Would the world be a better place if people didn’t blame each other for what they believe is being done to them, and instead took responsibility for their own feelings, needs and ways of being? Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., believes so. The system Rosenberg developed, Nonviolent Communication, involves awareness of how one is feeling in present time, the needs or values those feelings point to, and strategies to get needs met—and is rooted in authenticity, kindness and compassion for self and others.
LaVetta Westphal-Rolfs has used Nonviolent Communication along with massage in a process she calls authentic body connections, in her practice in Topeka, Kansas. “Authenticity is a huge guide for being with self-empathy and being present,” she says. “We have been taught to not necessarily be authentic—we’ve gotten lots of strokes as a culture, as adults, as children, to not have self-empathy and to have self-criticism, [and] also semi-encouraged to blame [ourselves].”
Nonviolent Communication encourages people to move out of blame, of self and others, and be present with what is alive within themselves in each moment.
Rosenberg began developing Nonviolent Communication in the 1960s, and it is now taught and practiced internationally.
“Nonviolent Communication is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions,” Rosenberg wrote in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. “It contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into [Nonviolent Communication] has been known for centuries.
“The intent is to remind us about what we already know—about how we humans were meant to relate to one another—and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge,” he added.
Westphal-Rolfs studied with Rosenberg in the 1980s and has since incorporated Nonviolent Communication into her personal and professional relationships. “I think it builds such a level of trust in all relationships,” she said.
The Nonviolent Communication process comprises four main components: observations, feelings, needs and requests. It is a process rooted in heartfelt compassion for self and others.
An observation is factual; it is just like something that could be captured by a video camera. So if a friend enters a room quickly and slams a door while scowling, one might be tempted to say something like, “Wow, you are really angry!”; however, a true observation would be: “You entered the room moving more quickly than you usually do, the door made a loud noise and I noticed you were frowning.”
Straightforward observation is needed, according to Rosenberg, so that we don’t rely on habitual responses rooted in judgment.
“We need to clearly observe what we are seeing, hearing or touching that is affecting our sense of well-being, without mixing in any evaluation,” he wrote. Yet, “for most of us, it is difficult to make observations, especially of people and their behavior, that are free of judgment, criticism or other forms of analysis.”
By not attaching judgment to an observation, a person is better able to notice what he is feeling in the moment.
Certain words and phrases relate to feelings, and certain words and phrases do not. For example, true feelings may be expressed as “I feel happy,” “I feel confused” or “I feel afraid.” However, statements like, “I feel attacked,” “I feel that it’s wrong to be late” or “I feel that you don’t understand me” imply that something is being done to the speaker or that the speaker is judging someone or something, rather than reflecting what the speaker is really feeling. In Nonviolent Communication, no one can “make” us feel anything.
“Nonviolent Communication heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings,” Rosenberg explained.
The reason identifying feelings is needed in Nonviolent Communication is so a person can get in the habit of noticing her feelings, owning them and using them as guideposts for what values or needs she has.
It can also be a gift to another person to guess what his feelings are, to help him connect with them and get in touch with his needs.
In Nonviolent Communication, needs are considered invaluable. Not to be confused with being needy, true needs allow us to get in touch with what we value in life. When our needs are met, we are better able to live responsibly and with integrity, rather than looking outside ourselves with blaming eyes.
“Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our needs,” Rosenberg wrote. “If someone says, ‘You never understand me,’ they are really telling us that their need to be understood is not being fulfilled.”
Examples of needs include communication, creativity, safety, beauty, fun, shared reality and more—there are hundreds of possible needs.
By helping another person get in touch with his needs, we help shine light on what’s really happening for him, rather than resorting to making up stories regarding why he is feeling and acting in a particular way.
Once a need is identified, a person can make a request, either of herself or another person. One type of request is called a connecting request, which might sound like, “Now that I have told you my feelings and needs, would you be willing to reflect back to me what you heard me say?” Connecting with another person and really hearing and understanding each other is a key component of Nonviolent Communication.
Another type of request is an action request. For example, if you realize you are feeling sad because your need for communication is not being met, you might request that a friend spend some time talking with you. Or, if you are alone, you might connect with your feeling and need and then request of yourself that you do something—take action or employ a strategy, such as journaling—to meet that need for communication.
Requests are most easily fulfilled when they are positive, specific and deniable.
Asking in a positive manner, for what we do want rather than what we don’t want, makes it easier for the person being asked to fulfill our request. After all, how can a person not do something? For example, if you have identified your need for communication, asking your friend, “Could you not ignore me?” is not as understandable or fullfillable as “Could you spend 10 minutes talking with me about my landlord problem?”
Using specificity simply makes a request more easily understandable and doable. According to Rosenberg, “Vague language contributes to internal confusion.”
Regarding deniability, when the requester is willing to hear a “yes” or “no” in response to his request, then he is giving the person he is making the request of the freedom to live her life in integrity, rather than bullying her into meeting his needs.
If a request is agreed to, then the person or people can take action, or determine a strategy to meet the need.
A key to getting in touch with feelings and needs is empathy, or heartfelt compassion.
If you are with someone who is visibly upset, you might observe, then use to help the person connect with her own feelings and needs: “I saw you put your glass on the table with so much force the table shook; are you feeling angry? Do you need to be heard right now?”
Then, to express empathy, you would hear the person and connect with him, without offering advice, reassurance or argument.
Empathy, Rosenberg wrote, “requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message. We give to others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood.”
Self-empathy can be especially important when trying to use Nonviolent Communication by yourself or when you’re with people unclear about this process.
For example, if another driver cuts you off on the freeway, you might feel frightened because you have a need for safety—but you can’t exactly track the other driver down and request that he help you meet that need. Instead, you might acknowledge your own feeling and need, and then take a breath, place one hand over your heart and feel compassion for yourself and your need. This can be enough to meet that need for safety in the moment.
Being in touch with one’s bodily sensations can better facilitate the practice of self-empathy, said Westphal-Rolfs.
“If I am in touch with my body and I feel a flush, my self-empathy possibility is when I let myself acknowledge how I feel,” she explained.
“I feel the body sensations, then if I’m really in touch, I feel my gut kind of closing,” she added. “Then I might feel I’ve done something wrong, and I think, ‘What part of me has a judge-self talking?’ My judge selves don’t know Nonviolent Communication; they are like angry shadows that jump in and say, ‘There’s something wrong with you, you’ve just said an embarrassing thing.’ My call to that is to spend self-empathy with myself, breathing compassion in my body.”
A Better World
Nonviolent Communication is supported and taught in trainings around the world. Rosenberg’s The Center for Nonviolent Communication in Albuquerque, New Mexico, offers a certification course, books, DVDs, CDs and other materials.
This communication technique is useful in personal and professional relationships, and, importantly, when speaking to oneself.
“If everyone learned Nonviolent Communication, it would be a different world,” Westphal-Rolfs said, “and we are seeking that world, I believe.”
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine‘s editor in chief and a student of Nonviolent Communication. She has written many articles for MASSAGE and massagemag.com, including “Massage Therapy for Military Veterans” and “New Massage Continuing Education Program Met with Opposition.”