NVC: A Foundational Tool for Inner Work

NVC, or Non-Violent Communication is a set of tools, a process, and a consciousness developed by Marshall Rosenberg.

It is the single most helpful framework I’ve found for creating peace within yourself (and with others).

Here are some basic principles of this consciousness:

  1. Everything everyone does is in service of getting a need met. There is no “right” or “wrong” – just needs and what people do to meet them. People always do the best they know how to at the time to meet the needs that are alive for them.
  2. Needs are universal to all humans. Some examples are sustenance, safety, compassion, play, challenge, meaning, belonging, contribution. Here is list of needs.
  3. Sometimes people confuse their needs with their strategies to meet those needs. This leads to conflict if people are attached to one specific strategy (you should meet my needs in this way).
  4. Needs themselves don’t conflict (because there is an infinite number of ways to meet a need when you are creative).
  5. Our deepest needs are fulfilled when we meet our own needs and assist others to meet their needs – i.e. we contribute to life. Contribution is one of our core needs.
  6. Empathy is the process by which we can understand our own and each others needs, by listening for the need underneath the pain or the strategy someone is using, or the need underneath our own jackals (painful voices).
  7. When people understand each others needs, a natural opening of the heart occurs. In this space, it becomes easy to work together to find a strategy that meets both people’s needs.

If needs don’t conflict, why does conflict happen?

When we believe our needs won’t get met, our creativity shuts down and we become polarized and defensive. While we can always find a multitude of strategies to meet everyone’s needs, when we are in a shut-down, defensive consciousness we don’t think creatively. We defend, protect, attack, or engage in strategies like submission or sneakiness. We set up others (or parts of ourselves) as enemies.

Learning NVC is not just learning to speak in the language of feelings and needs. It also means learning to identify unconscious strategies and shut-down consciousness, and intentionally return to the principles and practices above.

This takes more than intellectual understanding. The parts of our brain that shut down and create defenses are primal and deep. They evolved far earlier in our history, when scarcity was real and death was a daily threat. To embody NVC takes a re-orientation–to recognize certain bodily signals of aggression or fear as signals, rather than being directly and unconsciously motivated by them. Therefore, body-consciousness and mindfulness are underlying skills that are vital to mastering NVC.

NVC is the foundation of how I understand my inner world.

NVC is primarily focused on interpersonal communication, but the same tools can be used to understand yourself.

Self-empathy. You can use the NVC process to understand your own needs and feelings, greatly clarifying your motivations. You can dissolve procrastination by understanding your needs and addressing them.

Compassion. NVC offers the view that you have never done anything wrong; only clumsy of ineffective. You were always doing the best you could at the time, given where you were and what you had available to you then. Having compassion and forgiveness towards yourself releases the suffering of guilt and regret.

Translating jackals. We all have negative or critical inner voices. NVC lets you translate them into needs and feelings, so you can understand the purpose of the voices and meet them. For example, “I’m such an idiot!” might turn out to be, “I’m so frustrated because I’m needing to be seen as competent!”. Turning judgements into clear needs and feelings empowers you to actually do something about your needs, and then feel better. Understanding and addressing the needs of inner jackals is far more effective than trying to suppress them.

NVC offers immense clarity on why suffering happens and deeply practical skills for interacting differently with yourself and others. I highly recommend it.

Find out more

Marshall’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life will give you the basics.

LaShelle Charde teaches classes here in Portland and has a weekly newsletter that walks you through a real-life example of NVC in action. You can read the archives or subscribe. It’s the only weekly newsletter (of any kind!) that I always read.

There are several videos of Marshall on YouTube, and here is an interview – NonViolent Communication as an Evolutionary Imperative.

The official NVC organization is CNVC where you can find more books, teachers, trainings, and practice groups.