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Summary of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg

A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships

Whether conversing with friends, family, spouses, teachers, bosses or employees, the methods which we’ve learned to communicate often fail us. There is much misspoken/misunderstood and all parties can deal with frustration and confusion as a result. As a remedy, NVC teaches how to identify with oneself, clearly express oneself, effectively hear others and collaborate towards a solution.

Chapter I: Introduction

What is NVC?

NVC, also referred to as Compassionate Communication was developed in the 1960s by Marshall Rosenberg. It has been referred to as a language of compassion, a tool for positive social change, and as a spiritual practice. Essentially, it’s a model for thinking about and having an exchange with oneself and others.

What is the Purpose of NVC?

In Marshall’s definition, NVC is employed to “create quality connection that inspires compassionate giving and receiving.” It is applicable to all interpersonal relationships and can even be used with one’s own inner dialogue.

He’s had success supporting conflict resolution between all types of interpersonal relationships from bickering spouses to feuding country leaders and everybody in between. It can even be used with one’s own inner dialogue. Many counselors continue to use his approach today.

Why NVC?

Well, we live with each other. Whether it be family, housemates, colleagues or strangers, our community gives us our support and our sustenance. Why wouldn’t we want to reduce conflict, achieve resolution, work together productively, create harmony and find peace in our environment?

Heads-Up Tips

The concepts and techniques can sound so simple that they can easily get dismissed.

It may at first sound robotic and unnatural but it’s like any art or skill where at first you learn the basics, the foundation and then you make it your own. It can certainly feel and sound awkward at first though. But just hang in there. If done right, it can be extraordinarily powerful.

The other person or people in the conversation do not need to know how to do NVC.

You can use NVC with your inner dialogue and you can even use it with a pretend situation in your head where the other person doesn’t even have to be present.

NVC mediators do exist but you don’t need them to practice but of course, it helps especially if you’re not versed in it.

The other likely question is are there any exceptions to using NVC in the hopefully rare cases of imminent danger we may pause NVC and resort to more protective use of force not to punish but to prevent injury. We then look to return to compassionate dialog once safety has been re-established.

Key Concepts

1. “I feel vs I think”

Even though “I feel” is very much a part of our common speech, it’s often used incorrectly:

  • I feel like you aren’t listening to me
  • I feel like they’re not actually gonna show up
  • I feel like he’s just doing it to punish me but I don’t know

These are all examples of thoughts not feelings. Feelings instead are physical sensations or emotional states that arise within you. We cannot technically put the focus on another person when it comes to our feelings. So, these previous three examples might be corrected to sound instead like

  • I feel lonely
  • I feel anxious
  • I feel confused

2. Taking responsibility for our feelings

For better for worse: no one can make me feel a certain way in NBC we separate the stimulus from the cause. Though we may be triggered by a situation, reactions are personal. We see evidence of this all the time, for example, you might clean up after someone; One person might have the response: “Oh, thank you! That’s so kind“, another person might have the response: “You don’t think I could clean up after myself? I’m so irritated”

Unfortunately, this transference of responsibility is part of common speech, for example:

  • I feel betrayed, robbed, offended, disrespected, unappreciated, etc.

These are all judgments on another’s actions they place the responsibility on another and also create a victim out of ourselves. Underneath they are hiding a real feeling; a simpler and more personal one.

For example, we can see that below the layer of “I feel insulted” is really “I feel angry and embarrassed

So be careful of these pseudo feelings. If they do arise, use them as pointers rather than resting on them as a final destination.

3. Understanding there’s a reason for everyone’s actions

All actions are driven by urges to meet a need. Behind every positive feeling, there is a satisfied need and behind every uncomfortable feeling, there is an unsatisfied need. This is foundational to NVC. We all have basic needs.

It’s very much a similar message to natural hygiene which as anybody knows me we’d practice and so in natural hygiene we too have these basic
needs not because we’re needy or weird or especially lacking but just because we’re human and if they aren’t met we act off or get sick emotionally or physically. So practitioners of natural hygiene if they have a patient who’s ill they’d first be detectives and reference the list of human needs they would ask are they getting enough water sleep, social time, etc.

NVC is similar in that practitioners also see symptoms as signposts so if
somebody is acting off to themselves or another being violent angry blaming or combative or if there’s conflict of any sort you would follow that they’re feeling uncomfortable simply because they have an unmet need.

5. Needs are universal

Because needs are universal, identifying needs is our key to connection. When we hear of another’s need met or unmet we naturally have an empathetic reaction. We imagine what it feels like to be in their shoes.

6. When someone feels heard, they soften

They are now more open to hearing the other. Do not underestimate the power of listening and reflecting. These play major roles in the dance of an NVC discussion.

7. Openness to outcome

Be prepared to hear “no” when you make requests NVC is not a manipulation strategy to win an argument. Of course, we’d like to hear the other person to say yes but only if it’s a genuine yes.

8. Perspective shift thinking

Saying or hearing no can be difficult. We can ease hearing “no” by shifting our perspective and imagining what the other person might be saying “yes” to as an alternative.

“Would you be willing to help me paint my house on Saturday?”

“No, I’m sorry. I was actually reserving Saturday for myself. I am really in need of rest

9. What would make life more wonderful?

We can also shift our perspective in order to bring more lightness to our situation. Instead of thinking about what we don’t have, we think about “what would make life more wonderful?” Lastly, we remember that NVC is not passive. Whether we get it right or not, guessing what is going on for another person is a significant component of the practice.

We often get stuck in this game of punishment. But when we focus on our needs our attention shifts to a game of celebration, of desire fulfillment and honoring. Even when we look at our unsatisfied needs at any moment, we may as well be asking what would make life more wonderful?

Get out of that loop of “You didn’t clean up, you obviously don’t respect my space.” Instead, try “Oh you didn’t clean up. You know what would make life more wonderful right now? More organization.” Do you see how much lighter that feels?

10. NVC is not passive – Guessing

Guessing what is going on for another is a significant component of the practice.

Keep in mind you don’t necessarily have to get it right. To be in the habit of guessing though to being an empathetic mindset that is to attempt connection with an open channel. This feels more inviting and receptive to both parties to make guesses is to see the other as a human being and not as an enemy. On the other end, to receive guesses can feel supportive even if they’re wrong.

Chapter II: Responding to a Situation

There are two animals NVC references as symbols of behavior – The jackal, which is a vicious scavenger with a low-lying perspective, acting competitive, judgmental, speaking in demands, fear, blame, and shame.

The giraffe is powerful and gentle with a big heart and tall neck that allows for a wide perspective. The giraffe does not blame, demand, threaten or judge, they are objective and act empathetically.

There are four ways one can respond to a situation: we can be a jackal outwardly, a jackal inwardly, a giraffe outwardly or a giraffe inwardly.

Pretend for a moment that you’ve just come home and your roommate greets you with you didn’t clean up your dishes again. How might you react? In the four ways of responding the jackal out sound like: you’re always on my back geez! well, you didn’t take out the trash!
Ask yourself are you attacking the other in this place, you’ve lost the connection that the other is a human being. This reaction is criticism, blame, often anger. The sentiment of your responses is: I feel … because you …

Are you attacking yourself in this place? You’ve lost the connection that you are a human being. It is self-blame, guilt, shame, etc. The sentiment is: I feel … because I think … or You feel … because of I …

Are you tuning into yourself or grounding in your values? It is self-empathy. The sentiment is: I’m feeling … because I’m needing …

Are you tuning into the other? It is empathy. The sentiment is: Are you feeling … because you are needing …?

The idea is to strive to operate as a giraffe both outwardly and inwardly. When our jackal does arise we can use it, but only other way to point us towards our giraffe. life becomes much more peaceful and connective when we find our giraffe.

Chapter III: Conflict Resolution

There are four steps when it comes to resolving conflict. They are 1. Observation 2. Feeling 3. Needs 4. Request.

This is objective based on what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. What made a video camera see. It is not an evaluation that would come with judgment. For example, your lazy ass left a bunch of dirty dishes for me to clean up, it is not that! It is: When I
got home last night, I noticed there were dishes in the sink

What is alive in you in response to the situation? It is about you, it is not an interpretation of the other’s actions. It is not “I feel like you just don’t listen to me”. Remember to use feel appropriately. Instead, it is “When I saw that, I felt frustrated”

The feelings list is a helpful resource, keeping it a bit oneself assures the others that we’re not attacking. This allows them to listen rather than become defensive.

3. Need

The needs list has a helpful resource. This is a thoughtfully curated collection of basic human requirements. The list is helpful because not any need that we might think of qualifies as a true need. it’s not a matter of “I have a need for you to clean up” or “I have a need to be around less stupidity”. we can always use these kinds of thoughts as guidance as when we distill them down. That’s when we reveal the true need, they would be the Jackal thoughts pointing us towards our giraffe. When we stay away from a strategy and keep the needs simple, we stay empowered. our need is independent on a specific person or thing.

4. Request

There are two major types of requests: Connection requests and solution requests.

Connection Requests, in turn, come in two forms: reflection request

and feedback request

Solution Requests

Here we put them all together:

Chapter IV: How does it work?

NVC works by dissolving tension through our natural ability to give & receive empathy. This provides the key of connection which opens a door and allows a relationship to move forward. Finally, consensual requests support progress on behalf of both parties.

We keep the focus on ourselves and avoid tiny needs too. and we don’t make our satisfaction dependent on another person. So it’s not “I have a need for you to love” me it’s “I have a need for love, touch or attention”.

Their unmet need is not a personal attack on us.

Allow for both people’s needs to exist with equal importance.

Refraining from judgements = Safety = Honesty

The skill of empathy is embedded in our humanity.

Let’s say we found a stray dog and with best intentions approached it, but it lashes him. We likely wouldn’t take that bite personally, instead, we move right into guessing. Though attacked we still seek to understand to care and desire to help. Remember that humans are the same as canine, it’s just that when we’re stressed out, we have our own way of lashing out.

In summary, NVC works by dissolving tension through a natural ability to give and receive empathy. This provides the key connection which opened the door and allows a relationship to move forward. Finally, consensual requests support progress on behalf of both parties.

What is your favorite takeaway? Did we miss anything important? Let us know by commenting below or if you’re reading this on our Android app, at

Adapted from a summary by If you’d like to hear an audio version, check out the audio storyshot version inside the app.

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