How Can I Communicate Better?
Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is an amazing approach that helps you connect more deeply with yourself and others. It was developed by Marshall Rosenberg as a tool for mediating conflict and improving communication skills, however I think it can be best described by a quote from the Center for Non-Violent Communication website,
“NVC can be seen as both a spiritual practice that helps us see our common humanity, using our power in a way that honors everyone’s needs, and a concrete set of skills which help us create life-serving families and communities.”
The structure of NVC involves two main parts and four components within each part. The two parts exist in a balance, like two sides of a basketball court, and they are “empathetically listening” and “honestly expressing.” Though we may immediately assume that “good communication” means being clear about what I am saying, effective communication involves both listening and speaking. The key to communication is connection. If I feel connected to myself and connected to you, communication tends to flow.
So we have honest expression and empathetic listening – what are the four components that comprise each? These components are what we are wanting to both express from our own side and listen for when others are speaking.
- Observations: Observations are concrete and objective, and usually set the stage for clearly communicating or understanding the event/idea/situation that prompted a reaction. When I express what I have observed, I use direct quotes and objective descriptions. When we make observations, we must be careful not to place a judgment on the observation or create an exaggerated statement. If we begin an observation by saying something like, “You always…” or “You never…” we are probably exaggerating and whatever follows will likely invoke defensiveness from the person we are speaking to.
- Feelings: A feeling is the emotion and felt sense that comes to be within us at any given moment. When we acknowledge a feeling, we really want to be mindful about describing the actual emotion itself. It’s very popular in the English language to state, “I feel like…” and then follow that up with a statement, such as, “I feel like going to the gym,” or, “I feel like you don’t care.” These statements are not emotions, and while they may give a picture or idea of what the person is feeling, they can often leave the other party disconnected from the emotional tone of what you are trying to communicate. Further, when we say something like, “I feel like you don’t care,” that may evoke defensiveness in the other party rather than understanding.
- Needs: Needs are a basic and integral part of being human. We all have physical needs that may seem obvious, such as air, food, water, shelter, and physical safety, but perhaps less obvious are the not so tangible needs such as love, acceptance, respect, hope, support, feedback, play, boundaries, closeness, etc. In NVC, it’s said that we feel a certain way when our needs are met (e.g. joy, contentment, relief), and we feel something else when our needs are not met (e.g. frustration, fear, confusion). Keep in mind that a basic need is not, “I need you to do something,” which is more of a requested strategy to meet a need, but rather it could be a need for support, stability, or companionship.
- Requests: Our goal or purpose of the conversation can be translated into a request. Are we wanting feedback, advice, support, recognition, a hug, problem-solving, or validation? Oftentimes we enter a conversation without clearly expressing what would be most useful to us, and then it feels bad when we receive the wrong thing. For example, it’s a common experience that we express a problem or difficulty to someone, with the unspoken intention to seek validation and acceptance, but in response we are given advice and problem-solving. This can be a frustrating experience for both sides and contribute to feeling disconnected rather than connected.
Keeping in mind those four components when we enter a conversation can help us immensely to be clear about what we are intending to communicate, as well as providing us with a guide to more deeply understand the other party’s experience.
A rather ubiquitous barrier that we encounter with conflict is that each of us are vulnerable to becoming defensive. One way to avoid defensiveness is to become more skilled with identifying and describing your own reality (using the 4 components above). When we tell someone what their motivation is or is not, it tends to drum up defensiveness. For example, rather than saying, “You don’t care about me,” we might say something like, “I am feeling really hurt and frustrated. When you interrupt me in the middle of a sentence, I stop having the motivation to continue speaking or connecting with you.”
The ability to stay within and describe your own reality is explained really well by professors Carole Robin and David Bradford, who teach a popular elective course at Stanford called “Interpersonal Dynamics.” They talk about how within any interaction there exist 3 realities. There is the objective reality which is kind of like the “Observation” that NVC refers to – it is, simply and objectively, what happened. The other 2 realities belong to you and me – how did each of us experience this moment? What were our two motivations? What were we considering or not considering? What is important to each of us? How are each of us feeling? It’s important for us to come from a place of what is true for us, rather than trying to tell you what your reality is.
I want to emphasize that, even if you are the best, most perfect, effective, skillful communicator in the world, you are bound to have conflict in your life and you may not be able to connect with every human being all the time. It takes two to tango, so to speak, and if your partner isn’t dancing, well – you won’t be winning any awards together and it might be time to find a new dance partner.
That being said, learning to communicate more effectively (both expressing and listening) can greatly improve your relationships, help to repair conflict, and develop leadership and mediation skills. Though it doesn’t guarantee a life free of conflict, becoming more skilled about communication does provide a much greater basin of peace from which to draw upon: knowing yourself, knowing what you need in relationship, and knowing how to identify what others need.
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW