I very much admire the thoughtful, compassionate way that certain people speak to others, how they choose their words and impart the perfect balance of empathy and assertiveness. I imagine Marshall Rosenberg is one of those people.

Nonviolence means allowing the positive within you to emerge.

Be dominated by love, respect, understanding, appreciation, compassion, and concern for others rather than the self-centered and selfish, greedy, hateful, prejudiced, suspicious, and aggressive attitudes that dominate our thinking.

We often hear people say: This world is ruthless, and if you want to survive you must become ruthless too. I humbly disagree with this contention.

He speaks with such careful assuredness in the book, telling stories of how he used compassionate communication to work through some sticky situations—unbelievable stories, really, about chatting with angry, upset, disinterested, difficult people and somehow getting through to them with his combination of observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

His is a method I’d love to learn, to synthesize into my speaking with my wife, my son, my colleagues, and my friends. And maybe some day with Marshall Rosenberg! That’d be pretty sweet.

non violent communication

Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

The following are excerpts taken from Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. Bold and italics are mine.


I (use) the term nonviolence as Gandhi used it—to refer to our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart.

There is a story of a man on all fours under a street lamp, searching for something. A policeman passing by asked what he was doing. “Looking for my car keys,” replied the man, who appeared slightly drunk. “Did you drop them here?” inquired the officer. “No,” answered the man, “I dropped them in the alley.” Seeing the policeman’s baffled expression, the man hastened to explain, “But the light is much better here.”

I find that my cultural conditioning leads me to focus attention on places where I am unlikely to get what I want. I developed NVC as a way to train my attention— to shine the light of consciousness— on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.

The 4 components of NVC:

  1. observations
  2. feelings
  3. needs
  4. requests

“The problem with you is that you’re too selfish.” “She’s lazy.” “They’re prejudiced.” “It’s inappropriate.” Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons, and diagnoses are all forms of judgment.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

– Rumi

When we combine observation with evaluation, people are apt to hear criticism.

While the effects of negative labels such as “lazy” and “stupid” may be more obvious, even a positive or an apparently neutral label such as “cook” limits our perception of the totality of another person’s being.

The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once remarked that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.

When I first read this statement, the thought, “What nonsense!” shot through my mind before I realized that I had just made an evaluation.

The following table distinguishes observations that are separate from evaluation from those that have evaluation mixed in.

Communication Example of observation with evaluation mixed in Example of observation separate from evaluation
1. Use of verb to be without indication that the evaluator takes responsibility for the evaluation You are too generous. When I see you give all your lunch money to others, I think you are being too generous.
2. Use of verbs with evaluative connotations Doug procrastinates. Doug only studies for exams the night before.
3. Implication that one’s inferences about another person’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, or desires are the only ones possible She won’t get her work in. I don’t think she’ll get her work in. or She said, “I won’t get my work in.”
4. Confusion of prediction with certainty If you don’t eat balanced meals, your health will be impaired. If you don’t eat balanced meals, I fear your health may be impaired.
5. Failure to be specific about referents Immigrants don’t take care of their property. I have not seen the immigrant family living at 1679 Ross shovel the snow on their sidewalk.
6. Use of words denoting ability without indicating that an evaluation is being made Hank Smith is a poor soccer player. Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games.
7. Use of adverbs and adjectives in ways that do not indicate a evaluation has been made Jim is ugly. Jim’s looks don’t appeal to me.

Note: The words always, never, ever, whenever, etc. express observations when used in the following ways: Whenever I have observed Jack on the phone, he has spoken for at least thirty minutes. I cannot recall your ever writing to me. Sometimes such words are used as exaggerations, in which case observations and evaluations are being mixed: You are always busy. She is never there when she’s needed. When these words are used as exaggerations, they often provoke defensiveness rather than compassion.

Words like frequently and seldom can also contribute to confusing observation with evaluation.

Evaluations Observations
You seldom do what I want. The last three times I initiated an activity, you said you didn’t want to do it.
He frequently comes over. He comes over at least three times a week.

I pointed out that when he followed the word feel with the word that, he was expressing an opinion but not revealing his feelings.

In general, feelings are not being clearly expressed when the word feel is followed by:

  1. Words such as that, like, as if: “I feel that you should know better.” “I feel like a failure.” “I feel as ifI’m living with a wall.”
  2. The pronouns I, you, he, she, they, it: “I feel I am constantly on call.” “I feel it is useless.”
  3. Names or nouns referring to people: “I feel Amy has been pretty responsible.” “I feel my boss is being manipulative.”

Building an emotional vocabulary

emotional vocabulary

How we are likely to feel when our needs are being met

  • absorbed adventurous affectionate alert alive amazed amused animated appreciative ardent aroused astonished
  • blissful breathless buoyant
  • calm carefree cheerful comfortable complacent composed concerned confident contented cool curious
  • dazzled delighted
  • eager ebullient ecstatic effervescent elated enchanted encouraged energetic engrossed enlivened enthusiastic excited exhilarated expansive expectant exultant
  • fascinated free friendly fulfilled
  • glad gleeful glorious glowing good-humored grateful gratified
  • happy helpful hopeful
  • inquisitive inspired intense interested intrigued invigorated involved
  • joyous joyful jubilant
  • keyed-up
  • loving
  • mellow merry mirthful moved
  • optimistic overjoyed overwhelmed
  • peaceful perky pleasant pleased proud
  • quiet
  • radiant rapturous refreshed relaxed relieved
  • satisfied secure sensitive serene spellbound splendid stimulated surprised
  • tender thankful thrilled touched tranquil trusting
  • upbeat
  • warm wide-awake wonderful
  • zestful

How we are likely to feel when our needs are not being met

  • afraid aggravated agitated alarmed aloof angry anguished annoyed anxious apathetic apprehensive aroused ashamed
  • beat bewildered bitter blah blue bored brokenhearted
  • chagrined cold concerned confused cool cross
  • dejected depressed despairing despondent detached disaffected disappointed discouraged disenchanted disgruntled disgusted disheartened dismayed displeased disquieted distressed disturbed downcast downhearted dull
  • edgy embarrassed embittered exasperated exhausted
  • fatigued fearful fidgety forlorn frightened frustrated furious
  • gloomy guilty
  • harried heavy helpless hesitant horrible horrified hostile hot humdrum hurt
  • impatient indifferent intense irate irked irritated
  • jealous jittery
  • keyed-up
  • lazy leery lethargic listless lonely
  • mad mean miserable mopey morose mournful
  • nervous nettled numb
  • overwhelmed
  • panicky passive perplexed pessimistic puzzled
  • rancorous reluctant repelled resentful restless
  • sad scared sensitive shaky shocked skeptical sleepy sorrowful sorry spiritless startled surprised suspicious
  • tepid terrified tired troubled
  • uncomfortable unconcerned uneasy unglued unhappy unnerved unsteady upset uptight
  • vexed
  • weary wistful withdrawn woeful worried wretched

What others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings.

We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.

Four options for receiving negative messages:

  1. blame ourselves.
  2. blame others.
  3. sense our own feelings and needs.
  4. sense others’ feelings and needs.

It is helpful to recognize a number of common speech patterns that tend to mask accountability for our own feelings:

1. Use of impersonal pronouns such as it and that:

“It really infuriates me when spelling mistakes appear in our public brochures.” “That bugs me a lot.”

2. The use of the expression “I feel (an emotion) because … “ followed by a person or personal pronoun other than I:

“I feel hurt because you said you don’t love me.” “I feel angry because the supervisor broke her promise.”

3. Statements that mention only the actions of others:

“When you don’t call me on my birthday, I feel hurt.” “Mommy is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.”

In each of these instances, we can deepen our awareness of our own responsibility by substituting the phrase, “I feel … because I …

Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.

The following are some of the basic human needs we all share:

Autonomy – to choose one’s dreams, goals, values to choose one’s plan for fulfilling one’s dreams, goals, values

Celebration – to celebrate the creation of life and dreams fulfilled to celebrate losses: loved ones, dreams, etc. (mourning)

Integrity – authenticity creativity meaning self-worth

Interdependence – acceptance appreciation closeness community consideration contribution to the enrichment of life (to exercise one’s power by giving that which contributes to life) emotional safety empathy honesty (the empowering honesty that enables us to learn from our limitations) love reassurance respect support trust understanding warmth

Play – fun laughter


Communion – beauty harmony inspiration order peace

Physical – Nurturance air food movement, exercise protection from life-threatening forms of life: viruses, bacteria, insects, predatory animals rest sexual expression shelter touch water

An assertion like “You didn’t hear me,” “That’s not what I said,” or “You’re misunderstanding me,” may easily lead Peter to think that he is being chastised. Since the teacher perceives Peter as having sincerely responded to her request for a reflection, she might say, “I’m grateful to you for telling me what you heard. I can see that I didn’t make myself as clear as I’d have liked, so let me try again.”

We can help others trust that we are requesting, not demanding, by indicating that we would only want them to comply if they can do so willingly. Thus we might ask, “Would you be willing to set the table?” rather than “I would like you to set the table.”

However, the most powerful way to communicate that we are making a genuine request is to empathize with people when they don’t agree to the request.

There is a Buddhist saying that aptly describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Ask before offering advice or reassurance.

Listen to what people are needing rather what they are thinking.

“What did I do that you are referring to?” “How are you feeling?” “Why are you feeling that way?” “What are you wanting me to do about it?” This second set of questions asks for information without first sensing the speaker’s reality. Though they may appear to be the most direct way to connect with what’s going on within the other person, I’ve found that questions like these are not the safest route to obtain the information we seek.

Many such questions may give speakers the impression that we’re a schoolteacher examining them or a psychotherapist working on a case.

All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message.

In the play A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner, the protagonist refuses to release his twelve-year-old nephew to child-welfare authorities, declaring,

I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake … I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

If the way we evaluate ourselves leads us to feel shame, and we consequently change our behavior, we are allowing our growing and learning to be guided by self-hatred. Shame is a form of self-hatred, and actions taken in reaction to shame are not free and joyful acts. Even if our intention is to behave with more kindness and sensitivity, if people sense shame or guilt behind our actions, they are less likely to appreciate what we do than if we are motivated purely by the human desire to contribute to life.

I earnestly believe, however, that an important form of self-compassion is to make choices motivated purely by our desire to contribute to life rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, duty, or obligation.

Translating “Have to” to “Choose to”

Step 1

What do you do in your life that you don’t experience as playful? List on a piece of paper all those things that you tell yourself you have to do. List any activity you dread but do anyway because you perceive yourself to have no choice.

Step 2

After completing your list, clearly acknowledge to yourself that you are doing these things because you choose to do them, not because you have to. Insert the words “I choose to … “ in front of each item you listed.

Step 3

After having acknowledged that you choose to do a particular activity, get in touch with the intention behind your choice by completing the statement, I choose to … because I want ….

Anger is a result of life-alienating thinking that is disconnected from needs. It indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on which of our needs are not getting met.

We recall four options when hearing a difficult message:

  1. Blame ourselves
  2. Blame others
  3. Sense our own feelings and needs
  4. Sense others’ feelings and needs

Steps to expressing anger:

  1. Stop. Breathe.
  2. Identify our judgmental thoughts.
  3. Connect with our needs.
  4. Express our feelings and unmet needs.

When we use NVC to express appreciation, it is purely to celebrate, not to get something in return. Our sole intention is to celebrate the way our lives have been enriched by others.

NVC clearly distinguishes three components in the expression of appreciation: the actions that have contributed to our well-being the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled the pleasureful feelings engendered by the fulfillment of those needs

I could receive appreciation joyfully, in the awareness that God has given everyone the power to enrich the lives of others. If I am aware that it is this power of God working through me that gives me the power to enrich life for others, then I may avoid both the ego trap and the false humility.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it is in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

You can buy the book here. :)

non-violent communication book


Posted by:Kevan Lee

VP of marketing currently living in Boise, Idaho. I work with the lovely folks at Buffer. You can join my email list to get an inside look at marketing and branding and team-building in tech.