How To Practise Communicating Non-Violently

In Beastly & Beautiful, Psychology, Psychology-Relationships by Louisa Leontiades

I like alternative thinking. I like a bit of a dabble in so-called hippy heaven. But many do not. For some reason it insults them to think that they might be in any way associated with such a counter culture famous for free love. Mind-altering perspectives. Nonconformist beliefs. And so when I recommended to a client last week that they might try ‘non-violent communication’ as a better way to communicate with their partner, I was pooh-poohed. They told me that they weren’t ‘down with hippy heaven.’ It was unlikely that I could have persuaded him to buy a book on the subject (hence this cheat sheet).

One reason might be that non-violent communication is known as giraffe communication, because they have the largest known heart of a land animal. Giraffe communication? Don’t be ridiculous! But otherwise expressed, non-violent communication is nothing more than a set of communication techniques which attempt to facilitate peaceful resolution to conflict. In my life it’s basically an essential bit of kit. Even more so than my high heeled pink sandals which only go with one outfit in my wardrobe. Yes, it’s that important. Here are a few principles to consider, when you first start learning about non-violent communication.

  1. Practice observing instead of judging

The first principle of non-violent communication is to observe without evaluating, that means not judging. It’s difficult because the way that the mind is programmed to survive is by designating methods and beliefs as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It associates anything that helps it to survive as right, and anything that doesn’t as wrong. This association happens so often that the mind will eventually fight to be right, even if the methods and beliefs don’t help it survive at all. Sometimes, and horrifically, people will actually commit suicide because they fear being judged wrong so much. It’s – well – suicide. Disassociating your need to be right with survival (and to make others wrong) is the first step to compassionate communication.

But we are trained to think that there is something wrong with a world and people who do not meet our needs.

“She never shows me any affection,” he says “Couldn’t she just give me a cuddle occasionally? Why does she have to be so cold and aloof?”

Our attention is focused on analyzing what is wrong with the other person and not expressing what we need. Obviously we need affection. But there are several elements to this sentence which will hinder a successful and peaceful resolution to the problem.

Firstly the use of the word ‘never’ (or always, seldom, frequently). They are usually exaggerations designed to build your case of judgement about the other person. They are designed for criticism. Not resolution. Use precise time periods and occasions.

Secondly, suggesting a way for the other person to express affection. You cannot ‘make’ someone do anything (well you can, but it’s called coercion even if subtle). The basis of compassionate communication is not to dictate how someone else might meet your needs. Your job is to express that you feel a lack of affection without imposing the way you think they should meet your needs.

Thirdly your judgement on the person’s character. Maybe she is cold and aloof, but that’s for her to say. Not for you to judge.

In this one sentence, he has successfully alienated the other person with the language of ‘wrongness’. How could this be expressed without putting her in the persecutor position? He could say

“I cannot recall you being affectionate to me over the last 6 months. I was used to us cuddling in the evening and because I can’t remember doing that lately.”

There is far less judgement and no antagonism in this sentence. It is concerned with your memories, and your feelings. Speaking of which…

2. Practise expressing how you feel instead of how you think

The second step in non-violent communication is to identify whether you are expressing your feelings rather than your thoughts. We respond with compassion to each others’ emotions. Less so to each others’ thoughts. So when we open ourselves as emotionally vulnerable, we unlock the ability to communicate compassionately. Because it is impossible to communicate properly without telling the other person how we truly feel.

If we communicate only with thoughts (often designed to hide our feelings) we will respond from your pre-frontal cortex. It’s a different area of the brain and one which is concerned with rationality, reason… and judgement. But the English language doesn’t help so much here. Because we can say ‘I feel’ without really saying how we feel at all…

“I feel that you are cold and aloof”

This is still an opinion, a thought. We must learn to distinguish between what we feel and how we think others react of behave towards us. Even adjectives can be a minefield.

“I feel unappreciated” for example is actually an expression about how we think others are treating us, not about how we are really feeling.

In order to communicate your feelings correctly, you will need to build your emotional vocabulary. Fortunately, the NVC centre has done it for you already. And on that topic…

3. Practise taking responsibility for the way you feel

The bottom line is this. People are accountable for their actions. But they are not accountable for how you experience them emotionally. It’s a tough bottom line because I can call to mind in this instant at least four actions where the trigger or the action is so horrific, that the ‘victim’ of them can in no way be ‘blamed’ for their response to it. Sexual, physical, emotional and psychological violence. All of them damaging. But this is where we might look at the difference between ‘responsibility’ and ‘blame’.

Blame is attributing our emotional state to another’s actions. We give them the power over our emotions. Don’t do it. Try not to give them this power. If you do, you end up being the victim. Responsibility is when we realise that the only person who can change the way we feel, is ourselves. Blaming someone else, whilst perhaps satisfactory and even deserved is unlikely to support us in finding happiness in the long term. Emotional responsibility is the act of self-care. The more horrific an action was, the more difficult this is. Having experienced several rapes and domestic abuse, I also think you have to be super-human to do it in the worst cases. So let’s stick to small potatoes.

Let’s say that your partner has just called you ‘cold and aloof’.

Do you call them out on their non-compassionate delivery? No! Because that means you are doing exactly the same thing to them which is to judged them. You will most likely feel annoyed. So instead, say it and take responsibility for your own feelings instead of blaming the other person for it and getting into a fight. Trace you own feeling back to your own unfulfilled desire.

She said “I feel annoyed at what you said because I don’t like to think of myself as cold and aloof. I think that cold and aloof people are not loveable and I need to feel loved.”

Talking about what you need, as opposed to what is wrong with the other person, will bring you a greater chance of both getting your needs met.

4. Practise defining your needs

Ah needs. Well I don’t despite my protestations, need a pair of high heeled pink shoes. Nor are we talking about what I need for subsistence because we’re not only talking survival. It’s about thriving. So its not just food, air and water. It’s autonomy. It’s fun and laughter. It’s sexual expression. There’s a list on the link above. There will be core fundamental needs which will apply to you specifically. They will be more or less important to you according to your individual gene expression which is triggered by your experiences and environment. I have an overriding need for freedom, honesty and fun. Others are less important but still worthwhile and I appreciate their presence in my life.

But after you have identified your needs, you will need to express them. And this in itself can be difficult. Our culture is not designed to allow healthy expression of our needs without a whole pile of guilt, shame or blame. I’ve had several relationships go down the drain because I was too ashamed to express my needs to my partners, and yet I resented them for not meeting my needs. I communicated passively, indirectly. And it was frequently misinterpreted.

Many of us have realized that in order to get our needs met, we have to communicate directly and honestly. But there’s a danger. We are not practiced in being compassionately honest. And what comes out initially, tends to be and feel brutal.

5. Practise compassionate honesty instead of brutal honesty

In the beginning perhaps you viewed other as responsible for your feelings. And by inference, considered yourself responsible for other people’s feelings (in NVC language it’s called emotional slavery). Then you realized that you weren’t responsible for other people’s feelings and you felt angry. Perhaps you continued to feel angry when you perceived that others were trying to blame you for their own painful emotions. In NVC language it’s called ‘the obnoxious stage’. You might say something like.

“You’re lonely? Well that’s your problem. I’m not responsible for your feelings.”

At this stage you are clear about the fact that you are not responsible for others feelings, but you have not yet realized that you are responsible for your own anger, fear and guilt at having accommodated them. By revoking responsibility for others’ needs from a place of negativity, all the while not being compassionate to their pain, you are simply assuming power at someone else’s expense.

And the third stage. Emotional liberation, in which we assume full responsibility for our own feelings but not the feelings of others, while being aware that we can never meet our needs at the expense of others.

Yes. It is hard work. But it gets easier the more practice you have.

6. Practise direct positive communication

Asking for what you need is even more difficult if you don’t know what you need. Most of us aren’t in touch with our own feelings, having been taught by our parents and our society that feelings are unimportant, selfish or even display unforgivable weakness. It’s not.

Once you have identified your needs, your next task is to ask for what you do want (not what you don’t want) in terms which refer to your own feelings and needs. Use positive language but don’t demand how the other person should meet your needs; make sure you have been understood. So back to our first example.

He says “I cannot recall your being affectionate to me over the last 6 months. I was used to us cuddling in the evening and because I can’t remember doing that lately, I have felt increasingly lonely.”

Ask for the other person to reflect back what you have said. You are not checking their listening skills, simply checking that you have been clear in your communication and that they have understood, without feeling criticized. Your next step is to check how the other person feels about what you just said. And finally, ask for what you want but as a request…being sure that you can accept ‘no’ as a valid response (otherwise it is a demand).

“Could we spend an evening cuddling on the sofa together?”

What if she says yes…Great!

What if she says no? Well, loop back to the beginning. But this time, it’s her turn.

She might say “I don’t want to cuddle because I feel scared that it will lead to sexual intimacy. I need greater emotional connection in order to feel sexual. And when our cuddles lead to intimacy before I feel ready, I get distressed that I have to refuse you”

“Why does it distress you to refuse me?” he might say.

“I have issues myself around abandonment and rejection, which may need resolving…” Or

“I have grown up in a world where I have been taught that it’s rude to refuse…” Or

“I have been pressured in the past and had coercive sex. It reminds me of my previous trauma…”

Or. Or . Or.

Yes, it’s a can of worms. That’s the thing about non-violent communication. It is not a end, but only a means to an end. A surefire way into the can of worms and vulnerability. But you both have the choice to live with and ignore your worms, or sift to the bottom time and again, but be free to live and love each other.