Freedom: The Promise of Nonviolent Communication
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end.
If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth.
I used to dream of flying. Now I know how.
Humans have probably always dreamt of flying. “Free as a bird,” as the saying goes. But how free are birds, really?
Of course we’d rather be completely free. Free not just to fly, but to have all our desires met. A bumper sticker sums it up nicely. It says, “I’d rather be God.”
What is the closest thing to complete freedom? Freedom for all concerned. Mortimer Adler said that justice is the balance of liberty and equality. It means that we can do whatever we want as long as we don’t step on somebody else’s toes.
And how do we avoid stepping on someone’s toes? With Nonviolent Communication, or NVC: a way of speaking, thinking, and feeling about others, also known as Compassionate Communication. How do we get someone to step on our toes, if that’s what we want? Through NVC.
The goal of NVC is the same goal we all have in life, which is to meet our needs. Our needs are universal: they are given, not chosen, and we all have the same ones. In addition to our obvious need for food, clothing, and shelter, we all also need things like autonomy, respect, love, touch, sexual expression, peace, play, rest, beauty, creativity, meaning and celebration (see more here). We need others to help us meet our needs. And we have a need to help others meet their needs. To use NVC language, we have a need for contribution and connection, which is why it feels good to give and receive with compassion.
NVC, according to its founder Marshal Rosenberg, is a way to “enrich life” or to “make life more wonderful” for ourselves and others. Simply put, life is more wonderful when our needs are met. However, we’re not always aware of our needs and how to meet them, much less what others need and how to help them. Often what we think we want is not what we really want. NVC is a way– the best way I’ve found– to find out.
NVC, then, is a way of getting our needs met, a way of learning and getting what we really want. That’s why it feels like flying to me, or something better. I can finally move forward through my life– glide through it, even– when I’m no longer stumbling against my inability to ask for what I want or my inability to say no. It’s a cooperative effort, which means I’m no longer trying to manipulate people. I come out and ask for what I want. And when I say it in an NVC way, others naturally want to help me, and I want to help them.
With NVC, I can say how I’m feeling, too. No more fear, resentment, and scheming dragging me down. I’m as free as bird, or at least one in the flock, because I’m no longer on my own, alone.
To sum up, NVC as I see it is a cooperative search for truth. And a cooperative search for truth is also exactly what science is. C.S. Pierce, the father of Pragmatism, said that uncertainty is a state of discomfort, and we can undertake a number of ways to assuage it. We can pretend to know the world and/or ourselves, for instance. The most effective method in the long run, however, is the scientific one. NVC is the science of human needs, and it’s the best chance we have of meeting them.
If NVC is a science, then it’s no surprise that the NVC format and the scientific method are similar. The NVC format, i.e., the way we talk to people and think about ourselves, is made up of an observation, a feeling, a need, and a request. For example, I might say, “when you closed the door, I felt scared because I’m needing connection. Would you be willing to come sit with me a while?”
The scientific method, on the other hand, involves data, a hypothesis, results, and a conclusion. Roughly speaking, the data in NVC is your observation (e.g., “you closed the door”); the hypothesis is the feeling you perceive yourself having (“I felt scared”); the results are the need(s) the feeling has led you to (“I’m needing connection”); and your conclusion is the request you make (“would you sit with me?”).
My point is not to find a 1:1 correspondence between NVC and the scientific method. In science, for example, the data comes after the hypothesis. It comes from experiments designed to test that hypothesis. But by the same token, in order to make an NVC statement, we have to form an idea about what’s happening first. And that’s my point.
The point is that in both cases, we are trying to interpret data to reach some useful conclusion. To do so, we need to separate our interpretation as much as possible from the facts. To uncover the truth, what’s really happening, or as NVC puts it, "what’s alive in us," we need to be honest with ourselves and others. And we need others to do the same, in order to help us correct our interpretations. Here’s why:
When we make an observation, it’s bound to contain some degree of interpretation. For example, I might say “you slammed the door angrily” instead of “you closed the door and it made a loud noise.” See the difference?
Even what we think we are feeling, i.e., the label we put on our bodily sensations, is an interpretation. We may interpret a flushing face and tingling arms as fear when it really has more to do with sadness, anger, or both. Sometimes others can see our “true colors” better than we can or are willing to see ourselves.
The needs we believe are involved in a given situation are also a guess. For one, they might actually be what NVC calls “strategies.” You might believe you “need” to keep your current job, but a job is a strategy: just one way to get your sustenance and other needs met. A lover is another strategy: just one way to get your need for love met. Universal needs are never limited to specific sources, and it often takes someone else to remind us that “there’s plenty of fish in the sea.”
Even if the needs you express are actual needs, they may not be the ones that are being met or unmet in this case. When someone walks out on you, you might think you’re needing connection when you’re really worried about where your sustenance will come from. Friends will frequently know what our underlying issues are.
Finally, the request we make in order to fill our perceived need(s) is another hopeful guess, a strategy that may or may not be relevant to our needs, be effective in meeting them, or be appropriate to the situation. If what we’re really needing, for example, is connection, not sexual expression, then maybe a hug, a cuddle, or good talk would be the best approach. Sometimes, the truth may be the opposite!
In figuring out how best to help ourselves and others, we need input, another perspective. Scientific papers are published for peer review for the same reason. The fact is that we just don’t know ourselves completely. This brings up the question of needs vs. wants. What are "wants" in the NVC model? They are our perceived needs or strategies. We often have needs that we don’t perceive, and much of NVC is about becoming aware of them.
Not only can we be unaware of our needs, we may not even consciously want them. I may need water yet have no desire to drink it. I may need companionship yet want to be alone. Maybe I’d rather avoid the stress of finding someone or the risk of being rejected. Given conflicting needs and our conditioning, our human wires are often “crossed,” and we need each other’s help to untangle them. That’s why NVC is a cooperative search for truth, and it is as important an innovation in helping people get their needs met as the scientific method has been.
Study NVC and earn your wings. Know thyself, and the truth shall set you free. That’s the promise of NVC.