If you can hear a person’s needs, it is a gift as it gives us an opportunity to contribute to their well-being. But, if they don’t know how to say the need and you don’t know how to hear it, then complaints are heard and it’s going to be miserable for both. (Rosenberg)
When we communicate with others, irrational conflicts and misunderstandings may arise and we end up leaving conversations feeling disregarded or in despair. Many reasons exist as to why misunderstandings arise. It could be a lack of communication, different perspectives, or misuse of words. However, it is important to understand that conflicts and misunderstandings come down to one thing – needs being unmet.
All of us have the same basic needs. Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, with the help of his colleagues, worked out a set of needs by category. These include:
Having needs is not the issue. The issue is that we tend not to know how to ask for them to be met responsibly, without any assumptions, blame, or expectations.
Marshall Rosenberg developed nonviolent communication (or compassionate communication). It is not a means to end disagreements, but a method devised to increase empathy and improve the quality of life of those who utilise it. Additionally, it is not about convincing people to do what we want, but to create a connection with another person where everyone’s needs are met.
Nonviolent communication (NVC) revolves around two questions: “What are you feeling?” and “Do you have any unfulfilled needs?”
To communicate one’s answer to those questions, NVC focuses on three aspects:
Empathy is needed as it helps us see the humanness of the other person. However, this can be difficult to do as it requires the full presence of what is alive (or what they are feeling) in the other person. These aspects are important to keep in mind as they are the foundation of one’s willingness and ability to approach and perceive conflict in a non-judgmental way.
If you care about the person and want to keep the connection, you’re going to have to hear where they’re coming from – when it comes to human connection, somebody that you care about, there is a need to keep the conversation curious (What’s going on with you? Where are you coming from?).
There are four components of nonviolent communication: Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests. As NVC is a mutual exchange, it can be broken down into two parts: 1.) Expressing honestly through the four components, and 2.) Receiving empathically through the four components (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). Listening abilities are essential for the second part as NVC views them just as, if not more, important than speaking abilities.
This means presenting facts that have been observed. Avoid words like “wrong” and “inappropriate” and weird” as they don’t contain a lot of information. Basically, express information without evaluating in terms of right or wrong. Additionally, avoid phrases such as “you made me feel”. Stick to the objective facts (what a video camera would capture), and how you felt in response. Note that learning to say what you feel doesn’t have to make sense as that is your inner experience.
Connect at the level of human need – if you can just talk about your needs and not into this analysis of who’s right or wrong, we can solve anything. (Rosenberg)
Usually, hidden emotions are at the heart of failed communication. NVC involves taking responsibility for your feelings, which requires a change in perspective of how others’ words and actions affect your feelings. In NVC, what others say or do is considered the stimulus, but never the cause of feelings. It is how we choose to respond to these stimuli, our needs, and expectations at the time that causes feelings to occur (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). Again, we cannot be responsible for each other’s feelings, but we can be responsible for how we choose to react.
For these needs to be better recognised, NVC training facilitates learning to look inside yourself through practice and by expanding one’s vocabulary of feeling words. This refines how individuals can pinpoint and describe their needs, which could then be used to make effective requests from others.
Requests are never demanded as this is considered to be violent, intimidating, and forceful. Instead, requests in NVC are positive, meaning requesting what you want, rather than what you don’t want.
To effectively separate a request from a demand, express specific, doable requests based on your feelings and needs. This requires being mindful of what you are asking for and why you are asking for it (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015). You are more likely to get what you are requesting as your requests get clearer.
Avoid asking someone to “stop” doing something. Instead, ask them to “start” doing something. Understand that you can ask for a change in a person’s behaviour, but not a change in their feelings as that is their inner experience. To demonstrate, you can ask for more affection from your partner, but can’t ask them to love you more.
Although NVC is referred to as a “language of compassion,” Rosenberg emphasises that it is more than a process or language. He explains that it is an “ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking” (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
It is important to realise, NVC is not a set formula, it is adapted to each specific context. The essence of the process is in the consciousness of the four components, rather than the exchanged words (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
Since NVC is not just a language or process, but also an empathic stance, a consciousness of deeper needs, and a compassionate intent, Rosenberg claims that NVC can be done with silence, with no words exchanged between partners (Rosenberg & Chopra, 2015).
Through NVC, we strengthen our ability to inspire and respond compassionately to others and to ourselves. By focusing our consciousness on what we are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting, practising NVC guides us to reframe our self-expression and how we listen to others’ needs. Additionally, we uncover the depth of our own compassion. Overall, NVC’s emphasis on deep, mindful listening, to ourselves and others, cultivates respect, attentiveness, and empathy, and generates a mutual desire to give from the heart.
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