Transform your Relationship by Learning Nonviolent Communication

"I'm tired of this! You never help without being asked. I always have to nag you to get you to do any housework. You make me feel like a maid!" I fumed as I relayed my anger and hurt for what felt like the thousandth time. It wasn't the only thing about which we fought. Finances, disciplining our child, and the list could go on. My husband left the room irritated and dismayed, and I retired to the bedroom alone, feeling guilty, frustrated, and quite frankly, hopeless.

As a self-help and do-it-myself enthusiast, I had already spent years focusing on improving myself and my life. Yet through no amount of books or classes had I thus far been able to get myself to change my habitual behavior. I felt utterly trapped in negative cycles of relating to the people I loved the most. Blaming, ranting, bargaining. These communication tactics always resulted in me feeling guilty and disappointed. Nothing changed from these interactions, and my self-regard was damaged. The frequency of painful interactions often hung a dark cloud over me. Angry, accusatory, ineffectual; this wasn't the kind of woman I wanted to be. I desired nothing more than to have loving relationships with my family. Though we loved each other and had a stable, reasonably-functional household, I wanted a higher degree of peace and respect.  

It wasn't until I was out of town for a weekend class that the universe dropped a golden clue right in front of me. Crashing at my girlfriend's cute little mountain bungalow, I saw a book on her coffee table.  Nonviolent Communication By Marshall Rosenberg. Ping! Instantly the title resonated something inside me. 'What?' I thought, 'Violent Communication?' If there could be nonviolent communication, did that mean many people communicated violently? I made a mental note and put the idea of the book in an investigate-later box in the back of my mind. 

Back home and months later, the book reappeared in my mind. I ordered the book and devoured it. Marshall Rosenberg is a genius and hero.  

Now I need to tell you, there are very few books that make the life-changing-books list for me, but this was one of those books.    

Nonviolent communication presents a precise, straightforward, and realistic method for communication that can completely revolutionize how you relate to others and, spoiler alert, how you relate to yourself. It hadn't occurred to me that so much of my communication was fundamentally violent. How could I expect to have a flourishing relationship with such negative ways of relating?

"If "violent" means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate—judging others, bullying, having racial bias, blaming, finger-pointing, discriminating, speaking without listening, criticizing others or ourselves, name-calling, reacting when angry, using political rhetoric, being defensive or judging who's "good/bad" or what's "right/wrong" with people—could indeed be called "violent communication."- Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication

I wouldn't lie and say that I read the book and -poof!- made a complete and immediate transformation. I found the information a little unnatural to implement at first. I took a good year or so to marinate in Rosenberg's teachings before I saw the changes blossoming from the inside out. There is still plenty of undoing I need to accomplish, but I am so grateful for this method. Let's take a look at what nonviolent communication is and entails.




How Does Nonviolent Communication Work?

Rosenberg's teachings are more than a method; they are a quality of consciousness. We become aware that all humans have basic needs that we must have met. These needs include the physical need to survive and also the psychological and emotional needs to be necessary, to be respected, and to be heard. When we feel positive about our interaction or relationship with someone, we spontaneously express goodwill. Rosenberg argues that making a positive contribution to the lives of those around us is a natural way to live. describes the method concisely,

"Nonviolent Communication (NVC) helps you to create a high quality of connection, out of which people spontaneously enjoy contributing to one another's well-being.

NVC uses consciousness, language, and communication skills to create a framework from which you can:

  • express your feelings and needs with clarity and self-responsibility;
  • listen to others' feelings and needs with compassion and empathy;
  • facilitate mutually beneficial outcomes for all parties involved."

We can learn to listen and respond from a place of compassion by seeing in between a person's spoken words to the heart of the matter. What do they need that they aren't directly saying? We learn to read in-between the lines. We also learn to reverse the premise to discover what it is that we need. By getting to the heart of the matter, we can subvert the need to resort to violent communication.  


How to Communicate Nonviolently

Thinking and nonviolently communicating can open up compassion and understanding between other people and ourselves. How is it done? To begin, describes, "The basics of Nonviolent Communication involve expressing ourselves with clarity, compassion, self-responsibility, empathy, and the common good in mind, which is the exact opposite of what violent communication is"


Taking Responsibility

We learn to communicate by example. Most of our education in the relating department comes from our parents, informally, as we absorb it through observation. Commonly, folks talk and think from the vantage point of what other people are doing to them. 'You made me angry,' 'I am sad because you ____,' and so on. Our thoughts and our expressions carry the false idea that our emotions are the fault of other people. We errantly believe that how we feel is under the control of other people's actions, yet this is incorrect. 

Rosenberg states, "What others do may be a stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause." Though the action of another person can set our feelings in motion, we are the owners of our reactions. How we feel in response to a stimulus is dependent on what is alive inside of us right now. Our internal reality, expectations, needs, and values are not under the control or ownership of anyone else. Therefore, no other person holds the responsibility for how we feel. Realizing our responsibility changes our understanding internally, and that results in our ability to communicate our needs rather than needing to blame or lash out.    



Communicating Needs

For us to make a real human connection, we have to be honest in our communications. We must learn to identify and express what it is we need. We begin with the process of becoming aware of how we are feeling inside. If anger begins to simmer, we have to take a closer look. 'Why am I angry? What did I need in this situation that I didn't receive?' Then, rather than using you-statements that are accusatory and violent, we use 'I statements.' Rosenberg often encourages us to begin with "when you___________, I feel __________, because I need ____________." This kind of statement is vulnerable. Being vulnerable can be out of our comfort zone, yet you may be surprised that being vulnerable makes others feel safe in your presence. Vulnerability is honesty, and honesty allows others to trust you. When you are honest and vulnerable, this permits the other person to do the same.  

Likewise, when another person speaks, we listen for the underlying need. Whether we have used compassionate communication approaches or not, another person may still respond reactively or violently. With practice, you can learn to move past the urge to be triggered and instead listen with compassion. Once you learn to do this, you will quickly recognize the hurt, the yearning, the fear, and many other emotions and needs underlying a person's statements. 


Finding Resolution

Marshall Rosenberg took the nonviolent communication concept and applied its principles in some of the most angst-filled situations worldwide. He is famous for initiating peace programs in war-torn areas, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Middle East. You may think that if a situation has escalated to the level of all-out war and civil unrest, then nonviolent communication couldn't work. Unbelievably, Rosenberg's book shares account after account of warring factions coming to understand one another, see each other's humanity, and come to mutually satisfying agreements to resolve significant conflicts.  

When applied, compassionate communication allows all parties involved to express what they need to have heard, which restores a sense of humanity. Habits of damaging communication can run very deep. Usually, we aren't aware that we are communicating violently, and most people do not intend to harm others. We are unable to break free of these patterns due to our unawareness and lack of better skills. 

While I am still on my quest to implement compassionate communication, I see a difference in the way my relationships flow. Even if it takes a lifetime, the world can use as much peace as it can get.  

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