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Nonviolent Communication

The power and significance of nonviolent communication is clearly in the air this January. On Monday, January 15, the nation celebrated the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. The following Saturday, millions of women and men across the nation participated in the Women’s March, a mobilization and demonstration intended in part to uplift the voices and campaigns of the nation’s most marginalized communities to create transformative social and political change. Meanwhile, the U.S. government became paralyzed by a power struggle that has resulted in a government shutdown- evidence, according to the Washington Post, of “how poisoned the well has become.

” The former two events highlight the effectiveness of non-violent communication, while the latter is a glaring example of the harm that results from communication characterized by what is referred to in non-violent communication as the “four D’s of disconnection”
: diagnosis, demand, denial of responsibility, and deserve.

Nonviolent communication (or NVC) plays an important role here at Windhorse. It is a major aspect of how we express our core values of healing through relationship and collaborative decision making toward the greater good. For that reason, Windhorse regularly offers community members the opportunity to learn and practice NVC through a study group in which we read the book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg. The latest study group began on Wednesday, January 10, and will continue to meet for 12 weeks. The purpose of this article is to provide and overview of NVC and, with hope, inspire readers to learn more and integrate the principles into their own lives. You can also learn more about NVC and order the book by following this link: https://www.cnvc.org/

To begin, Marshall Rosenberg developed NVC as a model for expressing one’s core needs while prioritizing connection and relationship.  It embodies a consciousness of compassion and clarity to transform habitual communication patterns such as blaming, criticizing, withdrawing, defending, complaining, and demanding.  It provides productive ways to express ourselves and also to respond to others whose communication is difficult to listen to. NVC teaches conflict resolution and conscious communication skills by showing how to skillfully differentiate observations, interpretations, feelings, needs, and strategies as we talk and listen.  These skills are applicable to intimate relationships, parenting, work situations, and “self empathy.”  NVC demonstrates productive alternatives in expressing anger, making requests, compromising, saying “no,” apologizing, mourning, appreciating, and problem solving. The following information was adapted from Bay Area NVC, www.baynvc.org by Tom Murray, EdD.


NVC is based on five principles, or core beliefs:

We all have the same needs, and all of our needs matter.
You can be upset with someone and still hold that their needs matter.
For a list of universal needs, click here: https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/needs_inventory_0.pdf
All behavior is an attempt to meet needs and no needs are ever in conflict (though strategies can be in conflict).
This is where suspending judgement comes in.
This requires a belief in self-sufficiency-that there are enough resources to meet universal needs.
Each individual is solely responsible for his/her feelings and needs.
No one can make us feel something; once we are aware of our need (feelings are clues) many strategies arise to meet it.
Prioritize connection over swift resolution of a conflict.
In every conversation there are choice points- to choose connection rather than being “right” or “resolved”.
As a species, we are hard-wired to give joyfully
The most consistent universal need seems to be our need for contribution.
The main goals of NVC are to:

Identify and honor my needs and others’ needs
Take primary responsibility for my needs and my needs only (in adult relationships)
Stay connected
Notice and minimize judgements
The NVC Model:
The NVC model uses four elements: Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests (OFNR). The OFNR model can be used when expressing one’s own needs in a clear and connecting way, and also for empathetically or “actively” listening to another person, reflecting back our understanding of them using OFNR to show our caring and to check for whether we understand.

Observations: Description of what is seen or heard without added interpretations. For example, instead of “She’s having a temper tantrum,” you could say “She is lying on the floor crying and kicking.” If referring to what someone said quote as much as possible instead of rephrasing. You are trying to phrase it so the other person is willing to agree with your description.

Feelings: Our emotions rather than our story or thoughts about what others are doing. For example, instead of “I feel manipulated,” which includes an interpretation of another’s behavior, you could say “I feel uncomfortable.” Avoid the following phrasing: “I feel like . . . “ and “I feel that…”—the next words will be thoughts, not feelings. For an inventory of feelings, click here: https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/feelings_inventory_0.pdf

Needs: Feelings are caused by needs, which are universal and ongoing and not dependent on the actions of particular individuals. State your need rather than the other person’s actions as the cause. For example, “I feel annoyed because I need support” rather than “I feel annoyed because you didn’t do the dishes.”

Requests: Asking concretely and clearly for what we want (instead of what we don’t want). The request must be “do-able” and in measurable time. For example, “Would you be willing to come back tonight at the time we’ve agreed?” rather than “Would you make sure not to be late again?” By definition, when we make requests we are open to hearing a “no,” taking it as an opportunity for further dialogue, hearing the “yes” behind the no.



Expression: Using “I” statements, clearly separating data or observations from interpretations, and developing skills in being aware of and expressing one’s feelings are common suggestions. The NVC model adds two things to this important set of communication habits: identifying and focusing on ones core needs, and making clear requests.

Empathy: In NVC, we empathize with others by guessing their feelings and needs. Instead of trying to “get it right,” we trust that the person with the feeling will correct us. Our guessing allows that person to know we want to know what they are feeling and seek to understand. The observation and request are sometimes dropped. When words are not wanted or are hard to offer, empathy can be offered silently.

Self-Empathy: In self-empathy, we listen inwardly to connect with our own feelings and needs. It is that connection which enables us to choose our next step.


OFNR: Differentiation skills for expressing ourselves
In the NVC model observations, feelings, needs, and requests have specific meanings. This table is a reference sheet to help refine each element and differentiate it from other types of speech we often use.


NVC Model

(“Giraffe speak”)


(“Jackal speak”)
Roadblock signals:
agreed upon, specific to time/place/who

judgments, interpretations
“is”, “always”, “never”, “whenever”, “if you …then”,
universal, internal & present moment,
self-revealing & vulnerable


“that”, “you”, “like”, “as if”, “is”, “we”, “they”
“basic”, values, desires,
never in conflict, related to feelings

specific to time/place/who, “you”, “them”, “us”,
specific (time/place/who/what),

related to needs, doable,

optional (“no” is OK), (get to them quick!)

“have to”, guilt-tripping, negatives e.g. don’t; should/supposed to, “I deserve”

O – “You always come home from work late” — is not an observation. Try “Every night last week you came home after 7:30.”

F – “I feel that you spent too much money on the vacation” — that is a thought, not a feeling. Try “When you told me how much you spent on the vacation I felt worried…” (go on to identify a need and request).

N – “I need you to come to the movies with me tonight” — that is not an NVC ‘basic human need.” Try “I’m wanting some fun, relaxation, and companionship. Would you be willing to go to the movies with me tonight?”

R – “Could you please keep the kitchen clean from now on?” — this is not specific enough to agree upon when and if its done. Try “Would you be willing to wash all of your dishes after meals–lets say for the next month, and then we can check in about it.”


Giraffe language, Jackal language, and Roadblocks

Marshall Rosenberg uses the terms Giraffe-In, Giraffe-out, Jackal-In, and Jackal-Out to refer to the life enriching (Giraffe, or OFNR) and life inhibiting (Jackal, or roadblocks) messages we give to ourselves (“In”) and others (“Out”). See if you can recognize these patterns in yourself and others. Try to translate Jackal language into Giraffe language, But, don’t be harsh on yourself or others for not perfecting Giraffe–“enjoy the Jackal show” as Marshall says. (We are trained from birth to use Jackal language, so its inevitable that we will encounter it. Relate to it with it with a sense of humor and equanimity.)


Roadblocks: Obstacles to empathetic listening and expression:
–Alienating expressions of unmet needs; obstacles to nonviolent communication–

judgments, comparisons, interpreting, analysis, diagnosing, explaining
criticism, blame, shame
moralizing, lecturing
demands, ordering, threatening
denial of responsibility, justifications
avoiding; withdrawing, shutting down
ridiculing, attacking
humoring, distracting, story telling
reassuring, sympathizing, consoling
questioning, interrogating
advising, educating, fixing, correcting
one-upping (my situation is even worse..)
Are there some of these that is your favorite or habitual roadblocks to use? Or certain ones that most trigger when others use them? Learn to translate roadblocks into NVC language.


Shifting from stuck
Pause — 2. Self-empathy — 3: Curiosity — 4. Compassion
NVC is more a state of mind, a compassionate type of consciousness, than it is a set of procedures or rules.  The aim in listening to another is to be able have an open heart, or “soft belly” and experience a deep compassion for and connection with the feelings and needs that they present.  (You can actually check in with your body and feel if you have the soft open feeling in your belly to help you know whether you are there.) This can be VERY hard to do during conflicts.  So we have a suggestion for four steps of increasing “difficulty,” or increasing connectedness actually, that you can try.  We have found that using this simple formula can be very useful during those times that the brain and heart seem to shut down, when we want or wish we could use NVC consciousness but are triggered or stuck in our emotional state.

Here are the four steps. Just get as far as you can, don’t judge yourself for not being able to be at “#4.”  In challenging situations, just doing #1 is a big step.

Pause.  Stop, breath, feel and center in your body. Note the simple and natural reaction you are having: oh!, oops!, wow!, yikes!, no!, yuck!, ouch!, argh!, help!…
Self empathy.  Take a moment to focus in.  What am I feeling and needing right now?  “What do I need to do to be “present?” Am I judging myself harshly?” Depending on your personality, a helpful self messages might be “I care, my needs do matter” or “wow, this need is really important to me, isn’t it!”
Find curiosity.  If you can become a bit more centered from #2, now you may have the space to address the other.  (If not, if may be wise to say something like “I’m feeling very emotional and overwhelmed right now and need some space to cool down before talking any more.  Would you be willing to let me take 10 minutes and come back?”)  When hot-button issues come up, it can be very difficult to create a compassionate state (#4 below) where our hearts and bellies feel open.  But we may still be able to put a bit of a lid on our emotional reactions and let our *minds* be curious.  Try to shift from judging or reacting to the other person to a place of curiosity.  Find how you are really curious to know what’s going on for them.
Speaking from connection, and compassion (and curiosity).  The soft belly place where we can listen empathetically to the other without being overwhelmed by our triggers—the place where we know the sheer joy of contributing to the other person’s happiness.
There is much more to learn about NVC, but we hope you have enjoyed this overview and perhaps feel inspired to learn more and begin integrating this liberating practice into your daily life. Because most of us haven’t been conditioned to communicate this way, practicing NVC can be quite challenging at first. Like any other skill, practice and patience is required to improve and develop confidence. But hopefully your motivation will be sustained as you begin to notice improvements in your relationships and your life!

Bibliography and Resources on Dialog, Conflict, Relationship
Atlee, T. (2003). Deep democracy: Using co-intelligence to create a world that works for all. Cranston, RI: The Writers Collective. (www.co-intelligence.org.)

Bohm, D. (1996). On dialog (L. Nichol, Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bryson, K. (2004) Don’t be nice, be real: Balancing passion for self with compassion for others. Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books

Connor, J. M. & Killian, D. (2005) Connecting across differences: A Guide to compassionate, nonviolent communication. Brooklyn, NY: Hungry Duck Press

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace

Edelman, J. & Crain, M. B. (1993) The Tao of Negotiation: How You Can Prevent, Resolve & Transcend Conflict in Work and Everyday Life. New York, NY: Harper

Fisher, R. & Ury, W. (1983). Getting to Yes. New York, NY: Penguin.

Flores, F. & Solomon, R. (2001). Building trust in business, politics, relationships, and life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Goleman, D. & The Dali Lama (2003). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Jackins, H. (1965). The human side of human beings: The theory of Re-evaluation Counseling. Seattle, WA: Rational Island Publishers.

Kashtan, Inbal (2005) Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection and Choice. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, A. (2002). The deep democracy of open forums: Practical steps to conflict prevention and resolution for the family, workplace, and world. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing.

Rogers, C. (1989) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin

Rosenberg, M. (1999). Non-violent communication: A language of compassion. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.

Rosenberg, M. (2005). Speak Peace in a World of Conflict. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.

Sakyong Mipham (2017) The Lost Art of Good Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life. NYC, New York: Harmony Books (Penguin/Random)

Stephen and Ondrea Levine (1996). Embracing the Beloved. New York, NY: Random House.

Stone, D., Patton, B. & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York, NY: Penguin.

Wilber, K. (2006). Integral spirituality. Boston, MA: Shambhala Press.

Zimmerman, J. & Coyle, V. (1996). The Way of Council. Las Vegas, NV: Bramble Books.

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