Let’s end this chapter by reinforcing the principles we’ve hinted at throughout and looking at a few final tips and hints. The following principles are part of communication expert Marshall Rosenberg’s “non-violent communication” framework:
Listening is a path into another person’s world.
Force invites resistance. But curiosity and respect invite cooperation and trust. Simple as that! Always begin by laying a foundation: a solid understanding of where the other person is coming from. Only then can effective negotiations, discussions, and conflict resolutions take place.
Show empathy by reflecting that worldview back .
When we listen, we understand a person’s perspective. When we bounce that perspective back to them, we show them that we understand. Paraphrase, summarize, and mirror body language, voice, and word choice. Validate the other person by confirming that you see that their interpretation makes sense, and that their perspective is valid. Make generous use of phrases like “that’s right” and “yes, of course! I understand.”
Gain clarity and focus by labeling feelings.
As you paraphrase and summarize, put words to feelings, demonstrating your empathy as well as your desire to understand. “It seems like . . .” or “I wonder if . . .?” show willingness to enter the other person’s world and register their emotional reality. In conflict, everyone can lose their sense of self-differentiation, but this can be regained when we slow down and correctly label thoughts and feelings for what they are, identify what is fact and what is opinion, and correctly attribute emotions and thoughts to the people they belong to.
Lead any negotiation or conflict-resolution attempt by acknowledging fault and addressing the worst misgivings first.
Humbly accept, from the very beginning, your responsibility and culpability. Anticipate and prepare your response to people’s objections and accusations, then proactively face them head on. It may be a little nerve-wracking, but it fosters trust, deeper intimacy, and a sense of honesty. It signals to the other party that you are open to compromises, ready to accept your portion of blame, and embarking with as little ego as possible.
The biggest killer of effective communication is judgment.
Observe, don’t evaluate. If your goal is connection, understanding and harmony, then blame, shame and ego have to go. Work as hard as you can to stay aware of the tendency to judge, morally condemn, analyze, interpret, or classify others as good or bad. “You’re mean” is an evaluation, whereas “you often raise your voice to waiters” is an observation. Flex your own sense of self-differentiation by taking responsibility for yourself and avoiding blaming others or collapsing into shame.
When you catch yourself (or someone else!) being judgmental, remind yourself of the fact that judgment is just a poor method of getting needs met. Forget the judgment and look at the need. Then address that need directly. Making others feel bad inferior may feel good temporarily, but it damages your connection and will only invite defensiveness.
“I” statements are your savior here. Also watch out for expressions like, “You made me so angry.” It’s not true! Nobody can make you feel anything. “I feel angry” is more accurate and centers you back in your own agency. In conflicts and arguments, it can be tempting to blame other people or the world at large for our actions. A clue is when you say things like, “I don’t want to, but I have to . . .” or “I probably shouldn’t, but . . .” Instead, plainly acknowledge that you have chosen to do what you’ve done. This way, you are empowered to change and improve. Claim your own self-responsibility and grant other people the right to theirs.
The four steps of non-violent communication
In that order. Observe the neutral and objective situation in front of you without judgment or interpretation. Become aware of people’s feelings in the matter. Explore your own needs and the needs of others (hint: if communication is an attempt to get needs met, then meeting everyone’s needs is the fastest way to a successful conversation), and finally make respectful and reasonable requests of others, or meet theirs.
Let’s look at each step in turn.
Step 1: Observations
Not evaluations or judgments. Imagine you’re a neutral observer telling a third story. Your goal is to describe and understand—the rest is just opinion.
“I notice that you spend most evenings looking at your phone after dinner. During this time, you don’t talk much to me or the family.”
Step 2: Explore Feelings
Not “opinions.” Watch out for the word “should”—having an opinion about how other people should behave is one thing, but it’s not a feeling. Express what you feel about what you’ve observed, but avoid interpretations and assessments of what you observe, or laying blame. Simply stick to how you feel.
“When you pay attention to your phone like that, I feel really sad. I start to feel insecure in our marriage.”
Be careful—“I feel you’re being dismissive” or “I feel you should care more about family time” are not feelings, they’re claims and opinions. “I feel like you don’t care” is also tricky, since it is attempting to read the other person’s mind or guess their perspective. Watch out for feeling words that are actually thinly veiled accusations or interpretations: ignored, abused, manipulated, misunderstood, rejected, threatened, and so on.
Does your feeling word imply an action on the part of the other person? Choose a word that focuses exclusively on your inner feelings instead. For example, grateful, calm, happy, afraid, bored, embarrassed, jealous, overwhelmed, excited. These do not implicate any person. A good trick to get a handle on this is to structure your sentence: “I feel X” rather than “I feel that X,” which is usually an opinion or judgment.
Step 3: communicate needs
What do your feelings say about your unmet needs? Clarify this for yourself. Underneath all feelings are unmet needs. Good feelings signal our needs are met; uncomfortable feelings signal that they aren’t. We all need safety, respect, autonomy, understanding, love, support, and so on. But we can communicate these natural needs directly without resorting to trying to control, blame, or manipulate others into meeting our needs indirectly. Understanding your needs requires self-awareness and honesty.
“I feel insecure because I need quality time, love, and attention.”
This sentence not only expresses feelings without judgment but connects the feeling with unmet needs. Try using the format: “I feel X because I need Y.” Stick to “I” statements and avoid using “you.” For example, avoid “I feel bad because you keep ignoring me.”
Exploring needs also means learning to hear other people’s unmet needs. If you feel criticized, controlled, or attacked, it’s a powerful skill to listen for the unmet needs behind it. There’s no need to blame yourself or the other person. In this example, the husband could hear his wife’s unmet needs for affection even if she communicates inelegantly and tells him, “You’re rude and you don’t care about me!”
Be the bigger person and listen for feelings and unmet needs. “Are you saying I’m rude because you need to feel loved right now?” Tuning into needs this way always diffuses tension, anger, and reactivity and steers conversation to what matters: getting everyone’s needs met. Literally ask yourself in any encounter, what are my feelings here? What are theirs? How are these feelings connected to our needs?
Step 4: Requests
Only once all the other steps are complete, can you start making requests or appeals.
“Could you put away your phone after dinner and talk to me and the kids?”
It may also be your turn to hear and respond to requests. Requests aren’t a guarantee of getting what you want—but if you communicate non-violently, the chances are always better.