It’s a sobering thought that a person might respond differently to a situation not just because they have a different opinion about what to do or are in possession of different knowledge, but because their experience of the situation is fundamentally different. Morally, it encourages us to go beyond the ancient advice to ‘know thyself’ which can lead to excessive introspection, and to strive to know others. And to do that requires that we open ourselves up to the possibility that their experiences may be quite different from our own.Gary Lupyan - Professor of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he researches the effects of language on cognition.
What most affects the quality of our lives? It is our relationships with others. What supports and nurtures these relationships? It is how we build connection through communication and language.
In this article I explore how adopting the tools of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can help secular Buddhists foster stronger relationships and use greater skill within our practice of right speech. A factor of the Eight-Fold path, right speech (true, kind, helpful and contextually appropriate expression) is supported by the wise and compassionate communication strategies found in NVC.
The purpose of mindful language is to create understanding with others through deeper awareness and sensitivity. NVC, being the language of life, of connection and of awareness, helps us cultivate the mutual empathy and discernment necessary to connect across our differences, especially within conflicts. It does so is by helping us meet our needs and the needs of others, with both empathy and skill.
The ultimate goal of NVC is for everyone to be heard, understood, and have their needs considered. This enriches relationships, helps mitigate disputes and builds bridges across differences.
NVC is a communication process created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in the late 1960’s to resolve the conflicts found within people (negative self-talk), within relationships, and within societies. Dr. Rosenberg used the Jackal to symbolize dominant and aggressive speech, and the Giraffe to symbolize big hearted and compassionate language.
Without using NVC, our everyday language can often be, even subtly, coercive and manipulative (all of which may lead to various forms of violence). Such Jackal language deals with judgements and demands – it is a reactive and one-way communication style that drives disconnection. What we think is true and timely may still be laden with subtle righteousness and pressure. On the other hand, NVC is responsive. It relates our feelings to our needs, and these needs to requests instead of demands. In short, it builds connection.
In any interaction, NVC consists of 4 questions that will guide a conversation to a more satisfactory outcome:
- What happened?
- How do I feel about that?
- Why do I feel this way?
- Where do we to from here?
What happened? – observation vs. evaluation
In any interaction where there is friction, we need to figure out what happened (that which did not contribute to our wellbeing): we make an observation, as opposed to an evaluation. An observation is what we see that is clear, factual and, most importantly, free of judgement – that is Giraffe language. Evaluations are biased and subjective, judgmental, and they often generalize: they are Jackal speech.
For example: A Dinner invitation is for 5 p.m. and the guest shows up at 6:
Jackal: Wow, Finally, you show up! Bravo, you’re late again, as always, like you don’t care…
Giraffe: I’m glad you’re here, but we agreed to meet at 5 p.m. and you arrived at 6.
How do I feel about that?
This is when we look inside ourself, at the sensation/emotion that we’re feeling right in the moment in relation to what we just observed. A true feeling is free of story add-ons.
When our needs are met, our feelings are usually positive (e.g. eager, joyous, engaged). When our needs are not met, they are negative (e.g. puzzled, miffed, bereft). In NVC, the other person is never responsible for our feelings: Feelings arise from within ourselves vis-à-vis our own met or unmet needs.
Jackal feelings: ‘When you showed up late, I felt let down, betrayed and abandoned.’ These are faux-feelings, as they imply blame, accusation, manipulation, guilt and judgement.
Giraffe would express her actual true inner feelings, without blame or criticism: ‘When you showed up late, I felt sad, worried, scared and confused.’
Why do I feel like that about what happened? What are my needs and values?
When we connect to our feelings, it helps us identify which of our needs and values are met or not met. We all have universal human needs and values; in a nutshell, these consist of basic physiology, safety, love and belonging, esteem, meaning and purpose.
Using the late dinner guest example, Giraffe would express her needs as they relate to her feelings: ‘We agreed to meet at 5, but you arrived at 6 (observation), so I felt sad, worried and confused (feelings), because I really value punctuality, safety and consideration (needs).’
Where do we go from here – Making a request
We have made an unbiased and clear observation, we have connected to the feelings that arose out of that interaction, and we linked these feelings to the needs and values that are important to us. The last step of the NVC process is the making of a request to help us fulfill these unmet needs.
Requests are not demands. They are negotiations about what would make our life richer and more wonderful, as well as that of the other person.
A request offers a strategy to meet a need, and for every need, there are 10,000 strategies that can be employed. We tend to get fixated on two or three strategies, and often these are demands.
A request is a clear, concrete and positive action that we would like to see taken. It gives the other person the chance to assess their own feelings and needs, as well as the option of saying ‘No’ to the request, without worrying about reprisals. The goal is to find a way forward where both people’s needs are met by way of connection.
When we hear a ‘No’ to our request, we are prompted to listen with empathy, to find out what is alive in the other person, what is preventing a ‘Yes’, and what would make the other person’s life more wonderful with a different request. Requests translate proposed solutions and strategies into positive action language.
A demand leaves no room for empathy, understanding or connection: ‘It’s annoying that you’re always late. Do something about it!’ It is a Jackal strategy.
A Giraffe request considers the needs of everyone: ‘When we agree to meet again, would you be willing to call me to let me know that you’re running late?’
Jackal: ‘No! I don’t want to call you while I’m driving!’
Giraffe: ‘Sure, sounds like you value safety and caution, right?’ (empathy guess of Jackal’s needs).
New adjusted request: ‘Would you be willing to text me safely ahead of time instead?’. And so on until a mutually beneficial solution is found.
One word of encouragement: NVC works best when twinned with the ABCs of mindfulness: Arriving to a conversation fully grounded (presence); Breathing in curiosity (intention); and Connecting with what really matters (attention). It is much easier to work with NVC when we are calm and balanced, so practicing with small scenarios will help build the muscle to eventually engage in more difficult conversations. As with any practice, putting in the time is well worth it.
As you see, NVC handsomely reflects the framework of right speech, as it seeks truth, compassion, mutual support and timely resolutions. Please check out any of the listed references below if you wish to learn more about it.
Rosenberg, Marshall. Living Nonviolent Communication, Sounds True Inc, 2012
Sofer, Oren. Say What You Mean, Shambala Publications, 2018.
Sofer, Oren. Wise Speech’ online course, 2023.
Bond, Thom, Compassion Course’ online, 2021
New York Center for Nonviolent Communication: https://www.nycnvc.org/