Summary of Nonviolent Communication


Nonviolent Communication is a communication and conflict-resolution process developed by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. The book focuses on how to express ourselves in a way that inspires empathy in others, and how to listen to them empathically in turn. This system radically changed my understanding of human interactions, and using these techniques with myself greatly reduced my own level of self-judgment. I highly recommend this book.

Four Key Steps

  • Observation – specific facts/data, no evaluation/judgment
  • Feeling – state how we feel (many failure modes here)
  • Need – the need underlying this feeling
  • Request – must be specific action to address need

“When ___, I feel ___, because I am needing ___. Therefore, I would now like ___.”

Life-alienating forms of communication

  • Moralistic judgments
  • Comparisons
  • Making demands
  • Denying responsibility :
    • Vague, impersonal forces
    • Condition, diagnosis, psychological history
    • Actions of others
    • Dictates of authority
    • Group pressure
    • Policies, rules, regulations
    • Social roles: gender, age, etc.
    • Uncontrollable impulses



Specific observations – what we are sensing: sight, sound, touch

Observation with evaluation is received as criticism

  • Evaluation words: Always, never, ever, whenever, frequently, seldom…



The actions of others may be a stimulus, but not a cause, of our feelings

Clear expression: “I feel (emotion)”

Feeling not expressed clearly when “I feel” followed by:

  • Like, that, as if
  • Pronouns
  • Other people
  • Description of what we think we are
  • How we think others perceive us

Ways to mask accountability

  • Starting sentence with it or that
  • Only mention actions of others
  • “I feel (emotion) because (anyone other than I) …”
  • Substitute, “I feel (emotion) because I …”



Basic human needs:

  • Autonomy: to choose one’s goals, values, plans
  • Celebration: creation of life and goals fulfilled, celebrate loss through mourning
  • Integrity: authenticity, creativity, self-worth
  • Interdependence: acceptance, appreciation, community, enriching life, safety, empathy, honesty, love, respect, support, trust, understanding
  • Play: fun, laughter
  • Spiritual Communion: peace, harmony, beauty
  • Physical Nurturance: food, exercise, rest, sex, shelter, touch, protection

Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs

Asking to have our needs met directly makes compassion easier for others: people hear criticism and attempt defense/counterattack when indirect

Stages of Emotional Liberation:

  1. We believe we are responsible for the feelings of others (keep everyone happy)
  2. We no longer want to be responsible for the feelings of others (anger at our own unmet needs)
  3. We take responsibility for our actions, respond to the needs of others out of compassion

Assessing needs is especially important when addressing a group!

  • Much time is wasted when speakers aren’t clear what response they want back – so ask them!
  • Also unclear when needs are actually met, we can signal by saying things like “got it”



Request what we want, not what we don’t want

  • Negative requests can cause confusion and resistance

Make requests for specific actions

  • Avoid vague, abstract, ambiguous phrasing
  • Vague language also results in internal confusion
  • More likely to get what we want

Ask the listener to reflect it back in their own words

  • Express appreciation, say “I’m grateful to you for telling me what you heard.”
  • Don’t chastise them for getting it wrong, say “I didn’t make myself as clear as I would have liked, let me try again.”
  • Empathize with the listener who doesn’t want to reflect back

After we’ve expressed ourselves, we often want to know:

  • What the listener is feeling
  • What the listener is thinking, specify what thoughts we want them to share
  • Whether the listener is willing to take a particular action

Requests are not always implicitly understood from feelings/needs

  • Requests without feelings/needs can sound like demands
  • We may not even be conscious of what we are requesting

Requests are received as demands when they think they will be blamed/punished for non-compliance

  • Two options with demands: submit or rebel
  • The more we did this in the past, the more our current actions are perceived as such (poisoned relationships)
  • Figures of authority also face the same challenge
  • Do not interpret non-compliance as rejection
  • Empathizing with someone’s “no” protects us from taking it personally
  • Do not engage in persuasion until we have empathized with what prevented that person’s acceptance
  • Signs we will judge others for non-compliance: saying should, supposed to, justified, have a right


Listening empathically

No matter what words people use, listen for the four steps.

Empathy is emptying the mind and listening with our entire self, which only occurs when we have shed preconceived notions and judgments.

Reflect back to others what we heard

  • This reveals our understanding, while eliciting necessary corrections
  • Offers them some time to reflect on their own words
  • Don’t ask for information without first sensing the speaker’s reality (e.g. “Why are you feeling that way?”)
  • If we do that, at least first state our own feelings and needs behind the question
  • Hearing a paraphrase will be more reassuring than simply saying you understand
  • Reflection is most desired when their message is emotionally charged
  • Be very careful with tone of voice, people are sensitive to criticism/sarcasm, or a declarative tone
  • If others are routinely skeptical of your motives, check your intentions

Allow others to fully express themselves before turning to requests or solutions

  • The initial feeling might be followed by related, unexpressed emotions
  • Persist in empathy until the speaker has exhausted all of their feelings, marked by a release of tension in the body, or the speaker stops talking
  • Recognize the release of tension in their body by feeling a corresponding release in our own

The best time to interrupt a conversation is when we’ve heard one more word than we want to hear

  • Interrupt with empathy, they might be needing it without realizing
  • Openly express our desire to be more connected and request information
  • Lifeless conversations for the listener are equally so for the speaker
  • It is more considerate to interrupt than to pretend to listen

When we have trouble empathizing with others, it is a sign we require empathy ourselves

  • Listen to what is going on in ourselves using the same empathy we give others
  • Scream nonviolently, by calling attention to our own desperate pain and need in the moment, they may listen even through their own distress
  • Physically remove ourselves from the situation

Common behaviors we do instead of empathy

  • Advising
  • One-upping
  • Educating
  • Consoling
  • Story-telling
  • Shutting them down
  • Sympathizing
  • Interrogating
  • Explaining
  • Correcting

Intellectual understanding blocks empathy

  • We are not present when analyzing their words to see how they fit our model
  • Be with them and their experience entirely
  • We may sympathize by feeling their feelings, but this is not being present either

It may be difficult to empathize with those who are closest to us



NVC’s most important application!

We have all learned limiting beliefs

  • Transforming this destructive thinking requires a literacy of needs and self-awareness
  • NVC allows us to recognize this conditioning through the four main steps

Self-judgments, like judgments of others, are expressions of unmet needs

  • Critical self-concepts prevent us from seeing our beauty, only our shortcomings
  • When we are motivated by shame, we are allowing our learning to by guided by self-hatred
  • When motivated by fear/guilt/shame/hatred, our actions do not feel playful/joyful
  • We should be stimulated by a clear desire to enrich life for ourselves and others (positive motivation)
  • Negative motivations include:
    • Extrinsic reward: money, approval
    • Escape punishment
    • Avoid shame
    • Avoid guilt
    • Sense of duty

Steps to attain self-empathy

  • Recognize self-judgment and focus on the underlying needs
  • First ask what needs lie behind the judgment
  • Then ask what needs lie behind the judged action
  • By focusing on our needs, we will naturally begin to figure out ways to meet them

Translate “I have to…” to “I choose to… because I want…” to gain awareness of our actions


Expressing anger

Acknowledge that we are responsible for our own anger, others are stimulus not cause

  • Confusing this boundary is used to motivate others by guilt
  • Anger is judgment generated by disconnection to our needs
  • We can also look at the other person’s feelings and needs and empathize with them to understand their behavior

Anger is valuable as a warning that we have unmet needs

  • Yet also makes it unlikely for our needs to be met
  • People are unable to hear our pain if they believe they are at fault
  • Directs energy towards punitive action

Steps to fully express anger:

  1. Stop and breathe
  2. Identify judgmental thoughts
  3. Connect with our needs
  4. (If necessary, empathize with the other person)
  5. Express our feelings and unmet needs


Expressing appreciation

Everyone yearns to be genuinely appreciated. Don’t assume that other people know the intensity of our appreciation.

Judgments, even positive ones, are still judgments: statements like “you are a good person” reveal nothing of what is going on for the speaker.

Three components of appreciation:

  • The specific actions which contributed to our well-being
  • The needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  • The pleasurable feelings engendered by fulfillment of those needs

Receive appreciation with the same empathy we give other messages

  • We tend to search for improvements instead of celebrating how well things are going
  • We are often uncomfortable receiving praise, don’t receive with superiority or false humility
  • When we listen to the effect we have had on others, we can realize the joyous reality that we can make each other’s lives better

Cultivate an awareness of what others are doing that enriches our lives, and tell them!

  • When I read your blog post, I felt a certain appreciation, because I desire this knowledge of the book but don’t want to spend >10hrs reading the book. Therefore, I would now like to thank you for your service :). More than 8 years later you’re still adding value to people’s lives!