What Is Nonviolent Communication?

This is a long, draft post, necessarily incomplete. It was written for an autistic peer who asked, ‘What is NVC?’

When I consider how to answer this question, I believe a concise definition would be helpful. However, I hesitate to offer my interpretation because it's just my perspective, and others might have more valuable insights.

Furthermore, I've found my answers tend to be recursive. As I refine them to improve or explore different aspects, I find another point I want to clarify. Additionally, if I answer simply by saying “it's a way of communicating effectively,” other aspects of NVC might be lost.

I also believe that categorising things can make them seem static or fixed, which can stifle curiosity. For example, many people read Marshall Rosenberg's book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” and believe they “get” NVC. Perhaps they've filed it under “communication tool” or something similar. To a large extent, they'd be accurate.

However, Marshall suggests that NVC has two parts. The first part in his book is perhaps only a page or two long, and the rest describes a syntax and grammar, or method of speaking and listening that supports building shared meaning. This process can be very helpful in working with conflict. It can also support states of mind that are more happy more often, as it helps us identify things we find supportive and make requests to get those needs met.

Therefore, it's tempting to say that NVC is a practice. The first part of NVC is about connection, particularly starting with the intention to connect. Otherwise, NVC becomes like a management training tool and can be ineffective or even dangerous. So, to reiterate, NVC is a practice that supports connection with oneself and others. It's truly next-level when thought of as a practice; the knowledge transforms from reading about a communication tool to a way of connecting with oneself and others.

Others I greatly respect outline part of their answer in terms of a list of NVC axioms and principles. I appreciate this approach.

Still others have explored the connections between NVC, neuroscience, and trauma. I find this work fascinating and powerful, and I can personally attest to how it has increased my capacity for choice. Because ultimately, that's what this work is about: soothing and integrating our trauma so we can be more capable of choice more of the time. Perhaps this helps you see why answering the question “what is NVC” is not trivial!

Yet others explore NVC through the lens of ancient spiritual consciousness, specifically compassion. For them, NVC is perhaps a scaffolding that fosters a way of being that helps us see the humanity in others. This connects to why Marshall chose the name “nonviolent,” even though it seems like an oxymoron. He acknowledges the difficulty with the name and says Gandhi also wrestled with it. Marshall chose the name to connect with others who practise nonviolence and to identify the link between NVC and the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In that sense, NVC is also a political act, not only in self-emancipation but also in nonviolently supporting change in our encounters with domination culture. However, we tend to avoid overtly naming the last two aspects, perhaps so that NVC can better “fly under the radar.” Interestingly, even large companies have adopted NVC, not only because it helps their employees live more fulfilling lives and have less conflict in the workplace but also to better understand their customers' needs.

There are also those who identify other influences on Marshall's work, such as Thomas Szasz. His book “The Myth of Mental Illness” raises many questions about framing mental health as a disease. As an autistic person, I strongly resonate with this perspective! Additionally, others identify the influence of Paolo Freire, whose methods are built into NVC. These methods aim to raise critical consciousness in people through problem-posing pedagogy, as documented in his book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” So, in this sense, NVC is an emancipatory practice.

Returning to the beginning, another answer I like is that NVC is a language of feelings and needs. By learning to identify feelings, we literally grow neural pathways that increase our capacity to sense how we are in each moment. Our feelings let us know when our needs are being met or unmet. The idea of needs is that all living things have needs, and there is a universal set of human needs. By naming our needs, we can better strategise how to get them met.

Some situate NVC as being about empathy, which involves being able to hear the feelings and needs of another person, as well as self-empathy, which is being able to hear our own feelings. Again, this is a skill that can be nurtured through practice. We know Marshall was taught by Carl Rogers at Stanford, and Rogers said that “empathy feels damn good.” So in this sense, NVC is best experienced.

And I hope that I've offered some insight into why filing NVC under a category of ‘communication tool’, might be a very limited strategy.

The next question might be: “Okay, how can I start this practice?” Unfortunately, I can't provide a helpful answer in a general sense, partly because it is a personal journey, and partly because it will be the subject of a future post.

NVC and Neurodiversity

Currently, I'm offering spaces on a research project that will give neurodiverse peers a taste of the experience of empathy. From running numerous pilots, I'm aware that many people didn't attend my Empathy Cafe Autscape23 because of the word “empathy.” As an autistic person myself, I've been impacted by the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, who contributed to the myth that autistic people lack empathy. This is clearly very wrong and damaging, as lacking empathy situates autistic peers as less human.

Lastly, I've also been affected by the pain that people carry around who identify as having alexithymia. They've been impacted by others who share NVC, practise NVC, or “use” NVC in a way that demands they access their feelings. While I have no doubt that some people might be unable to do so, I'm increasingly confident that the practice of NVC can support us in nurturing a capacity to identify and be more aware of our feelings more easily. Neuroscience tells us that trauma necessarily disconnects us from our feelings, which makes sense as an excellent survival tool. Thus, for many people, a large part of their NVC practice involves working with trauma. This is especially important in a culture that not only contributes to trauma but also models stoicism (think Pop Culture Detective”) or Jedi). Furthermore, our culture has largely and radically removed our communities, our tribes, which we likely evolved to be connected with. So, being in a situation of individuation removes the environment in which we evolved to support our working with trauma, grief, or even joy. Marshall Rosenberg suggests that through this practice, we might transform our capacity to feel from being akin to a bugle to being an orchestra. Therefore, might nurturing a capacity to feel be a radical political act?

So, I hope this gives you some understanding of why I find my NVC practice so valuable and why I'm keen to share it with others, especially my neurodiverse peers. I'm incredibly curious about whether it supports others in the way that it has supported me. My experiences of trauma, especially as a neurodiverse person, contributed to me showing up in very reactive ways, particularly when I was low on spoons or people didn't share my understandings. What has piqued my curiosity about NVC and neurodiversity is twofold: firstly, that I have to self-advocate less now, especially in NVC spaces. Secondly, the fact that this is true makes me curious about the apparent overlaps between NVC culture and autistic spaces – but that's a topic for another blog post. And, similarly with Marshall Rosenberg himself, there's merit in questioning whether he himself was neurodivergent.

There are few more points, and thats enough for now!