Nonviolent Communication

Based on the work of the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, nonviolent communication emphasises how we can engage with other people in a way that avoids judgments and conflict by expressing our feelings and needs. Through this, Rosenberg argues, we can empathise with each other and connect with other people as equal human beings, recognising our commonalities rather than our differences. Essentially, nonviolent communication is underpinned by the idea that we all have the capacity to be compassionate with others but often don’t have the language that allows us to understand each other’s emotions and needs. Violence and conflict happen as a result, when we try to meet our needs but can’t find a way of doing this in a way that considers or understands other people’s feelings and needs. For example, we might complain about a child’s teacher’s ‘inability’ to encourage our child to engage more in class and think that the teacher is simply incapable or lazy. Our response is perhaps motivated by our anxiety that our child won’t learn as much or will find the class boring and misbehave. Most likely, though, the teacher will have the same anxieties, not just for our child but for all children in the classroom. And the teacher’s reality might be that they feel unsupported in working with a big classroom full of children, all of whom have different needs and learn in different ways. Therefore, if we realise that we actually feel similarly to the teacher and have the same needs, we can avoid accusing the teacher of being incapable (or worse) and instead think about constructive ways forward.

Within social pedagogical settings, nonviolent communication is intended to achieve several aims: to help the person we support to understand their own feelings and needs and how these might influence their behaviour (for instance, what they are thinking and feeling when they are angry and lash out), to show the person that we care about them by empathising with their emotions and giving them emotional support, to deescalate and resolve conflicts in a way that enables the person to understand how others might be feeling. All of this serves to strengthen the relationship between the social pedagogue and the person they support and set in motion important learning processes. To highlight this, here is an example from a Danish nursery called The Green Giraffe, which uses nonviolent communication on an everyday basis. The summary was written by a Scottish residential child care worker, who spent 4 days at The Green Giraffe:

‘One of my most important findings was that the pedagogue should make observations not judgments. Within the context of the nursery this proved to be crucial in achieving its peaceful and harmonious atmosphere.  If one child took another child’s toy, or ran into another, or caused any other person to become upset or unsafe Steve would make an observation on the child’s actions from his position in the room and not jumping to the rescue unless immediate danger was present. This observation would always be factual, “look at what your action has done to the spilled glass of milk” or “Ben, please look at Rosie. How does she look now that you have run into her? Do you think she is upset? Maybe you could apologize and look out for her next time?” The absence of judgments and threats is crucial here. As I watched these mini lessons unfold before me, I questioned whether I would have reacted in the same way or if I might have said something like “Don’t be so clumsy, Ben”, or “If you do that again, you will not be allowed to play anymore”.  Especially once I considered that Steve had to repeat these same calm, mild mannered, positive suggestions every day to countless kids year after year.’


Using Nonviolent Communication – Observations, Feelings, Needs, Request

Nonviolent communication does not just apply to working with young children but can be highly relevant in any context where we work with people of any age – be these individuals, groups or colleagues. When using nonviolent communication, we aim to share our observations, how a situation might make us feel or how we guess it makes somebody else feel, what needs of ours are related to that as well as other people’s needs, and we make a request:

  1. Observations: Very often we evaluate, judge, interpret what other people do and are tempted to say things like ‘they are hard to engage’, ‘he is a bully’ or ‘she is so inconsiderate’. When looking at these statements carefully, it is easy to see that they don’t tell us much about how the other person has behaved and what really happened – and they certainly don’t offer a concrete suggestion of how somebody else should behave, what we would like them to do differently. It is therefore important to distinguish observations from interpretations, to say things like ‘I asked you to leave the chocolate bars on the table but when I turned around you took one’ or ‘when he called his little sister a coward she started crying’ or ‘she went to get herself a cup of coffee without asking her colleagues whether they would like one, too’.
  2. Feelings: Sometimes our judgments make it obvious how we feel, or at least we think they do. But very often we don’t talk about how something affects us. It’s important to distinguish between what we think and how we feel, to dig deeper and find out perhaps why we have angry thoughts when someone tailgates us in their car and that these angry thoughts were brought on by our feeling scared and vulnerable. That then allows us to express our feelings in a way does not imply judgment or blame (‘you reckless idiot should learn how to drive!’) but shows how we are emotionally affected by a situation (‘when you changed lanes right in front of me I got really scared and felt in danger’). This is more likely to get a compassionate response from someone else instead of leading to escalation.
  3. Needs: Behind every human behaviour is a positive unmet need – the need to be loved and the need to belong might prompt us to be generous and kind, but the same needs might also cause a young person to join a gang. So might the need for safety or the need for structure. Nonviolent communication argues that we all have the same human needs, that needs are universal, but we have developed different strategies of how we meet our needs. And if we are not aware of others’ needs it is easy to put our own needs first, without regard of others. This is why it is important to express our needs, to guess what somebody else’s needs are and to ask, for example ‘could it be that you’re smoking in your room because you’re feeling upset that your mother didn’t have time for you and have a need to relax?’
  4. Request: In order to show appreciation and help somebody else understand what we would like them to do, it is important to make a request, for example to say ‘it is okay to walk here in the corridor’ rather than ‘don’t run in the corridor’. Note that this is not a demand, not an attempt to force somebody, however subtly, to do something we want out of fear, guilt or shame. Rather we want others to really understand and show compassion or consideration for our feelings and needs. So instead of saying ‘I’m disappointed that you haven’t done your homework yet’, which would make a child feel guilty or ashamed, we would perhaps say ‘it’s really important to me that you do your homework, because I really want you to do well in school. I guess you might be feeling exhausted and want to relax now, so would you be happy to do your homework in half an hour?’

Although nonviolent communication does not just apply to working with children, it has particular relevance in this area. It gives us a language to show children how we can live together respectfully, how we can take responsibility for our actions and empathise with others, so that they feel they are equal to us as human beings. Of course, this has equally huge potential in other situations where the power differential is tipped in our favour. It’s therefore worth learning how to integrate non-violent communication more into the language we all use. And whilst this might feel a bit stilted at the beginning, the effect is often very surprising and worth pursuing with! It does take time to grow into, as it is a bit like learning a new language, so keep practising wherever you can.

Helpful reminders for developing Nonviolent Communication

  • Remember that behind every behaviour lies a positive human need. It’s not the need that’s causing the conflict but the strategy that someone might have chosen to meet that need. So let’s find out what that positive unmet need is and what other strategies there might be for the person to meet their need.
  • Reflection is a key to learning – a daily habit nurtures competence in understanding ourselves and others.
  • Consider that all human beings share universal human needs, try to sense your own and others’.
  • Make an effort to listen to understand, rather than listening to reply.
  • Check your intentions to see if you are as interested in others getting their needs met as your own.
  • When asking someone to do something, check first to see if you are making a request or a demand.
  • Instead of saying what you DON’T want someone to do, say what you DO want them to do.
  • Instead of saying what you want someone to BE, say what you’d like them to DO (the action(s) that you hope for).
  • Before agreeing or disagreeing with anyone’s opinions, try to tune in to what the person is feeling and needing.
  • Instead of saying “No,” consider what need of yours prevents you from saying “Yes.”

Interested in learning more about how Nonviolent Communication can support difficult conversations that improve relationships? Then join our next online experiential course on Courageous Conversations.