Do you have Emotional Safety and Expression in your relationship? Imagine greater intimacy with your partner and ask them this question: “Tell me what you are most afraid to say?” Check in for a second: how do you feel? Could you be feeling scared, terrified or sad, lonely, disheartened, or maybe another emotion by asking this question? What if you could safely communicate and be able to respond, no matter what they said or did?
The communication technique of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg provides a way to communicate with our partners safely and peacefully. NVC is a four-step technique that focuses on connecting our feelings to the life-serving energy inside us: our needs. 1. Observation: state what the person has said or done, or a thought you may be having. 2. Feeling: state the feeling you or your partner is experiencing. 3. Need: express the need that is being met or unmet. 4. Request: state a clear request you would like which can be met in the moment.
We spoke with Dr. Rosenberg in Switzerland just before his passing, and asked him about how NVC can help communicate to transform our most intimate partnership into a Sacred Union.
YT: Many people struggle with criticism and judgment from those closest to them. How does NVC help us to deal with criticism from others?
Marshall Rosenberg: If you use our technique you can hear no criticism; all you can hear your partner saying is: “Please!” When you hear the “please” behind what used to sound like a criticism, you can see it as an opportunity to nurture another person.
YT: So, you have to listen behind what your partner is saying?
Marshall Rosenberg: Even more specific, this technique is based on an assumption that all criticism, judgment, diagnosis… all of this ugly stuff is a tragic expression of an unmet need.
YT: How did this language of judgment and criticism get started?
Marshall Rosenberg: For about the last 8,000 years we have been educated in a language that is not very effective in enjoying any kind of relationship. Especially a close intimate relationship, because when people are not getting needs met, the best way they know to express it is by saying; “The problem with you is that you are too….” And that is a suicidal way of saying “Hey, a need of mine is not being met.” So NVC translates any criticism into an unmet need. And no matter what the other person says, all you hear is the unmet need they are trying to communicate. Then, what would have sounded like a criticism is really a gift.
YT: So people are not listening to the unmet needs behind what their partner is saying?
Marshall Rosenberg: Not only are they not listening, we have not been conscious of it. Finding the need gives us as human beings a chance to do what we enjoy doing, contributing to the well-being of people. But the expression of the language is usually in the form of a criticism, analysis or diagnosis or something that implies some kind of pathology. That makes the divorce lawyers and the makers of Prozac wealthy.
YT: Does the language then guarantee conflict escalation?
Marshall Rosenberg: Take a look at the divorce rate: more than half of the people are not able to stay with it. And even the ones that are staying with it are not really enjoying it fully. I ask couples that I work with, “What is the nature of your intimacy?” and very few of them have an answer to that question.
YT: How do we get to the truth in a sacred union?
Marshall Rosenberg: I like what my partner says to me, she says: “What are you afraid to tell me?” The questions and messages that are the hardest to express are the really important ones to know. In a way it is a gift to answer that question. The most intimate things are the most important to us and are the things we need to learn how to express well. If we regularly say to each other in partnership, “What are you afraid to tell me?” that opens us up to greater closeness. And to put it in need’s language: “Which need of ours is not being met?”
YT: Is NVC used just when things are not going well?
Marshall Rosenberg: No, it is important to balance it out with celebration. By focusing and balancing what contribution the other partner has given to us; “What needs of ours ARE being met.” Just as we focus on expressing our pain, it is important to take the time to celebrate how our needs are being met. Not just complements and praise, but telling the partner exactly what they did and how it enriched our lives. So those two things: saying the scary things, how our needs have not been met, and celebrating needs met. What has the other person done to contribute to meeting our needs?
YT: That scary question from your partner will send a shutter down the spine of our readers.
Marshall Rosenberg: I hate that question. Yet, I love it when she asks it, because it requires me to look inside and really say, “Hey, what needs of mine are not being met to my satisfaction in the relationship?”
YT: So the truth steps forward in one’s partnership?
Marshall Rosenberg: The truth is the hardest to express and is the most important. And we may have some strong needs that for whatever reason, culturally, or whatever it is not easy to ask for.
YT: And so escalation will take place and our intimacy needs won’t be met.
Marshall Rosenberg: A lot of people stay in a relationship for years and not experience intimacy because they are staying in the relationship out of duty or obligation. Or because the outside forces of church, family or other structure says they must.
They live together for 30 or 40 years, that does not mean that they have had one intimate conversation or that they intimately connect with each other.
YT: It sounds like couples could live in a helpless place if they were not connected to their intimacy.
Marshall Rosenberg: Yes, they not only do not know what their needs are they feel the discomfort that nature gives us human beings when our needs are not being met. So the next words out of a partner’s mouth will usually be tragic because the language sets it up so that is sounds like a criticism to the other person. And if the person does what we want because they are responding to our criticism then they will be doing it out of an energy that we will pay for. Anything that anyone does because they will avoid criticism or in order to trade love, the person receiving that will pay for it.
YT: It sounds like that the discomfort shows up inside our body and we don’t have the language get to our need safely?
Marshall Rosenberg: What makes it more tragic is that the words we have almost guarantee that we will not get our needs met or if we do it will be very costly. Because it is being met by guilt, shame or a form of manipulation by believing that if we do what they want they will give us love. So it is tragic if that is the only way you have to talk about your intimate needs.
YT: So how does a person really advocate for their needs of intimacy and connection?
Marshall Rosenberg: Well first it is to find out what need is activating their feelings. I could be several.
It could be closeness, empathy, understanding or it could be celebration
First we are to learn how to request our needs to be met and second it is to learn to enjoy a “no” if that is what comes back.
We suggest in our trainings to always follow an unmet need with an expression of a request from the other person. Now it is very important for the other person to trust it is a request and not a demand. They need to know if they say no for whatever reason that they will be accepted and understood.
If you hear a “no,” never hear it as a rejection. Consider, “what is the need behind the no?” What need keeps the other person from saying yes? When the other person can trust that you will understand the good reason why they are saying no and why they are not comfortable to meet your need, then they are hearing a request and not a demand. They will be far more likely to contribute to our well being when they can trust that our requests are not demands.
YT: So it is trying to stay out of the energy of demand that we “have to” do some for our partner?
Marshall Rosenberg: The intention is to stay out of the energy of demands and criticism. In order to enjoy intimacy, we need to contribute willingly to the other person’s wellbeing because it meets our need to contribute to peoples’ wellbeing. And there’s nothing that we like to do more, especially for the people we are closest with, unless we hear criticism or demands. So as soon as we hear a criticism or a demand, that which we enjoy doing more than anything else becomes something ugly.
YT: So, Marshall, explain more about what you mean by, “it becomes ugly.” Do people then submit or start giving up?
Marshall Rosenberg: What’s even more tragic is people aren’t very conscious of it because they are so used to it from their own families. Before they got into a relationship, they were the product of a culture that uses guilt and shame as a motivation. So they don’t have a concept of what we call “giving self-fully.” We have only two words. One is selfish, where you seem to only care about yourself, and the other one is selfless which is what we are trained to be in a domination culture. Meaning that you show your love for another person by denying your needs, giving in and doing whatever they want but in fact if we really want to enjoy relationships we need to give fully which means we are not giving out of any guilt, shame to buy the other person’s love. We are, in a sense, giving to ourselves that joy that comes from contributing to a person’s wellbeing.
Now, it is natural, I believe, that most creatures enjoy contributing to others of their own species for the most part. But human beings for the most part mess this up because we turn giving into an obligation rather than a natural way of giving.
There is a story about my son. He was enormously generous about going down to the house of a neighbor woman who was physically handicapped. When it would snow, he would walk down and shovel her driveway. She couldn’t leave her house until her drive was cleaned. As soon as it would snow, he would run down and shovel her walk. He never told her who it was and never asked her for money. At our house, we had a tiny little walkway and what I had to do to get the kid to shovel the walk was amazing.
It was in the days that I was unconscious of what we have been talking about. I was presenting things to the people I loved the most: my family, my wife, in a way that the culture I was in taught me – that these things were obligations, so he saw shoveling our walk as an obligation, which took all the joy out of it. But for a neighbor, he would shovel it and even check the weather report the night before just in case it would snow and he would get up early before school just so he could shovel her drive. And he was doing that self-fully to meet his need to contribute to this person.
Now, the same can go on in the families too. Kids can enjoy giving to parents. Parents can enjoy giving to each other if they don’t get that all mixed up with what they are taught about relationships – that once you are in a relationship you are obligated and it’s your duty.
YT: There are so many people to whom we feel obligated. How does NVC help us get past duty and obligation?
Marshall Rosenberg: First we point out the danger of omptspraken, the word from the Nazi war criminal, Aldof Ikeman when he was asked if it was it difficult to send tens of thousand of people to their deaths. He shocked his interviewer when he said, “ To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language makes it easy.” The interviewer said, “What language?” He replied, “My fellow officers and I coined our own language. We called it omptspraken. It is a language in which you deny responsibility for what you do. So, folover example, if somebody asks you why did you it, you say it is my duty, my obligation, I had to, one should, one must.” So it is a language that denies choice. It implies that once you have this title, in his case it was head of the Gestapo, orders came from above.
Whether it is a father, mother or child, doing things out of duty takes away choice. It takes the joy out of it. It is also pretty dangerous because it makes good nazis out of us all.
YT: So, any time choice is taken out of the relationship, it can disrupt or destroy a relationship.
Marshall Rosenberg: Any time someone hears, “should” or “have to” it depletes and drains the relationship. You can say to another person, “You have to. You don’t have any choice.” But in fact, human beings never do anything they don’t choose to do. It is misleading, but what is worse is that it takes the joy out of giving.
It makes sense if we are living in a domination system. You need a language that denies responsibility. People think you have to do what the emperor says, or what the king says, or the president, or your parents, or your husband.
YT: It seems that relationships have two sides, one dealing with our partners and the other with ourselves. The judgment voice in ourselves can be just as loud as those we hear externally. How do we use nvc to provide support to the relationship with ourselves?
Marshall Rosenberg: The practice is to be able to empathize with ourselves and our needs that have not been met first. The first thing is to look at how we treat ourselves when we make a mistake. Do we use criticism with ourselves? Do we imply wrongness or badness? Do we “should” ourselves into doing things? When we do make a mistake, NVC is a tool to use to learn to mourn without self-blame. It will allow us to learn without limitation without loosing self respect. Then NVC can be used as a tool in giving ourselves self forgiveness. So NVC allows us to find what was going on inside of us that caused us to exhibit the behavior. We can learn from each other without blame and, of course, when our partner is not doing things that are in harmony with our needs, NVC gives us options other than blame in communicating with them.
YT: So NVC provides us the empathy to get more connection to ourselves in life?
Marshall Rosenberg: I work a lot with people who are depressed. When I say, “What needs of yours are not getting met?” they don’t know what to say. They just give a judgment of themselves like, “I am a failure as a wife, as a husband.” They only know to blame themselves. We can teach them how to empathically connect to themselves when they are making mistakes. Then we can show them how to give empathy to their partners.
YT: So what I am hearing you say is that there is a dance between meeting our needs and the needs of our partners.
Marshall Rosenberg: If we are in pain we can rarely give our self fully to the other person. So it is a gift to the other person to clearly express what is causing the pain inside us; not to put our needs ahead or try to get them met though duty or guilt. NVC is based on getting everybody’s needs met. Make sure the needs are being met out of willing giving and not any obligation.
YT: What can you share about dealing with internal voices of criticism and judgment?
Marshall Rosenberg: NVC is a technique to hear the beautiful messages, the truth behind the criticism is an unmet need if you allow yourself to hear what the speaker is intending to communicate. So NVC shows a person how to find what is alive behind the other person’s tragic expression, what need are they trying to communicate.
YT: Many people wonder, “Is this judgmental language natural? Because I can’t seem to get rid of it.
Marshall Rosenberg: Be careful not to mix up what is natural with what is habitual. It is habitual for us to make these judgments inside ourselves and toward the people we love the most. But that is not natural. It is not a natural language. Any living thing has in its consciousness the ability to get its needs met or it does not survive. If a tree puts its roots down into a dry area it has to have something internal inside to make a choice and shift where to put its roots. Whether it is a tree, mosquito or a human being, what is natural is a language of life, a language of needs. But we have been cut off from that for many thousands of years because of the structures in which we have been living.
YT: You mentioned a moment ago about celebration instead of praise what is the difference?
Marshall Rosenberg: In NVC, we consider praise and compliments a violent form of communication. Because they are part of the language of domination, it is one passing judgment on another. What makes it more complex is that people are trained to use praise as reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want. For example, parents I work with, teachers, managers in industry have been trained in courses and by other people to use praise and compliments as rewards. In a family, we are taught that if you praise and compliment children daily, they are more likely to do what you want. Teachers do the same in school to get children to work more.
And managers in industry are trained to do this, showing them how to use praise and compliments as rewards. To me, this is a violent form of communication because it is using language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude. So in NVC we show people to make sure that before you open your mouth to get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them. Your only purpose is to celebrate. To celebrate the life that has been enriched by what the other person has contributed to you. Then, once conscious to make clear three things in this celebration; first, what the person did that enriched your life, not a generality, like “your so kind, beautiful, or wonderful” but what concretely did they do for you. Second, how do you feel inside about their action? And third, what need of yours was fulfilled inside you by their contribution?
I had just finished saying this to a group of teachers, telling them about the dangers of using praise and complements as rewards. I showed them how to do it this other way and I must not have done a good job of explaining this because afterward, a woman came up and said, “You were brilliant.” I said, “That is no help. I have been called a lot of names in my life some positive and some far from positive and I could never recall learning anything of value from someone telling me what I am. I don’t think anybody does but I can see by the look in your eyes you want to express gratitude.” She said, “yes,” and I said, “I want to receive it but telling me what I am doesn’t help.” She said, What do you want to hear?” “What did I say in the workshop that made life more wonderful for you?” She said, “You are so intelligent.” I said, “That doesn’t help.” She thought for a moment and then opened her notebook and said, “Here these two things that you said really made a difference.” I said, “How do you feel?” She said, “Hopeful and relieved.” I said, “It would help me if I knew what needs of your were met.” She said, “I have this 18 year old son and when we fight, it is horrible. It can go on for days. I have been needing some concrete direction and these two things have made such a difference for me.”
When I give this example, people can see the difference between praise and gratitude and how different in value both are. In the case of celebration, you can trust it is being done with no manipulation so that you will keep doing it or say something nice about them. Instead, it is really coming from the heart. It is a sincere celebration of the exchange between two people.
YT: So people are really yearning for that specific kind of celebration, for how we can contribute to each other as human beings in a relationship.
Marshall Rosenberg: They desperately need it and I have suggested that in a workplace setting, they can build this quality of celebration into the structure of meetings. I have been showing families how to do the same and take time to acknowledge how you have enriched each other’s lives. The families who have told me that they have done this say it has had a great impact on them.
I spend a lot of time in mediation with married couples, folks who are going through breakups and divorces. I do workshops a lot with couples groups. When I do, I ask the couples who has the longest conflict that has not been resolved in their relationships and I make a prediction. I predict that we will be able to resolve the problem 20 minutes from the point in which it is clear what the needs are that are not being met from both sides. Many people are very skeptical that this will happen because many of these couples have been married for 10- 30 years. One woman said, “We have been arguing about this for 39 years. It started two months into our marriage.” She said, “When you have been married as long as we have, you know each other’s needs.” I said, ”OK, you tell me his needs and you tell me yours and we will see with in 20 minutes.
She said, “OK, he does not want me to spend any money.” I said, “That is not what I mean by a need.” He jumped in and said, “That is ridiculous.” I said, “That is a strategy.” She said, “OK, I got you, Marshall. You see, the problem is that he is like his father and he has a depression mentality when it comes to money.” I said, “It will take another 39 years to resolve this if you come up with a psychoanalytic judgment.” It became obvious that neither of them knew what their needs were. I said to him, “Tell me what her needs are.” He said, “She is a wonderful wife and mother, but when it comes to money she is totally irresponsible.” She jumped in and said, “That is not fair!” I pointed out to them and the rest of the group, “This is why conflicts don’t get resolved. Notice, I have asked both what their needs are and both have given me a diagnosis of the other person.”
Next, I helped both of them by translating their judgments into an unmet need. “So when you say irresponsible, do you mean that your need for security is not being met by how she was writing checks when you first got married?” He said that is exactly right. Then in the process I asked her to repeat that back. It took her three times just to hear the translation of the need. Even though we had the need on the table, she was still hearing the criticism from all the years before and it was not easy to hear his needs. Then I got to her need, which was to be trusted that she could learn. Yes, she goofed some things up at the start of the marriage. I said, “Could you repeat what you heard her say. He said, We would be poor by then.” So it was not easy to get him to hear her needs.
But when they finally heard and understood each other’s needs, it took much less than 20 minutes to resolve that conflict that had lasted all of those years.
And I have this experience regularly in trainings.
When I can get both sides to hear each other’s needs, it is amazing how conflicts seem to solve themselves. I think life is divine energy. So needs are the best way I know of connecting to the divine in all of us. That is why it has so much power.
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