How I apply (so-called) Non-Violent Communication

In a discussion elsewhere, someone asked about simple communication patterns that they could use with their partner when they’re having difficulties and want to avoid causing hurt or verbalizing projections. I ended up sharing an explanation of how I try to apply so-called Non-Violent Communication (NVC), one of the most useful tools for this that I’ve ran across; and then I figured that I might as well also share those remarks more widely. Here’s an edited version of things I ended up saying in that conversation.


I think one of the most important parts of NVC is the idea about distinguishing observations and interpretations, where an “observation” is defined as something that you could objectively verify (e.g. by capturing it on camera) and an interpretation is something that blends in more stuff, such as generalizations or assumptions about intent the other person’s intent.

For example, “You’re always late” and “You don’t care about my time” are interpretations, “On the last three times when we agreed to meet, you showed up 15 minutes after the agreed-upon time” is an observation.

If you can separate those, you can then go into a potentially charged conversation by transforming something like “You are always late, why don’t you care about my time” to something like “On the last three times when we agreed to meet, you showed up 15 minutes after the agreed-upon time. I found that frustrating because I made sure to be on time and could have spent that extra fifteen minutes to do something else”, which is often quite helpful.

This doesn’t mean you’d need to keep detailed records to express things as observations. If you don’t remember earlier specifics, you can just say something like “Hey you were fifteen minutes late today and I think that’s happened before too”. The main intents are to

1) avoid phrasings like “You’re always late” or “You don’t care about my time” that come across as accusatory or potentially unfair
2) be sufficiently specific that the other person understands what you’re talking about—the original NVC book has an example of a person being told “You have a big mouth” after he repeatedly started telling personal stories in the middle of meetings, but the feedback wasn’t effective because he didn’t understand what was meant by this

As long as those goals are met, it doesn’t matter even if the observations are a bit fuzzy.

NVC has this famous formula of “observation, feeling, need, request” that it recommends phrasing things in terms of—“First state the observation, then say that when that happened you felt X because you have need Y, then make a request of how you’d like the person to act differently”. But people fairly point out that it can make you sound a little robotic and it doesn’t always sound very natural.

What I use in practice is a simplified version which goes something like “State the observation, then explain what about it made you feel bad, taking care to frame things in terms of why it felt bad for you rather than making any claims about the other person’s intent or character”. (So “it feels bad to me that you’re untrustworthy” is out, “it feels bad to me when I feel like I can’t trust you” might be okay.) I don’t normally put in an explicit request at this point, because just verbalizing my experience usually leads to a conversation about it anyway.

Also, while NVC is normally taught as a way to express negative things, I’ve also found it useful to draw inspiration from it for expressing _positive_ things. For example, I told a friend, “It made me feel nice when you said [X] because I interpreted it to mean that you’re prioritizing seeing me over other things that you could do, and I appreciate that”.

Here I am mentioning an interpretation, but it’s a positive one. It could still be wrong, but a mistaken interpretation is less likely to cause upset in this situation; I’ve personally enjoyed hearing people ascribe positive interpretations to my actions even when I thought they were off. And if the other person does care about not being misinterpreted, if the interpretation is incorrect then saying this gives them a chance to correct the interpretation. (I guess that’s a thing that I’ve picked up from Circling more than NVC—that it can be prosocial to verbalize your interpretations of other people in situations where it’s unlikely to cause upset, since that gives them useful information of how they are perceived.)