Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg is one of those books you see on the shelves of people who are serious about effective communication. Everywhere. I kept seeing it. But when I picked it up it didn’t speak to me. Now I know why. What broke the ice, I think, was reading the NVC Workbook, by Lucy Leu, which was incomplete by itself but was enough to motivate me to try Marshall’s book again.
I was already mid-epiphany in my personal life – regarding noticing that when I got analytical, critical, judgmental or when I started comparing myself to others I was actually feeling vulnerable underneath – when I came across this passage:
“Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others are needing and not getting. Thus if my partner wants more affection than I’m giving her, she is ‘needy and dependent.’ But if I want more affection than she is giving me, then she is ‘aloof and insensitive.’ If my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is ‘picky and compulsive.’ On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is ‘sloppy and disorganized.’”
That helped me solidify my epiphany and make it a regular part of my mental health maintenance. Now, when I notice myself judging, comparing, criticizing, or analyzing, I can stop and gently ask myself: What might I be feeling vulnerable about? Underneath all this chatter, might there be a story that wants to be told? What, from my past, is this reminding me of?
Marshall Rosenberg is quite a revolutionary, and as it turns out, he’s an excellent writer too. His book explains how people can communicate with one another more effectively by using a lens of compassion – turning feelings into desires and needs. Looking back, the reason I could not access his message from the very first time I picked up the book was that I was still very confused about what my needs actually were, I was not clear enough on who I was to be in touch with what I desired, and I was completely cut off from my vulnerable emotions – that is until they built up so much that they overwhelmed me, and I lost control.
When you are at the right developmental stage, this book is a virtual jewel. I’ve been digesting it since I finished it in March, when I was on the beach with my daughter in Cuba. Here is another snippet:
“It is my belief that all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because, when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance to them among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us. Or, if they do agree to act in harmony with our values because they concur with our analysis of their wrongness, they will likely do so out of fear, guilt, or shame.”
When we are alienated from our needs, like many who experienced early relational trauma, we were not encouraged to have a strong sense of self, or we were shamed when we overtly expressed our desires or unpleasant feelings. What’s tragic about this is that when we are alienated from our needs, we are deprived of what we most need to grow socially and emotionally: sustained human connection. As Rosenberg points out, “…the more we are able to connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.”
In modern, Western society, women are particularly vulnerable to being socialized to put others first. As Rosenberg says, “Because women are socialized to view the caretaking of others as their highest duty, they have often learned to ignore their own needs.”
Safe human relationships have been shown to be the most powerful tool for helping people overcome early relational trauma. These relationships can be built in a therapy setting, but are just as powerful between people who have an adequate level of recovery, adequate attunement with their own feelings and needs, and the language to talk about it.
I’d like to create contexts where people can practice with others this skill of connecting feelings with needs, and communicating in ways that others are likely to have compassion for them, instead of feeling assaulted by their neediness or negativity. This often happens to people who have unresolved early relational trauma, and when others respond to their judging, complaining, or neediness by defending, retaliating or distancing. This sadly validates their early programming that people cannot accept them with their vulnerable emotions and backlog of unmet needs. Validation might feel good, but as they say in Al-Anon, “Would you rather be right or happy?” Nonviolent Communication is a book that offers a framework for blasting through the early programming, and forging authentic connections between people, organizations, and nations.
“All criticism, attack, insults and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message….behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being.” Rosenberg believes this applies to everyone. And his ideas are now being taught in mediation trainings all over the world.
(Former United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold) “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is happening outside.” Rosenberg says that “If we become skilled in giving ourselves empathy, we often experience in just a few seconds a natural release of energy which then enables us to be present with the other person.”
Rosenberg’s Four Steps to Expressing Anger
- Stop and do nothing except breathe.
- Identify the thoughts that are making us angry.
- Connect to the needs behind those thoughts.
- Express our feelings and unmet needs.
I highly recommend this book.
Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. Encinitas: Puddledancer Press, 2000.