Nonviolent Communication: The first step in healing a relationship
by: Alexandra Tyler, LCSW
In my last post, I introduced you to Attachment Theory and the powerful and vulnerable emotions we have in our attachment bonded relationships. I also said that when the safety and security of those relationships are shaken, our first task is to repair the bond in the relationship.
My two favorite tools for repairing relationship bonds are Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and the Imago exercise. NVC is the first step because we need it before we can effectively use the Imago Exercise. I’ll write about the Imago exercise in my next post.
Nonviolent communication was developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg. He believed that we are culturally conditioned to continually evaluate the rightness and wrongness of everything and everyone. Especially in any verbal disagreement, rather than getting in touch with how we feel or seeking to understand how the other person feels, we tend to judge their thoughts, beliefs, values or feelings as wrong and we then express our judgment of their wrongness.
I agree with this description of how most people in the US tend to communicate. I see it and hear it every day. I hear people assuming hurtful motives, leveling character judgments, and telling others they are bad or wrong for doing things, thinking things, feeling things, and wanting things.
For example: Someone doesn’t wash the dishes:
“Why did you leave the dishes for me to do? I’m busy too, you know. You don’t respect my time. You’re lazy and selfish! All you want to do is play video games. I can never count on you to do your fair share.”
All of these judgments of wrongness, character assassinations, name calling, assuming negative motives, and over generalizing hurts the other person and damages the bond between the two people. That’s why Rosenburg calls this type of communication violent. Because it causes harm.
Communication is an interactive process. Though we are not completely responsible for how someone responds to us, we do have some influence. We can invite a cooperative, empathetic response, or we can invite a defensive, conflictual response by how we present what we have to say. This includes our choice of words, tone, and nonverbals such as facial expressions and body language. And, of course, we are always responsible for how we speak to other people and any harm we might do by how we speak.
By using NVC, we can avoid starting conflict and keep our relationship bonds strong. We can also use NVC to de-escalate conflicts in progress, and to help repair relationship bonds after a conflict or argument.
The four components of NVC are:
1. Observe what is happening without judgment or evaluation.
2. State how we feel when we observe this.
3. State what needs, values, and desires are connected to the feelings.
4. Make requests for concrete actions that enrich our lives.
Let’s look at the first step, to separate observations from judgements. This isn’t a natural way of speaking for most people and will probably take practice. Rather than expressing a judgment, “The kitchen is a disaster area,” we can simply describe what we see without judgment.
“I see unwashed dishes, dried food on the stove, and debris on the floor.”
An example of something we can’t physically see is, instead of saying, “You stayed out all night again without calling me. I guess when you’re having fun you forget all about me.”
We can say, “When you don’t call me as we agreed.”
Step two is to state what we feel about the thing we observed. This might require looking at an emotions chart. There are many available on the internet. Here’s just one:
Each color on the wheel is a different emotion with the most intense version of that emotion in the center, and the least intense version of that emotion on the outside tip.
I like to put step one and two together by stating an observation without judgment, followed by an emotion word. I call this the observation-emotion format.
“When I see unwashed dishes, dried food on the stove, and debris on the floor, I feel angry.”
Or, you can reverse the order like this , “I feel afraid, when you don’t call me as we agreed.”
Step three in NVC is to state what needs, values, and desires are connected to the feelings.
“When I see unwashed dishes, dried food on the stove, and debris on the floor, I feel angry. I have a need to know I’m being treated fairly in this relationship, and I value sharing the chores equally.”
Or, “I feel afraid, when you don’t call me as we agreed. I have a need to know you are safe and to be able to trust you will follow through on the agreements we make.”
The final step in NVC is to make requests for concrete actions that enrich our lives.
“When I see unwashed dishes, dried food on the stove, and debris on the floor, I feel angry. I have a need to know I’m being treated fairly in this relationship, and I value sharing the chores equally. I would like you to clean up the kitchen before you go to bed tonight.”
Or, “I feel afraid, when you don’t call me as we agreed. I have a need to know you are safe and to be able to trust you will follow through on the agreements we make. I would like you to renegotiate a new agreement with me that you can follow through on.”
Learning to speak this way will take practice for most people. I recommend practicing frequently with everyday language. If there is a person you often have conflicts with, see if you can engage them in practicing NVC with you. By practicing when you are not upset, it will be easier to remember to use it when you are upset.
I hope you find this useful and that it improves your relationships.
Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.