Going Beyond Non-Violent Communication

The core of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is in the formula of communication that offers the opportunity for empathy and compassion.  This formula consists of four steps:

  1. Making an observation about the situation
  2. Discovering one’s feelings regarding what we observe
  3. Guided by our feelings, realizing what our needs are
  4. Communicating those needs as a request for action

When first practicing NVC, I was innately resistant to something about this formula.  Certainly, at first, I used the formula itself in a very stilted way until I became more creative with how to communicate observations, feelings, needs, and requests.  But even beyond that, I kept struggling with my discomfort, which I couldn’t identify, with this formula.  I was particularly bothered by how every feeling would result in a need that would then be verbalized as a request.  I started to feel dissatisfied—there was an angst regarding always going into the need/request space, but I couldn’t clearly identify why I was feeling that angst.

After my first NVC workshop, I started an over-the-phone study with a friend of mine, on Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now.  As I practiced “being present”, I started partitioning the NVC formula into past, present, and future.  The past consisted of the observation, the present consisted of my feelings and needs, the future was where my request lived.  The language of the NVC formula makes this partitioning clear, for example:

Past: “When I observed that the sink was full of dishes…”

Present: “I felt annoyed because I need consideration for the fact that this is a shared space…”

Future: “so would you be willing to have the kitchen clean before I get home?”

But on further reflection, I discovered an overlap of the observation into the present, and a projection of the need into the future.  So I started partitioning the NVC formula into a simpler twofold model:

Present: consisting of observations and feelings

Future: consisting of needs and requests

This helped me realize that my discomfort with the NVC formula was arising from a tension between living in the present, the “now”, and also projecting into the future with my needs and requests.  I began asking myself “why do I even need?”   In Tolle’s second book, A New Earth, I found this question and the underlying tension of the “need” space to be well articulated in Chapter 4:

“The ego cannot distinguish between a situation and its interpretation of and reaction to that situation.  You might say, ‘What a dreadful day,’ without realizing that the cold, the wind, and the rain or whatever condition you react to are not dreadful.  They are as they are.  What is dreadful is your reaction, your inner resistance to it, and the emotion that is created by that resistance.  In Shakespeare’s words, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’”

I realized that by going into the space of “needs”, I was creating a negative place.  If I need something, it means I lack something, and lacking something is usually a negative place.  It is a resistance to what is.  I also realized how the first two parts of the NVC formula, observing and feeling, are very much in the present and also very much in the domain of “non-thinking.”  Conversely, moving into needs and requests, I am moving out of the present and also into a “thinking” space.  I find it difficult to understand my needs without “thinking” about my feelings, and I certainly find it impossible to articulate a request without “thinking” about my needs.

This is anathema to the idea of living in the present for several reasons:

  • I’m creating a resistance, a negative place, by identifying a need.  The fact that I now have this need means that I have a resistance to simply what is.
  • I’ve moved from feeling to thinking, because I’m thinking about my needs and how to articulate them in a request.
  • I’ve moved out of the present and into the future, as exemplified by the language of the request “would you be willing…”

My experience of NVC is that it creates a conflict for me in that it takes me out of the present.  That is not to say that there are not definite times when a request, based on a need, must be made.  But the conflict clearly points out to me that not every feeling needs (pun intended) to result in a request.  It brings to light the question, when is it appropriate to make a request?  And even more deeply, why am I making a request—what is really at the root of the request that I believe must be made, because I am somehow dissatisfied with “what is.”

What I find myself doing instead is staying in the space of the observation and the feeling, and by not going into that negative, resistant space of needs, I discover that I can often come to peace with “what is”, no matter what that is.  It may take seconds, it may take days, but when I’m at peace, I don’t have to voice a need.  If, after giving the entire life situation the space to organically evolve, listening to other people and myself and allowing time to bring further clarity, I find myself still not able to live into “what is”, then this is a real indication that perhaps a request to satisfy a need is the best approach.

As Tolle (and I’m sure others) have said, there are three responses to a real situation in which action must be taken.  They are:

  • Accept the situation
  • Try to change the situation
  • Leave the situation

I’ve already reached the position that accepting the situation is not possible, which leaves me with trying to change the situation.  This is where the second have of NVC, the need/request half, comes most effectively into play.  But the pitfall, from my perspective, of the NVC formula, is to always go immediately into the “try to change the situation” rather than doing the hard work in first understanding my relationship to the issue, in order to see if I can first, simply accept the situation.


4 thoughts on “Going Beyond Non-Violent Communication

  1. Thank you for this. I was just beginning to put Tolle’s work side by side with NVC too. I also have been both compelled by NVC and yet experience something missing with it.

    I remember Tolle talking as part of a panel that included the Dalai Lama (I think it may be on YouTube) and speaking about how a performer or athlete works to prepare him/herself, and then, at the moment of performance needs to let go of any thoughts about the training, any focus on the result, any fear – and find a moment of becoming utterly present. Comfortable with letting go of all that and just doing it.

    When he answers questions, you can see often see him going inward, becoming comfortable with not knowing the answer. Then when his answer emerges its almost surprising. There’s no sign of him thinking about anything – it just pops out. He says often answers come that he didn’t know he knew.

    So this is my experiment: I’m treating NVC training as if it were athlete’s training. Read about NVC, watch lots of videos, absorb the framework and lots of phrasings – soak it up. Then, stay as alert as I can in my life for moments when that training might be used. When a moment like that arises, it’s a cue to empty my mind and be still for a breath or two. Become comfortable with not knowing what I’m going to say. Sense my way through the interaction. And see what comes out.

    So far, it seems to be working for me! Certainly I’m seeing enormous improvements.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment. I find that going into “inner listening” is so essential to accessing imagination, intuition and inspiration, and as you pointed out, I also find that it requires consciousness, training and practice!

  2. Beautiful posting. It is exactly the discomfort I also feel with NVC. In theory it sounds great but in reality I have experienced that ego (thinking and feeling) get in the way when you analyse the situation too much.

    Not easy though to practice being when you are angry though.

    Any tips on how to use NVC in an Eckhart way when you are in a situation on which people are not honest and abuse power?

    1. That’s a great question and I have no good answer. It’s probably obvious, but one can’t change how other people are. Something I learned with Tolle is you only have three choices: accept what is, try to change the situation you’re in, or leave the situation. None of those is particularly easy.

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