“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” -Marshall Rosenberg
Clean Communication (NVC) is an approach to nonviolent living developed by Marshall Rosenberg beginning in the 1960s. It is based on the idea that all human beings have the capacity for compassion and only resort to violence or behavior that harms themselves and others when they do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs.
Elements of our speech and thinking that lead to violence stem, like so many things, from our cultural and biological roots. They are learned, and even if ingrained biologically, are possible to overcome through higher thinking. Peace, in other words, is an opportunity afforded to us as higher thinkers. The choice to pursue it is our prerogative. You may call this a great blessing of being a human being.
NVC theory posits that our behavior as humans is essentially our attempts to meet universal human needs. Conflict occurs when people’s strategies for meeting their needs clash. The invitation of NVC is for people to identify the needs we share, revealed by the thoughts and feelings that surround them, and to focus our efforts on collaborating to develop strategies that meet those needs.
NVC supports change on three interconnected levels: with self, with others, and with groups and social systems. As such it is particularly present in the areas of personal development, relationships, and social change. NVC is ostensibly taught as a process of interpersonal communication designed to improve compassionate connection to others. However, due to its far-reaching impact it has also been interpreted as a spiritual practice, a set of values, a parenting technique, a method of social change, a mediation tool, an educational orientation, and a worldview.
So, as you may guess, NVC goes deep. Our goal on this site is to distill it to its most essential and helpful components for your benefit. Don’t worry, if you want to explore further, there will be many options for you to continue your learning from the Resources page at the end.
Here is a 10-minute video introduction to Compassionate Communication from its founder, Marshall Rosenburg.
The 4 Components of NVC
A description of “what’s actually happening” as reported by our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), plus our “inner” senses (e.g. our inner voice, vi-sion, thoughts, etc.). Aim for Objectivity!
• Direct, Sensory Experience
• “Just the facts.”
• Specific to time and context.
• The highest form of human intelligence.
• Free of judgment, criticism or other forms of analysis.
• The trigger of our experience.
Key Distinction: Observation vs. Observation Mixed with Evaluation
Evaluations are “moral” judgments of good~bad, right~wrong, appropriate~inappropriate that tend to be fixed or static
Physical Sensations PLUS Emotions
- Feelings are universal.
- The signals we receive from our body alerting us to the state of our needs.
- Feelings are composed of physical sensations (e.g. tight jaw, queasy stomach, smile, etc.) and/or emotions (e.g. sad, glad, mad, disappointment, frustration, guilt, etc.).
Key Distinction: Feeling vs. Thought
Thoughts are cognitive or mental, including beliefs, ideas and opinions
Resources required to sustain and enrich life.
• Needs are universal.
• Transcend cultural mores and conditioning.
• Needs make no reference to any specific person doing any specific thing.
• “Values” are generally equivalent to Needs
Key Distinction: Need vs. Strategy
A strategy is a specific method to fulfill a need
An opportunity to contribute to the well-being of ourself and/or others
• A concrete offering with the intention of contributing to fulfilling a need.
• Requests are specific actions stated in the positive (what we DO want).
• Immediately doable.
• There are three types of requests: C. Clarity, B. feedBack, A. Action
Key Distinctions: Request vs Demand; Request vs Wish
• Demands include a threat of punishment or the promise of reward linked to a behavior
• Wishes tend to be vague, future oriented, and non-specific
That’s it! Put simply, here’s what the process looks like:
Empathy (other or self)
When I see / hear…
[When you see / hear…]
Are you feeling…
Because I need…
Because you need…
Would you be willing…?
[Would you like…?]
Another helpful intro to these concepts and more can be found from Brian Johnson, who does a ‘Philosopher’s Notes’ summary of Marshall Rosenburg’s book. Check it out HERE.
Perspectives not aligned with the heart of NVC:
- Guilt, blame, labeling, obeying, should, demands, comparing, judgment (whose fault?), and shame = a wake-up call for needs going unmet
- Any words we use that imply the wrongness of others are tragic and suicidal. Tragic because it doesn’t lead to people enjoying contributing to our well-being and suicidal because we get defensiveness and counter-aggression in response (we’re killing our own ability to relate). Diagnoses and judgments are also tragic and suicidal.
- Anger requires a moralistic judgment to keep it going: a “should.” There is no connection there.
- What people do is not the cause of our feelings. We are responsible for our own feelings. (see 100% Responsibility)
- Time pressure, situational stress, pain, laziness, anger, fear, envy, pride, and greed are all stumbling blocks toward compassionate communication.
- Agreeing to disagree. This perspective inherently includes disconnection.
- False hope of NVC newbies: “Now I’m going to get my needs met!”
- Seek to understand before being understood.
- Connection is of primary importance. You can’t be making a connection and a point at the same time.
- We are responsible for advocating for our needs. It isn’t anyone else’s job but our own. Clean communication.
- Every choice we make is in service of a need. All behavior is communication
- Nothing feels better than contributing to another person’s well-being. In the past 48 hours, what have been your brightest moments? Reflect on a moment when you were really open to giving and receiving.
- When we don’t “hear” people’s pain, it keeps coming out in ways that make empathy even harder.
- Right Speech. It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will. It’s helpful to implement other forms of Intentional Speech.
- Power = the capacity to mobilize resources to meet our needs. Power With = I strive to identify, connect with, and meet my needs as well as others’ needs. Power Over = I strive to meet my needs whether or not it meets others’ needs.
- Needs are always, already full/met when you’re fully in your power. Think of a room of copper bowls (each a need), and all are full of water. You have a stick, and you can stir any bowl, and enliven that need/water.
- When the bowls are viewed/experienced as partially or wholly empty, you’ll work to fill them from someone else; you’ll be the “Hungry Ghost” frequently questing to be at peace/full, when the fullness is available to you always already.
Here is a fun example of Compassionate Communication in action. Here, you’ll see Rosenburg employing his caricature personas of Giraffe and Jackal.
What are Feelings?
Feelings let us know how we are doing; how our “becoming” is going.
Again, the mistake we often make is to present our story or our thoughts about what others doing as our feelings. The false attribution is a core aspect of understanding NVC. NVC empowers us to separate our feelings (connected to unmet needs) from our thoughts and opinions (constructed from the prior).
Higher stakes often involve more intense feelings, which may increase the difficulty of practicing NVC.
Luckily, we have tools. It’s a skill worth having to recognize what are our feelings and needs are, separate from our stories. Below is a short, illustrative list of Feelings. For a more exhaustive list, visit our Feelings and Needs Lists page. Increasing your ‘Need Literacy’ will help you toward better understand of yourself and others.
Joy and Contentment
Fear and Anxiety
Sadness and Grief
Anger and Frustration
Again, this is only a small sample.
Faux, or ‘Foe’, Feelings
These are sneaky, and commonly find their way into our communication, even for people practicing NVC frequently.
They are interpretations masquerading as feelings. Typically, they carry an implied ‘should‘ and put the responsibility for our negative emotions on another.
Faux feelings are born from fear and sadness, and stop us short of getting to the needs below the presentation, which may contain a judgment or aim to inflame instead of inform.
It is priceless to understanding the distinctions between our feelings and otherwise evaluations. We go into more detail, with examples and further breakdown of faux feelings, on the following page. Click the button below to learn more.
What are Needs?
Needs are the means and vocabulary of our becoming. They are your yes. They serve your life.
We are not responsible for meeting other people’s needs. People need to be responsible for meeting their own needs, and for their own feelings.
We can still acknowledge the interdependence that exists though, and honor and negotiate the needs people often commit to meeting for one another.
Needs vs. Strategies – Strategies are how people go about trying to meet their needs. When people communicate their strategy as a need, it is often heard as a demand. What = need. How = strategy.
NVC may not result in the resolution of a shared strategy to meet the needs of those involved. There are irreconcilable conflicts of strategies, e.g., Israel and Palestine, past relationships, etc. Feelings and needs can be perfectly understood, but the strategies to get those needs met do not necessarily match.
Below is a short list of needs for the sake of example. For a more exhaustive list, visit our Feelings and Needs Lists page.
To Matter to Someone
To Support Life
To Be Heard
Again, this is only a small sample.
Hopefully you now have a sense of the spirit and context of NVC, and how it resonates with you. Now, go practice!
When you’re next hearing a friend talk about drama in their life, consider:
- What are the objective facts of what’s happened? Do they see and express those events clearly, separate from their thoughts?
- What are the feelings? How are they expressing them?
- What are the needs not being met for this person?
- Is there a request that makes sense for them to ask of another person.
It’s helpful to practice thinking in NVC’s framework with other people/conflicts, where you have less vested interest and emotional volatility. Give it a try!
Then, move on and start implementing these ideas within your own life. Think about your feelings, and check them against ‘faux feelings’. Consider what needs you have that aren’t being met, and how to express that. And, notably:
Remember the heart! Meaning, remember the heart of Compassionate Communication.
What do we mean by that? The heart of NVC is to use this model as a helpful tool for empathy. The goal is to manifest a greater level of intention, understanding, and peace. Frameworks like this can easily be used as a means of ‘qualifying’ or measuring the validity of someone’s speech. That is not the goal. Remember, you’re being equipped with a tool to see through your and others’ attacks, judgments, blame, etc. It’s like x-ray vision to the soft core we all possess. NVC is NOT intended as a means to detect ‘flaws’ in thinking. It is not for blaming others with accuracy.
Again, for more depth into NVC, we recommend reading Marshall Rosenburg’s book. There are also helpful videos on Youtube, like the Basics of NVC (3 hrs). More further study is available, as well as crucial, related practices and resources on our following pages.
And, for this page, let’s end with a funny video.