “unnecessary” conflict that I’d like to share with you in closing — but of course I won’t let you go with that, but rather attach to each a tip on how to avoid these triggers:

1. Static and generalizing language: “Always” and “Never” are meaningless, because humans and the world are not so general and static, but diverse and changeable. So the tip here is: use concrete and contextual language to move towards each other. Note: women* tend to use more emotion-laden language, while men* tend to use more information-laden language. This, too, must be taken into account and constructively incorporated in the context of conflicts and conversations.

2. Objective observations and subjective evaluations: It is not helpful to present what is triggered in me, i.e. my subjective evaluation, as something general (“Leaving a mess is simply disrespectful and hurtful”). It is better to separate observations and evaluations from each other explicitly, communicatively, and verbally, thus taking responsibility for one’s own feelings: “I feel hurt and disrespected.” (I don’t know what others feel.)

3. Responding defensively and justifiably to criticism means no longer being accessible to the other person — you just want the other person to stop thinking “that way” about you. The tip here would be to express constructive, i.e. appreciative and value-creating criticism. This creates the necessary basis for subsequent criticism.

All set?

Then let’s conclude by rephrasing the catchy disaster and giving that fictitious couple a new chance, shall we?

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been very busy lately. It makes me feel lonely and alone. I feel the need for us to exchange ideas and experience things together. That’s why I’m asking you to think about how we’ll organize our everyday life in the future, so that we can reconcile work and our relationship.”

We are keeping our fingers crossed for the two of them — and I do cross mine for you! Good luck in applying nonviolent communication!

“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.”
Marshall B. Rosenberg




Researcher & PraeDoc in Educational Sciences.

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Laura Jacqué

Laura Jacqué

Researcher & PraeDoc in Educational Sciences.

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