Nonviolent Communication (abbreviated NVC, also called Compassionate Communication or Collaborative Communication) is an approach to nonviolent living developed by Marshall Rosenberg beginning in the 1960s.
NVC is based on the assumption that all human beings have capacity for compassion and empathy and that people only resort to violence or behavior harmful to others when they do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs.
NVC theory supposes that all human behavior stems from attempts to meet universal human needs, and that these needs are never in conflict; rather, conflict arises when strategies for meeting needs clash. NVC proposes that people should identify shared needs, which are revealed by the thoughts and feelings surrounding these needs, and then they should collaborate to develop strategies and make requests of each other to meet each other's needs. The goal is interpersonal harmony and learning for future cooperation.
NVC aims to support change on three interconnected levels: within self, between others, and within groups and social systems. NVC is taught as a process of interpersonal communication designed to improve compassionate connection to others. Practitioners also emphasize that it can have many beneficial "side effects" as a spiritual practice, as a set of values, as parenting best practices, as a tool for social change, as a mediation tool, as an educational orientation, and as a worldview.
NVC has been applied in organizational and business settings, in parenting, in education, in mediation, in psychotherapy, in healthcare, in addressing eating issues, in justice, and as a basis for a children's book, among other contexts.
Rosenberg related ways he used Nonviolent Communication in peace programs in conflict zones including Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Serbia, Croatia, Ireland, and the Middle East including the disputed West Bank.
History and development
According to a biography of Rosenberg on the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) website, Nonviolent Communication training evolved from his search for a way to rapidly disseminate peacemaking skills. CNVC says that NVC emerged from work he was doing with civil rights activists in the early 1960s, and that during this period he also mediated between rioting students and college administrators, and worked to peacefully desegregate public schools in long-segregated regions.
A master's thesis by Marion Little (2008) says that the roots of the NVC model developed in the late 1960s, when Rosenberg was working on racial integration in schools and organizations in the Southern United States. The earliest version of the model (observations, feelings, and action-oriented wants) was part of a training manual Rosenberg prepared in 1972. The model had evolved to its present form (observations, feelings, needs and requests) by 1992. The dialog between Rosenberg and NVC colleagues and trainers continued to influence the model, which by the late 2000s put more emphasis on self-empathy as a key to the model's effectiveness. Another shift in emphasis, since 2000, has been the reference to the model as a process. The focus is thus less on the "steps" themselves and more on the practitioner's intentions in speaking ("Is the intent to get others to do what one wants, or to foster more meaningful relationships and mutual satisfaction?") in listening ("Is the intent to prepare for what one has to say, or to extend heartfelt, respectful attentiveness to another?") and the quality of connection experienced with others.
Also according to Little's thesis, Rosenberg's work with Carl Rogers on research to investigate the necessary and sufficient conditions of a therapeutic relationship was central to the development of NVC. Rogers emphasized: 1) experiential learning, 2) "frankness about one's emotional state," 3) the satisfaction of hearing others "in a way that resonates for them," 4) the enriching and encouraging experience of "creative, active, sensitive, accurate, empathic listening," 5) the "deep value of congruence between one's own inner experience, one's conscious awareness, and one's communication," and, subsequently, 6) the enlivening experience of unconditionally receiving love or appreciation and extending the same.
Little says Rosenberg was influenced by Erich Fromm, George Albee, and George Miller to adopt a community focus in his work, moving away from clinical psychological practice. The central ideas influencing this shift by Rosenberg were that: (1) individual mental health depends on the social structure of a community (Fromm), (2) therapists alone are unable to meet the psychological needs of a community (Albee), and (3) knowledge about human behavior will increase if psychology is freely given to the community (Miller).
According to Little, Rosenberg's early work with children with learning disabilities shows his interest in psycholinguistics and the power of language, as well as his emphasis on collaboration. In its initial development, the NVC model re-structured the pupil-teacher relationship to give students greater responsibility for, and decision-making related to, their own learning. The model has evolved over the years to incorporate institutional power relationships (i.e., police-citizen, boss-employee) and informal ones (i.e. man-woman, rich-poor, adult-youth, parent-child). The ultimate aim is to develop societal relationships based on a restorative, "partnership" paradigm and mutual respect, rather than a retributive, fear-based, "domination" paradigm.
Little also says Rosenberg identified Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration for the NVC model, and that Rosenberg's goal was to develop a practical process for interaction rooted in the philosophy of Ahimsa, which Little translates as "the overflowing love that arises when all ill-will, anger, and hate have subsided from the heart."
Unlike Gandhi, Rosenberg endorses the idea of protective force when physical conflict may prove unavoidable. As long as force is not punitive, the use of protective force is acceptable with the sole intent of protecting life; without passing judgment on the person or behavior.
In order to show the differences between communication styles, Rosenberg started to use two animals. Violent communication was represented by the carnivorous Jackal as a symbol of aggression and especially dominance. The herbivorous Giraffe on the other hand, represented his NVC strategy. The Giraffe was chosen as symbol for NVC as its long neck is supposed to show the clear-sighted speaker, being aware of his fellow speakers' reactions; and because the Giraffe has a large heart, representing the compassionate side of NVC. In his courses he tended to use these animals in order to make the differences in communication clearer to the audience.
Nonviolent Communication holds that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from miscommunication about their human needs, due to coercive or manipulative language that aims to induce fear, guilt, shame, etc. These "violent" modes of communication, when used during a conflict, divert the attention of the participants away from clarifying their needs, their feelings, their perceptions, and their requests, thus perpetuating the conflict.
Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, published numerous training materials to help in efforts to bring about radical social change. He was concerned with transforming the "gangs and domination structures" through the method he called "ask, ask, ask". He suggested social change activists could focus on gaining access to those in power in order to "ask, ask, ask" for changes that will make life better for all including the powerful. He wrote about the need for the protective use of force, distinguishing it from the punitive use of force.
Two NVC trainers characterize the assumptions underlying NVC as follows:
- All human beings share the same needs
- Our world offers sufficient resources for meeting everyone's basic needs
- All actions are attempts to meet needs
- Feelings point to needs being met or unmet
- All human beings have the capacity for compassion
- Human beings enjoy giving
- Human beings meet needs through interdependent relationships
- Human beings change
- Choice is internal
- The most direct path to peace is through self-connection
The trainers also say that practicing NVC involves having the following intentions:
- Open-hearted living
- Expressing from the heart
- Receiving with compassion
- Prioritizing connection
- Moving beyond "right" and "wrong" to using needs-based assessments
- Choice, responsibility, peace
- Taking responsibility for our feelings
- Taking responsibility for our actions
- Living in peace with unmet needs
- Increasing capacity for meeting needs
- Increasing capacity for meeting the present moment
- Sharing power (partnership)
- Caring equally for everyone's needs
- Using force minimally and to protect rather than to educate, punish, or get what we want without agreement
Communication that blocks compassion
Rosenberg says that certain ways of communicating tend to alienate people from the experience of compassion::ch.2
- Moralistic judgments implying wrongness or badness on the part of people who don't act in harmony with our values. Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticisms, comparisons, and diagnoses are all said to be forms of judgment. (Moralistic judgments are not to be confused with value judgments as to the qualities we value.) The use of moralistic judgments is characterized as an impersonal way of expressing oneself that does not require one to reveal what is going on inside of oneself. This way of speaking is said to have the result that "Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others need and are not getting."
- Demands that implicitly or explicitly threaten listeners with blame or punishment if they fail to comply.
- Denial of responsibility via language that obscures awareness of personal responsibility. It is said that we deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to: vague impersonal forces ("I had to"); our condition, diagnosis, personal or psychological history; the actions of others; the dictates of authority; group pressure; institutional policy, rules, and regulations; gender roles, social roles, or age roles; or uncontrollable impulses.
- Making comparisons between people.
- A premise of deserving, that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment.
Rosenberg invites NVC practitioners to focus attention on four components:
- The facts (what we are seeing, hearing, or touching) as distinct from our evaluation of meaning and significance. NVC discourages static generalizations. It is said that "When we combine observation with evaluation others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying." Instead, a focus on observations specific to time and context is recommended.:ch.3
- Emotions or sensations, free of thought and story. These are to be distinguished from thoughts (e.g., "I feel I didn't get a fair deal") and from words colloquially used as feelings but which convey what we think we are (e.g., "inadequate"), how we think others are evaluating us (e.g., "unimportant"), or what we think others are doing to us (e.g., "misunderstood", "ignored"). Feelings are said to reflect whether we are experiencing our needs as met or unmet. Identifying feelings is said to allow us to more easily connect with one another, and "Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by expressing our feelings can help resolve conflicts.":ch.4
- Universal human needs, as distinct from particular strategies for meeting needs. It is posited that "Everything we do is in service of our needs."
- Request for a specific action, free of demand. Requests are distinguished from demands in that one is open to hearing a response of "no" without this triggering an attempt to force the matter. If one makes a request and receives a "no" it is recommended not that one give up, but that one empathize with what is preventing the other person from saying "yes," before deciding how to continue the conversation. It is recommended that requests use clear, positive, concrete action language.:ch.6
There are three primary modes of application of NVC:
- Self-empathy involves compassionately connecting with what is going on inside us. This may involve, without blame, noticing the thoughts and judgments we are having, noticing our feelings, and most critically, connecting to the needs that are affecting us.:ch.4
- Receiving empathically, in NVC, involves "connection with what's alive in the other person and what would make life wonderful for them... It's not an understanding of the head where we just mentally understand what another person says... Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy in the other person, the life that's alive in them... It doesn't mean we have to feel the same feelings as the other person. That's sympathy, when we feel sad that another person is upset. It doesn't mean we have the same feelings; it means we are with the other person... If you're mentally trying to understand the other person, you're not present with them.":ch.5 Empathy involves "emptying the mind and listening with our whole being." NVC suggests that however the other person expresses themselves, we focus on listening for the underlying observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It is suggested that it can be useful to reflect a paraphrase of what another person has said, highlighting the NVC components implicit in their message, such as the feelings and needs you guess they may be expressing.:ch.7
- Expressing honestly, in NVC, is likely to involve expressing an observation, feeling, need, and request. An observation may be omitted if the context of the conversation is clear. A feeling might be omitted if there is sufficient connection already, or the context is one where naming a feeling isn't likely to contribute to connection. It is said that naming a need in addition to a feeling makes it less likely that people will think you are making them responsible for your feeling. Similarly, it is said that making a request in addition to naming a need makes it less likely that people will infer a vague demand that they address your need. The components are thought to work together synergistically. According to NVC trainer Bob Wentworth, "an observation sets the context, feelings support connection and getting out of our heads, needs support connection and identify what is important, and a request clarifies what sort of response you might enjoy. Using these components together minimizes the chances of people getting lost in potentially disconnecting speculation about what you want from them and why."
As of 2008, NVC was said to lack significant "longitudinal analytical research," and few studies had evaluated the effectiveness of NVC training programs. There had been little discussion of NVC in academic contexts, and most evidence for the effectiveness of NVC was said to be anecdotal or based on theoretical support. Since that time, the number of publications reporting research on NVC has more than doubled.
Carme Juncadella produced a systematic review of research as of 2013 related to the impact of NVC on the development of empathy. She found 13 studies which met her inclusion criteria (three were published in peer reviewed journals; ten were unpublished theses or researcher reports). Eleven of these suggested an increase in empathy subsequent to the application of NVC (five of these with evidence of statistical significance) and two did not. Juncadella notes several shortcomings of her review. None of the studies she included were randomized and only three used validated instruments. As a result she used a narrative synthesis review format, which, "lacks precision," but allows the summarization of studies of different types, sizes, outcome measures and aims. She suggests the primary limitation of her review is that a number of relevant studies exist that could not be included due to lack of availability. She suggests these might have significantly altered her results. Finally, she includes the following caveat: "I must mention the inevitable subjectivity bias present throughout the whole review. In spite of the efforts made towards 'disciplined subjectivity'... my decisions show a degree of uncertainty and inaccuracy born via the tension between the weak evidence of the studies and my own convictions about the NVC model." Her overall assessment of the current research on NVC's efficacy in promoting the development of empathy is that the results are promising, but "would need to be confirmed with further studies bearing stronger designs and more appropriate measures." She notes that a major shortcoming of the existing research is the "mismatch between the constructs of the model and the validated empathy measures" and suggests that improved instruments need to be developed to adequately test NVC.
Allan Rohlfs, who first met Rosenberg in 1972 and was a founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, in 2011 explained a paucity of academic literature as follows:
Virtually all conflict resolution programs have an academic setting as their foundation and therefore have empirical studies by graduate students assessing their efficacy. NVC is remarkable for its roots. Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. (clinical psychology, U of Wisconsin) comes from a full time private practice in clinical psychology and consultation, never an academic post. NVC, his creation, is entirely a grassroots organization and never had until recently any foundation nor grant monies, on the contrary funded 100% from trainings which were offered in public workshops around the world. ... Empirical data is now coming slowly as independent researchers find their own funding to conduct and publish empirical studies with peer review.
Richard Bowers' master's thesis (2012), updated to book form by Bowers and Moffett (2012), asserts that NVC has been absent from academic programs due to a lack of research into the theoretical basis for the model and lack of research on the reliability of positive results. Bowers' thesis meets the first objection through an analysis of existing theories which provide solid support for each element of the NVC (mediation) model. Without this theoretical understanding, it would not be clear what aspects of the NVC model make it work or even if it can be effectively applied by anyone other than Marshall Rosenberg. This theoretical analysis can provide a foundation for further empirical research on the effectiveness and reliability of the model.
Connor and Wentworth examined the impact of 6-months of NVC training and coaching on 23 executives in a Fortune 100 corporation. A variety of benefits were reported, including "conversations and meetings were notably more efficient, with issues being resolved in 50-80 percent less time."
NVC has reportedly been an element of a bundle of interventions that produced dramatic changes in forensic psychiatric nursing settings in which a high level of violence is the norm. NVC was adopted, in combination with other interventions, in an effort to reduce violence. The interventions were said to reduce key violence indicators by 90 percent over a three-year period in a medium security unit, and by around 50 percent in a single year in a maximum security unit.
A 2014 study examined the effects of combined NVC and mindfulness training on 885 male inmates of the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington. The training was found to reduce recidivism from 37% to 21%, and the training was estimated as having saved the state $5 million per year in reduced incarceration costs. The training was found to increase equanimity, decrease anger, and lead to abilities to take responsibility for one's feelings, express empathy, and to make requests without imposing demands.
NVC has also been reported as effective in reducing domestic violence. Male participants who graduated from an NVC-based batterer intervention program in California had zero percent recidivism within 5 years, according to the relevant District Attorneys' offices. The news report contrasted this with a recidivism rate of 40 percent within 5 years as reported by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project for graduates of their batterer intervention program based on the Duluth Model, said to previously offer the lowest known domestic violence recidivism rate.
Bowers and Moffett provide a thoughtful study of the important role of empathy and human needs in mediation through the development of a theoretical model to explain the effectiveness of NVC mediation. The authors present theories of human needs and the basis for a common core of needs. They discuss theories that explain the importance of understanding human needs in the context of conflict resolution. They clearly distinguish core human needs from interests (strategies) and how focusing on needs is a paradigm shift in the field of conflict resolution. Further, Bowers and Moffett present theories of empathy from the pioneering work of Carl Rogers, Heinz Kohut, and others. Empathy is distinguished from sympathy and active listening, pointing out how the word empathy is often confused in the literature by using it interchangeably with these other two terms. They also examine stage theories of the development of empathy as well as constructive-developmental theories related to empathy.
Relationship to spirituality
As Theresa Latini notes, "Rosenberg understands NVC to be a fundamentally spiritual practice." Marshall Rosenberg describes the influence of his spiritual life on the development and practice of NVC:
I think it is important that people see that spirituality is at the base of Nonviolent Communication, and that they learn the mechanics of the process with that in mind. It's really a spiritual practice that I am trying to show as a way of life. Even though we don't mention this, people get seduced by the practice. Even if they practice this as a mechanical technique, they start to experience things between themselves and other people they weren't able to experience before. So eventually they come to the spirituality of the process. They begin to see that it's more than a communication process and realize it's really an attempt to manifest a certain spirituality.
Rosenberg further states that he developed NVC as a way to "get conscious of" what he calls the "Beloved Divine Energy".
Some Christians have found NVC to be complementary to their Christian faith. Many people have found Nonviolent Communication to be very complementary to Buddhism, both in theory and in manifesting Buddhist ideals in practice.
Relationship to other models
Marion Little examines theoretical frameworks related to NVC. The influential interest-based model for conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation developed by Fisher, Ury, and Patton at the Harvard Negotiation Project and at the Program on Negotiation in the 1980s appears to have some conceptual overlap with NVC, although neither model references the other.:31–35 Little suggests The Gordon Model for Effective Relationships (1970) as a likely precursor to both NVC and interest-based negotiation, based on conceptual similarities, if not any direct evidence of a connection.:35–41 Like Rosenberg, Gordon had worked with Carl Rogers, so the models' similarities may reflect common influences.:35
Suzanne Jones sees a substantive difference between active listening as originated by Gordon and empathic listening as recommended by Rosenberg, insofar as active listening involves a specific step of reflecting what a speaker said to let them know you are listening, whereas empathic listening involves an ongoing process of listening with both heart and mind and being fully present to the other's experience, with an aim of comprehending and empathizing with the needs of the other, the meaning of the experience for that person.
Gert Danielsen and Havva Kök both note an overlap between the premises of NVC and those of Human Needs Theory (HNT), an academic model for understanding the sources of conflict and designing conflict resolution processes, with the idea that "Violence occurs when certain individuals or groups do not see any other way to meet their need, or when they need understanding, respect and consideration for their needs."
Martha Lasley sees similarities with the Focused Conversation Method developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), with NVC's observations, feelings, needs, and requests components relating to FCM's objective, reflective, interpretive, and decisional stages.
Several researchers have attempted a thorough evaluation of criticisms and weaknesses of NVC and assessed significant challenges in its application. These span a range of potential problems, from the practical to the theoretical, and include concerns gathered from study participants and researchers.
The difficulty of using NVC as well as the dangers of misuse are common concerns. In addition, Bitschnau and Flack find a paradoxical potential for violence in the use of NVC, occasioned by its unskilled use. Bitschnau further suggests that the use of NVC is unlikely to allow everyone to express their feelings and have their needs met in real life as this would require inordinate time, patience and discipline. Those who are skilled in the use of NVC may become prejudiced against those who are not and prefer to converse only among themselves.
Furthermore, the exclusivity of NVC appears to favor the well-educated, valuing those with more awareness of grammar, word choice, and syntax. This could lead to problems of accessibility for the underprivileged and favoring a higher social class.
NVC also gives the oppressor tools to appear more loving and kind towards someone else, thus granting an oppressor the ability to maintain power over a more victimized party.
Oboth suggests that people might hide their feelings in the process of empathy, subverting the nonviolence of communication.
Though intended to strengthen relationships between loved ones, NVC may lead to the outcome of an ended relationship. We are finite creatures with finite resources, and understanding one another's needs through NVC may teach that the relationship causes too much strain to meet all needs.
The massive investment of time and effort in learning to use NVC has been noted by a number of researchers.
Chapman Flack, in reviewing a training video by Rosenberg, finds the presentation of key ideas "spell-binding" and the anecdotes "humbling and inspiring", notes the "beauty of his work", and his "adroitly doing fine attentive thinking" when interacting with his audience. Yet Flack wonders what to make of aspects of Rosenberg's presentation, such as his apparent "dim view of the place for thinking" and his building on Walter Wink's account of the origins of our way of thinking. To Flack, some elements of what Rosenberg says seem like pat answers at odds with the challenging and complex picture of human nature history, literature, and art offer.
Flack notes a distinction between the "strong sense" of Nonviolent Communication as a virtue that is possible with care and attention, and the "weak sense," a mimicry of this born of ego and haste. The strong sense offers a language to examine one's thinking and actions, support understanding, bring one's best to the community, and honor one's emotions. In the weak sense, one may take the language as rules and use these to score debating points, label others for political gain, or insist that others express themselves in this way. Though concerned that some of what Rosenberg says could lead to the weak sense, Flack sees evidence confirming that Rosenberg understands the strong sense in practice. Rosenberg's work with workshop attendees demonstrates "the real thing." Yet Flack warns that "the temptation of the weak sense will not be absent." As an antidote, Flack advises, "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others," (also known as the robustness principle) and guard against the "metamorphosis of nonviolent communication into subtle violence done in its name."
Ellen Gorsevski, assessing Rosenberg's book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion (1999) in the context of geopolitical rhetoric, states that "the relative strength of the individual is vastly overestimated while the key issue of structural violence is almost completely ignored."
Sven Hartenstein has created a series of cartoons spoofing NVC.
The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), founded by Marshall Rosenberg, has trademarked the terms NVC, Nonviolent Communication and Compassionate Communication, among other terms, for clarity and branding purposes.
Some trainings in Nonviolent Communication are offered by trainers sponsored by organizations considered as allied with, but having no formal relationship with, the Center for Nonviolent Communication founded by Marshall Rosenberg. Some of these trainings are announced through CNVC. Numerous NVC organizations have sprung up around the world, many with regional focuses.
- Alternatives to Violence Project
- Bohm Dialogue
- Conflict transformation
- Focusing (psychotherapy)
- Four-sides model
- Insight dialogue
- Inner Relationship Focusing
- Learning circle
- People skills
- Restorative justice
- Rogerian argument
- Social emotional development
- Teaching for social justice
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