The 2nd October, birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, marks the International Day of Non-Violence. Even if you don’t live in a conflict-ridden place, you’d be surprised how often in the workplace we interact in less than peaceful and respectful ways. Some organisations do indeed feel like warzones. Needless to say, hostile communication is very damaging to your bottom line, innovative capacity and key talent retention.
The late US psychologist and conflict mediator Marshall Rosenberg coined the term nonviolent communication (NVC). He proposed that everything we say or do is an attempt to fulfil our needs, often at a completely unconscious level. Whenever there is a conflict, one person is likely trying to get their needs met using “violent” (forceful) means, i.e. through inducing fear, shame, guilt, etc. You might hear, for example, a manager commenting to his high-potential team member, “I would have expected more from you.”
Rosenberg pointed out that communication becomes more successful when we observe and understand our own and others’ needs, suspend judgement and come up with authentic strategies to meet our and others’ needs. He developed a four-level process to communicate in a nonviolent, compassionate and effective way: observation, feelings, needs and requests.
Observing without judging is the highest form of human intelligence.
As humans we are hardwired to constantly evaluate our surroundings and it takes conscious effort and practice to observe facts and withhold judgement. Observable facts are what everyone who looks at it could see, e.g. a person turns up for a meeting 10 mins late or a team member speaks briefly about a delay of a high-level milestone without giving details. Habit-driven judgements are “you are rude because you are late all the time and make everyone wait.” or “Are you sure you can handle this project?” Instead, observe more, including body postures and facial expression, and use clarifying phrases such as “What I am hearing is … – is that right?” Observing without judging is a crucial step in communicating effectively and a learnable skill.
If we are not used to identifying and expressing our feelings, we can often confuse feeling with thinking –“I feel as if you are not listening…”– is such a rationalisation. Rationalised feelings may show up in the following expressions: abandoned, betrayed, harassed, rejected, overworked, bullied, patronised, manipulated, belittled, provoked etc. These are not feelings but interpretations of feelings.
How can you find out what you are feeling? A useful classification of basic emotions, according to psychologist Paul Ekman, is along the spectrum of happy, sad, angry, fearful, surprised and disgusted. Emotions are directly connected to the extent of our needs being met. Some examples of feelings that arise when our needs are being met are: happy, content, excited, proud, etc. When our needs are not being met, we might feel angry, annoyed, resentful, sad, lonely, ashamed, fearful, anxious, disgusted, etc.
Emotions also show up as body sensations, so tune into your body to identify any muscle tensions, heaviness or temperature changes. In coaching, we often use mindfulness, breathing and movement techniques to work with the body to increase self-awareness and manage emotions.
Be aware of the power of language: state the feeling the observation is triggering in you, e.g. “when I ask about xyz and you are not giving me the details (observation) I feel unsure how we are doing with the project (feeling)”.
Identify the needs at the root of feelings. Examples for universal needs are safety, connection, accomplishment… In the workplace, we might find the need “to be heard and seen”, “needing autonomy in doing the work”, “belonging to a like-minded group of people”. In the context of communication it is important to explore your own and others’ needs to reach a positive outcome. When needs are expressed through giving opinions and evaluation, others are more likely to counter-attack or become defensive. Prematurely deciding on and arguing a position is determining what you think should happen and leads to sub-optimal decision-making. Instead, express your needs directly:
“When I ask about project xyz and you are not giving me the details (observation) I feel unsure how we are doing with the project (feeling) and would need more information so I can trust we get back on track (need).
Effective requests create a commitment and shared understanding on the part of the other person and are specific, clear and unambiguous. When you make a request and the person doesn’t fulfil your request, be prepared to set boundaries or follow up with consequences. Demanding is insisting on what you want knowing the person may not be able to have any input or even say no, e.g. in unequal power structures.
“When I ask about project xyz and you are not giving me the details (observation) I feel unsure how we are doing with the project (feeling) and would need more information so I can trust we get back on track (need). Could you let me know your plan for the next 2 weeks in more detail at the end of the morning please? (request)”.
Apart from expressing your own feelings and needs and making requests, there may be times when you need to draw out other people’s needs to co-create a better solution. The process is the same and works as follows:
Observing: When you do/say _________________(state your observation).
Feeling: are you feeling ______________________ (guess the other’s emotion)?
Need: because you need _____________________(guess the other’s need).
Request: Would you like me/him/her etc. to __________________(specific action)?
NVC is a great tool for the workplace and essential for leaders and coaches. While it takes practice to replace our communication habits with more conscious ways of interacting, it has been applied in many organisational, political, educational and family settings to powerful effect.