Marshall Rosenberg’s Guide to Nonviolent Communication for Couples: NVC
Published: 31-01-2023 - Last Edited: 02-02-2023
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 feel 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? Have you heard of Marshall Rosenberg or nonviolent communication for couples (NVC) lately?
The communication technique of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for couples as much as individuals.
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, done, or thought you might 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 an explicit request you would like which can be met at the moment.
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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 the 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 relationship.
Especially a close intimate relationship, because when people are not getting their needs met, they know best to express it 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, but we also 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 criticism, analysis or diagnosis, or something that implies some 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 compliments 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 shudder 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 do 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 structures say they must.
They lived together for 30 or 40 years, but 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 following words out of a partner’s mouth will usually be tragic because the language sets it up to sound like a criticism of the other person.
And if the person does what we want because they are responding to our criticism, then they will do it out of energy that we will pay for.
Anything that anyone does because they will avoid criticism or trade love, the person receiving that will pay for it.
YT: It sounds like the discomfort shows up inside our body, and we don’t have the language to get to our needs 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. It could be several.
It could be closeness, empathy, understanding, or it could be a celebration.
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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 training 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 meeting 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 well-being because it meets our need to contribute to people’s 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 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 is selfless, which is what we are trained to be in a dominant 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.
In a sense, we are giving ourselves that joy that comes from contributing to a person’s well-being.
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.
In those days, I was unconscious of what we had 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.
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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 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 difficult to send tens of thousands 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 language. We called it omptspraken. It is a language in which you deny responsibility for what you do. So, for example, if somebody asks you why you did 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 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, the king says, the president, your parents, or your husband.
YT: It seems that relationships have two sides, one dealing with our partners and the other with ourselves. Our judgment voice can be just as loud as those we hear externally. How do we use NVC to provide support to our relationship with ourselves?
Marshall Rosenberg: The practice is 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 make a mistake, NVC is a tool to learn to mourn without self-blame.
It will allow us to learn without limitation and without losing self-respect. Then NVC can be used as a tool in giving ourselves self-forgiveness.
So NVC allows us to find what was happening inside 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 judge themselves like, “I am a failure as a wife, as a husband.” They only know to blame themselves.
We can teach them how to connect to themselves when they are making mistakes empathically.
Then we can show them how to give empathy to their partners.
YT: So what I hear 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 ourselves 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 through 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 beautiful messages; the truth behind the criticism is an unmet need if you allow yourself to hear what the speaker intends to communicate.
So NVC shows a person how to find what is alive behind the other person’s tragic expression and what need they are 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 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 in 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 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 we live in.
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, one is passing judgment on another.
What makes it more complex is that people are trained to use praise as a reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want. For example, parents I work with, teachers, and managers in the 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 the 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 uses language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude.
So in NVC, we show people to make sure that before they open their mouths get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them. Your only purpose is to celebrate.
To celebrate life enriched by what the other person has contributed to you.
Then, once conscious, 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 compliments 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 yours 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 needed 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 taking 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 and folks who are going through breakups and divorces. I do workshops a lot with couples groups.
When I do, I ask the couples who have the longest conflict that has not been resolved in their relationship, 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 within 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 depressed 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 the 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 was exactly right.
Then in the process, I asked her to repeat that back. It took her three times to hear the translation of the need. Even though we needed 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 training.
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.
About the writer of this article:
For more information, contact William Stierle, NVC Specialist, at +1-310.433.8380 or williamstierle.com, or for books about NVC, see cnvc.org