Sounding Natural with Nonviolent Communication (NVC); a Flaw and a Fix

in communication •  last year  (edited)


In the 13+ years of studying and 12+ years of teaching NVC, the single biggest issue I've had with the system is how "unnatural" it can sound when used outside of the classroom or speaking to Moonites. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, the primary NVC book by Marshall Rosenberg doesn't really address how to sound natural with NVC. I'm not blaming him. Far from it. I am in awe of him and his huge... brain. So I've experimented with and brainstormed on ways to increase how natural we can sound using NVC principles while straying as little as possible from the OFNR formula.

While I want to focus on what I see as the one most important and easy thing people can do to "naturalize" their NVC, I'll first mention a more obvious issue that contributes to people using NVC in a way that does not get the results they want.

Sometimes people read only the first half of the book Nonviolent Communication a Language of Life or read the entire book and only remember how to do what I call "self empathy out loud." It looks like this:

"When I got home and saw those dishes in the sink, I felt tired and disgusted. I need more consideration. Would you be willing to clean the dishes?"

First, what is "good" about this? Well, it's a heck of a lot better than a punch in the face, quietly fuming, giving hints, or secretly/subtly punishing the other person.

Many are attracted to this newfound "permission" they feel to express their feelings and needs. Yay! This is seriously a big deal, given the amount of repression-of-our-expression the average person experiences!

That said, if they never go further than that, they don't get to what I consider the really juicy and transformative practice; "empathy for other."

"When I got home and saw those dishes in the sink, I wondered if you had a pretty overwhelming day and are wanting some ease and rest?"

Do you see the difference? OK. In the interest of keeping this article from becoming a book (the book is coming soon - seriously - and is called Practical Empathy), I'll now get back to the primary point of this article.

The primary issue as I see it and a proposed solution

The word "needs" is not used in NVC the same way people commonly use the word. This causes problems. I'll explain below.



My goal was to widen the age range of who can play the game. The old version worked for approximately 10 years old minimum to "get" most of the questions, etc. New version is more like 5 or 6 years old. I haven't done the first printing yet, so no guarantees about the age range yet. Younger people will need adult guidance the first time, for sure. See how "need" was used in that last sentence, synonymous with "required"?


Which brings us to a change I've made in the game and my future materials is to use "wants" (and sometimes "values") in place of "needs". Why?

Reason 1: Jargon; commonly understood definitions matter

Compare the two following phrases:
"Are you hurting because you need more consideration?"
"Are you hurting because you wanted more consideration?"

NVC has taken the word "need" and tweaked its meaning so that it's more about want or desire than an actual "must have in order to survive". If we are seeking to connect with people, instead of activating their defenses, why would we say something to them that they may interpret as "Oh are you calling me needy?"

Reason 2: Request vs demand

The fourth component of the "NVC formula" is "Positive do-able request." The author makes it quite clear that we only want people to do things out of a sincere desire to increase joy for all involved, NOT out of obligation, guilt, shame, etc.

So if I want to convey to another person that I'm okay receiving a "no" because my request is NOT a demand in disguise, am I better off using which of the following?

"I'm feeling lonely because I have a need for connection..."
"I'm feeling lonely because I want some connection..."
"I'm feeling lonely because I value connection..."

Now the trained NVC person or the person that knows you super well won't care which word you use. That said, I'd rather speak in a way that does not require the other person to have special knowledge.

So what is wrong with the first phrase, in terms of speaking to the average person?

Most important to me is that the other person know I can live without them saying yes to my request and that they know I have only hope - NOT expectation - that they say yes. To me, there is a difference between "need" and "want," where "need" conveys more of a sense of "this is required."

"What if they are the only person who can fulfill that need for you?"
NVC teaches us that needs are not person specific. I maintain that they rarely are. In other words - typically - you can fulfill your own needs or find another person who has more desire to.


Reason 3: Efficiency and ease in learning

Over the years I've spent quite a bit of time training children and beginners in the use of NVC. The distinction between "NVC needs" and "the common use of the word needs" comes up in every class and most of my weekly workgroups. Why add confusion to something that is already difficult for some to understand and integrate? I prefer making it as easy as possible without losing the underlying principles.


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