“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg
What NVC is good at, and where it fails
I will start my chapter on Non-Violent Communication with the disclaimer that I am not widely read, so I apologize if anything I say here comes across as ignorant or judgmental to a person who knows more than me. NVC has its critics, and I am one, although I also really appreciate the model which has helped me a lot.
For instance: the above statement sounds “cultish” to me. Not every judgment or expression of anger is a tragic expression of an unmet need; just most of them. Expressing anger in the right setting can be helpful, I say more about this below. My biggest criticism of NVC is actually the wholesale and undiscerning forcing of all your communications into the so-called “OFNR” model (Observation – Feeling – Need – Request). Maybe this is just beginner-NVC, I don’t know. In any case, I will explain the model below, demonstrate why it is not always optimal, and show you how you can do better by adding Authentic Relating (A/R).
Others criticize NVC for (allegedly) speaking mostly to people of privilege, for not addressing the problem of systemic oppression, and for not understanding inter-subjective reality (meaning that our communications are not just words, they are energy). More about inter-subjective reality below in this chapter, and also in the following two chapters. It’s an extremely important topic within A/R and Circling.
Here is a good example of NVC’s failure to acknowledge the inter-subjective space: the statement “you make me feel guilty”. Technically this is not correct (nobody can make you feel anything), and it’s certainly not an OFNR-approved way of speaking. However this statement is, from my perspective, clear, concise and inarguable. The statement will most likely land quite powerfully in an inter-subjective (or emotionally intelligent) space. Even if you disagree, the only intelligent response you can make is “Really??? How do I make you feel guilty?”, which will deepen the conversation either way. If I tried to fit that statement into OFNR, it would be 5 times longer and would probably not communicate any better. Communications need to be as concise and tight as possible, especially when there is “emotional charge” present. More about emotional charge in the next chapter.
In all fairness, Marshall started his work on NVC in the 70’s. There were inter-subjective teachings and communities present then (“we-space”) but they were not as developed as they are now, and it’s probable that Marshall did not engage. The world has evolved considerably since then.
And yet in spite of its limitations, understanding and practicing good NVC is very valuable, and maybe essential, to Circling effectively. The most important contributions of NVC are in learning the language of feelings and needs, the OFNR model, and the powerful idea of “needs as a gift”, which I also say more about below.
NVC actually IS, from my perspective, a “complete relational developmental system”. It does understand the fundamental truths of what it means to be in relationship, and the challenges likely to arise. Especially once you get into the higher-level teachings of NVC, what we call “NVC Consciousness”. NVC consciousness is essentially the same as “Circling consciousness” (your attempt to fulfill the human needs of everyone around you, especially related to connection, belonging, appreciation and impact/contribution), so I don’t need to address the topic of NVC consciousness here.
The upside, or potential of NVC is the same as the upside of Circling: by communicating and “being” in a way that fulfills yours and others fundamental human needs, you will access happiness and power more quickly and easily.
The downside or risk of NVC is that you will take it on as a cult, attempt to force all your communications into OFNR, and sound like an idiot to all your friends and business associates. Or, at minimum, generate a lot of eye-rolling (“you are making my eyes roll” – I have never said that to anyone, maybe I should LOL. I refer to such people as “NVC robots”)
The downside or risk of Circling is that you will enter it without emotional literacy or understanding of feeling and needs, and hence not make optimal use of it. Another downside of Circling is that, unlike NVC, we typically “throw you into the deep end” without any education, at the risk of re-traumatizing you in the first three session and you never coming back (although frankly, you can be re-traumatized in NVC almost as easily).
Circling has actually evolved considerably since its inception in 1998. There are classes and events now that are specifically targeted to beginners and which have more of an educational flavor, what we call “context setting” (the CircleAnywhere beginner circles and classes are some of the best, and some are even free now which is kind of amazing. There is also a free Circling video training, find it on the sidebar of circlingguide.com).
However, do not go into a circle with the expectation that you are going to be treated gently. Especially in more advanced circles, as you are likely to be disappointed. You might also be wise to read the chapter in this book “Trauma is good for you” (maybe after having attended one or two circles, otherwise you will have no context for the reading). Not everyone in Circling agrees that trauma is good for you. But trust me: if you don’t get re-traumatized in Circling at some point, you aren’t trying hard enough. Or maybe you are just lucky; but don’t count on your luck holding indefinitely.
Let’s move on now to what NVC does well, and how you can make it much better by adding Authentic Relating (A/R).
Case study: the OFNR model, and compare-and-contrast NVC and Authentic Relating
The OFNR model (4-part formula of NVC) goes like this:
 Observation,  Feelings,  Needs,  Requests
I will illustrate with the classical and easily relatable problem of your housemate not doing the dishes. This is a simple problem, on the surface; but it can be unpacked at any level of complexity. Such, by the way, is the nature of human relationships, and why they can be so much fun.
Your communication might go like this:
Matthew, [1-Observation] I noticed you did not do the dishes last night. [2-Feeling] I felt a bit confused about this, because we have spoken about this before and I thought we had an agreement. [3-Need] I really do have a need for order and cleanliness in the kitchen. [4-Request] Do you suppose that you could do your dishes after eating?
Now, there is nothing wrong with this communication, per se. It’s certainly much better than:
[Accuse him and make him wrong for his behavior] Matthew, what the hell is wrong with you? [Blame him for your feelings] We have spoken so many times about this and you continue to disappoint me. [Threaten him with unspecified action] Are you going to start fulfilling your obligations in this house or not?
This is called in NVC “Jackal language” as opposed to “Giraffe language”, which is the correct use of NVC. Sad to say, that Jackal language is much more common than Giraffe language.
I am sure you will agree, that the first version is much more likely to lead to the desired outcome (that Matthew do his dishes without my having to remind him again).
But from an A/R perspective, the first communication is not ideal. Here is what I would say, the “correct” (or at least “more correct”) A/R communication:
[Vulnerable share and request permission for a clearing conversation] Matthew, I am feeling a bit upset about something and I wonder if I can talk to you? Is now a good time?]. [After permission given: more vulnerability] I am actually really afraid of bringing this up with you, but [Observation and yet more vulnerability] I was disturbed (or negatively impacted) when I came into the kitchen this morning and saw your dishes, especially as we have talked about this before. [Offer empathy, open up a dialogue] Is it hard for you to do your dishes at night? Is there something going on with you right now? I am here to listen, if it would help. [And stop there! It’s too early in the conversation to express a need or make a request, you are in early stages of connection. Give Matthew a little space]
Let me ask you: if you were Matthew, which communication would you prefer, the first or the last one? Which one would get you more motivated to do your dishes, which statement would make you feel closer to me, and why? Pause your reading for a moment, and think about this.
Here are the reasons that I personally would much prefer the last communication, if I were Matthew. (Note: There is perhaps a better NVC communication that I, in my ignorance, am not able to frame. Please read this as a case study in emotional communication, more than as a critique of NVC, exactly):
- I am bringing to Matthew my “emotional charge” (see the next chapter), my anger and upset and desire (maybe even demand) that he show up in a way that is different than what he is doing now (different attitude, different behavior or different communication). It is both courteous and smart to ask him first whether he is open to a clearing conversation, given the high likelihood that he could be triggered by this. You would probably do this in NVC as well (ask for permission prior to launching into a clearing conversation), but in A/R you should always ask for permission prior to a conversation on a sensitive topic. A simple formula here is to express fear or ambivalence prior to beginning (“I am afraid of bringing this up”). This potentially puts the other person on your side from the get-go, as you are indirectly asking for empathy. In this example, I am owning this as my problem too, the fact that I am fearful, which gives Matthew an opportunity to help me resolve that fear and return to a place of mutual love and caring.
- Notice as well my offer of empathy in the A/R communication. You would do this in good NVC as well, of course; but in initiating a clearing conversation you should always offer empathy, whether you are doing NVC or whether you are doing A/R. If I don’t offer empathy, I am essentially forcing or funneling Matthew into my communication structure.
Look again at the first communication. What are Matthew’s possible responses? “Yes” or “No”. Along with the various variations that would include “Yea, sorry dude, I had a rough day yesterday, will try and do better”, or else “No, I am not willing to agree to that. Yesterday I was a fucking mess and I just did not feel like doing the dishes. Let me calm down and talk to you later, as I am too angry right now at your NVC-robot communications. I am actually feeling your style of communication to be dehumanizing”. Matthew would actually be perfectly correct in saying that, if that is how he was feeling. Note here, that very few people would have the emotional literacy or the courage to actually say this. But Matthew may feel it, regardless of whether he actually says it.
- Notice in the A/R communication no less than three vulnerable shares (“upset”, “afraid”, “disturbed”). As opposed to only one in the NVC statement (“confused”). “Confused” is an excellent way to share vulnerability when you are engaging a difficult conversation (you don’t want to trigger your partner from the get-go), however it is not a high-level of vulnerability. The truth of the matter is that I am feeling angry and disappointed. But I can’t say this in NVC because in NVC, anger and disappointment are not “pure” emotions, they are the result of a judgment coming from an unmet need. We unpack this a bit more below. My point is that I may think I am giving a perfect communication, I may be so pleased with myself, but the truth is that I am a withholding bitch LOL. In the first communication, I am not really putting myself on the line or risking anything. I am not modeling what I actually want, which is Matthew’s openness, trust and vulnerability.
- It is way too soon in this exchange to express my needs, let alone make a request. In the first, NVC-correct communication, Matthew may well be thinking (and would even be justified in speaking) some version of this: “Dude, could you please chill out? [subtext: you OCD prick]. I hear your need, but I had a terrible day at work yesterday and I had a need to watch TV after dinner and to do the dishes in the morning while listening to heavy metal on my walkman”. Bear in mind that at this stage, Matthew may not care about my needs. This, incidentally, is a wise perspective for you to take on in all your relationships: assume that nobody cares about your needs, until proven otherwise. Especially when your immediate need is that they show up differently than how they are currently being.
- Finally: this is important and actually very deep. NVC understands this and if I were doing true “NVC consciousness” I would include this in my OFNR (or at minimum try and communicate this non-verbally) “I care for you and I have a desire to feel close to you”; but it would be awkward, because to be in full integrity I would have to say that in all my OFNR communications.
Here is my point: my deepest desire is NOT that Matthew do his dishes 365 days a year, or that my need for cleanliness and order be met. My deepest desire is (probably) that he feel close to me and me to him, that we enjoy and trust each other, and that we have an open communication channel so that I can tell him when I am upset by his behavior and he won’t be triggered.
This is certainly true in the case that I am already, or want to be, his friend. In the case that I don’t want to be friends with him, that I am simply seeking a cordial but distant roommate relationship, I still don’t want him to hate me. I don’t want unspoken and unresolved tension in the relationship, because Matthew actually has the power to make my life hell, merely through his non-verbals as I sit peacefully in the kitchen over my morning coffee, reading the newspaper. You know this is true. If Matthew ever gets to that place of hating me, it will be very difficult to bring him back.
To summarize my critique of NVC in this imaginary case study, the compare-and-contrast of NVC and A/R: there is a way in which NVC is too simple: the attempt to funnel all your communications into OFNR. And another way in which it is too complicated: the attempt to distinguish and express the 100 or so “approved” feelings and needs within NVC, when in my frame, there are really only two fundamental human needs outside of safety and survival, along with their infinite variations (see the next chapter).
What I like about A/R, is that it doesn’t pretend to be simple. What I don’t like about A/R, is that it typically doesn’t offer much support in the way of structure (although see www.Authrev.com. Sara Ness, and others too, have put years of work into the attempt to add structure to A/R). To repeat: you will need both NVC and A/R.
I feel compelled to offer, again, an apology to any NVC people out there. “I observe that I am writing a lot and sharing some judgments about NVC, which I have not studied deeply. I have a fear that you will think that I am stupid and unlovable, because I have a need that everybody love me and think that I am intelligent. I also have a fear that you are right, that I am actually stupid and unlovable. If indeed you are thinking these things, are you willing to forgive me, and then throw this book in the trash and never speak to anyone about it again?” LOL
The difference between a feeling and a judgment / evaluation
This is both one of the most powerful concepts within NVC, and also sometimes taken too far (i.e., cultish).
There are emotions which are somewhere on the edge between a true feeling, and a thought or judgment. The most common of these are anger, shame, guilt, depression and disappointment. In orthodox NVC these emotions are viewed as “emotions that are disconnected from our needs” because they are based on an underlying judgment, or story. Something like “impure emotions” that we ought to work on prior to expressing them. The idea is that we can’t make an effective communication when we are disconnected from our needs. Instead, change the thought or judgment that is creating the anger, or else identify the underlying unmet met. This will shift the anger, or at least make it more manageable. This is both true (and really very profound) and not-true.
To illustrate this truth in the case of anger, there is a famous and very beautiful story (told by Ram Dass in his wonderful book How can I Help), of a big man who was drunk in the subway of Tokyo and causing a disturbance, yelling and endangering the safety of the other passengers. The author of the story, who was a martial arts expert, stood up and challenged him, and the drunk man accepted the challenge. The author was about to “put him away”. He tells he thought of this as the fulfillment of all his martial arts training, a “just cause” at last. A few seconds before this was to happen, a little old man seated nearby spoke to the drunk: “Hey you! You like saké? Me too! Come sit with me, talk to me”. The drunk sat by the old man, who spoke to him and comforted him. Before long the drunk was bawling in the arms of the old man. The author of this story was profoundly humbled.
Another beautiful story is told by Wayne Dyer, also a train story. A father came into the subway with his family of 5 boys. They were running around everywhere, playing and shouting. The author of this story was feeling righteous indignation and was about to make a request to the father to control his children. But he did not need to as the father reached out to him and told him that their mother had died just a few hours before. Righteous indignation vanished, needless to say, and was replaced by compassion.
What these stories reveal is that anger, disappointment and many other feelings are what I call “perspectival” or context-based. The “context” is the thought from which the emotion arises – in the first case the thought, or judgment / evaluation, being that “people who endanger public safety should be stopped”. In the second case the judgment is “parents should control their children”.
From my perspective, the “doctrinal” concept of anger within NVC – which means, practically speaking that you have to be very cautious about mentioning “anger” in an OFNR communication, as I understand it – that’s going too far. How I see it is that the thought and the emotion co-arise, it’s not like one causes the other, exactly. Essentially they are in relationship with each other, in a kind of internal intersubjective we-space. Change the thought (which typically you do have the power to do, although in both of these examples the thought-change came from the outside) and the emotion will change. Change the emotion (which typically we do not have the power to do, at least in the moment we are feeling it) and the thought will change too.
According to Tony Robbins, you can change the emotion by changing your physiology: try doing jumping-jacks. This is not a bad idea, the only problem there being that emotions you suppress tend to either return later with a vengeance, or else come out sideways with the people in your environment (may the good Lord have mercy on you, and take pity on them. Really – words to the wise – you do need to get this unpleasant emotion handled. Doing jumping-jacks is good, but it’s not a permanent solution).
But let’s be positive (LOL): the power here is that you can, theoretically at least, change an unpleasant emotion through an act of will (a change of thinking or a change in physiology). If you can’t immediately change the thought that is co-arising with the emotion, you can try at least to remind yourself that you know nothing and understand nothing – even and especially about yourself, let alone about other people – and hope that this will calm you. This, by the way, is called “mindfulness”. Mindfulness and NVC (Circling too) fit like hand-in-glove.
NVC is correct here, in many cases; the danger is going “doctrinal” (or cultish). Sometimes anger just “is”. If you are black, or jewish, or gay or trans, or a woman or [fill in the blanks] people have been wanting to suppress and kill you, and sometimes succeeding, for thousands of years. You are right to be angry, you really don’t want to stop that feeling or try and identify the thought that is causing it (it’s more a question of what you want to do about it which will be effective – the root topic of this book). Even if you are a white, educated, middle-class, cisgender older white male such as me, you have been bullied and brainwashed, conscripted into armies where you died serving imperialism, “tortured and scared for 20-odd years” as per John Lennon (that song, Working-Class Hero, is one of my favorites). Even if you are happy now and living in relative comfort – as I am, more or less – you carry the imprint of this and will probably have nightmares about it (I do). This is called “cultural trauma” (or “ancestral trauma”), a topic we will return to later. Everyone born under patriarchy carries cultural trauma (not just women).
I am giving extreme examples here, while remaining in substantial agreement with “Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”. This is true – as in all things relational – except when it’s not. It’s a valuable perspective to hold, provided you don’t treat it as the only perspective. This, by the way, is called “multiple simultaneous perspectives”. Your ability to hold multiple simultaneous perspectives is the fundamental skill you will need to access Integral 2nd tier consciousness (also known as “teal” within the Spiral Dynamics model). We return to this in chapter 11.
I will stop there because I think I have made my point. In many ways, this entire book is about this topic: what to do when we are angry, which is going to be effective. Killing people is, very probably, too superficial [Marshall Rosenberg].
Needs as a gift
I conclude this chapter on NVC with one of its most powerful concepts. It’s called “needs as a gift”. I will say here the same thing I said in the Circling Guide.
At the root of NVC (although sometimes only spoken of when you get to the higher levels), is that NVC is a framework and communication model for evoking, expressing and fulfilling human needs. That includes – especially includes – needs for closeness, trust, authenticity and vulnerability. As such, in NVC, any expression of need (provided it does not come with an unspoken judgment or demand) is considered a gift, as it gives another person an opportunity to contribute to you and hence make life more wonderful for both of you. (The idea of “making life more wonderful” is also core to NVC: our central desire, according to Marshall, being to “contribute to life”).
As you become more skillful in NVC, you acquire the ability to listen for and reply empathically to the feelings and needs that underlie all human communications – even those communications that are initially expressed as judgments and demands. Do this well – especially if you follow my guidelines above in the case study – and you will learn to navigate successfully even the most emotionally charged and confrontational of human interactions.
To recap: “needs as a gift” means that if you let someone know what they can do to help you (also known as vulnerability), you are actually helping them too (helping them to make their life more wonderful), because their desire to contribute to you is one of their fundamental human needs.
This idea is actually revolutionary, because it is a direct contradiction to Western cultural conditioning. Most of us learn as children that needs are bad. “Needs’’ make us dependent on other people, vulnerable, “needy”, shameful. Much better, our culture tells us, to ride solo into the sunset, masters of our own destiny, alone and above the crowd and on top of every situation. This may have been a good idea at one time, but it doesn’t work anymore, not even for doing business, let alone in interpersonal relationships. In the complex and inter-related world that we live in, our true strength and power lies through connection and vulnerability. This has been confirmed in work-place studies by Google (that teams which are emotionally bonded are more effective).
I expand on this topic in the next chapter. The desire to contribute to other people is, in my frame, the masculine pole of love. The feminine pole of love is the desire for understanding, connection and belonging, feelings which flow from expressing vulnerability.