The 4 principles of nonviolent communication

What is nonviolent communication?

Nonviolent Communication is a communication method based on the principle of conflict resolution… or at least conflict avoidance! This technique from Marshall Rosenberg is inspired by the nonviolence philosophy of Martin Luther King. The 4 principles of nonviolent communication teach us to assertively express our feelings, needs, and expectations from others, in order to make our life better. They also teach us to react with empathy toward aggression.

It is the story of a dispute

I am not a violent type of person when I communicate. I even think I have a good sense of empathy. However, a recent event led me to review the basics of nonviolent communication to better manage some of my interactions with people.

I have recently been involved in a dispute with a man who lives in the same building as me. He was in the garden to practice his « air-golf » techniques (the art of hitting a golf ball that does not exist). I was in the garden too, with my husband and cat.

The man had put his earphones on the garden table and the earphones were dangling freely. All cat owners can guess where I am going with that… When you have a cat, NOTHING should dangle! Otherwise, it is the cat’s mission to catch it (and ultimately destroy it).

Our cat approached the earphones and touched them with a paw. I intervened immediately to grab my cat. The story should have ended here.

But the man got upset and had a violent gesture toward the cat. THAT WAS TOO MUCH. I will skip the details and go straight to the conclusion of the discussion. I concluded it with classy, elegant, and fine words: “You ASS***!“.

No wonder why we never became friends with this man and never trusted each other…

The principles of nonviolent communication

Marshall B. Rosenberg was an American psychologist who designed a simple approach to nonviolent communication in his book called « Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion ».  


His book introduces communication techniques used in psychology, especially in the field of couple and family therapies. The goal of nonviolent communication is to maintain or improve our relationships in general: with a spouse, at work, with friends, family, cat molesters, etc.

This conflict-reduction methodology consists of the following 4 principles of nonviolent communication. It requires using compassion and to listen to our emotions and inner needs that we may not always be aware of.

It is therefore the opposite of the use of judgment, which creates defensive and violent responses instead of compassion.  

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

Martin Luther King
What Martin Luther King could have said: “don’t mess with my cat! 😉

The 4 principles of nonviolent communication

Principle 1 – Observing the situation

When witnessing a revolting situation, let’s take the time to observe the situation before losing our temper. And let’s keep in mind that it is not the other person that annoys us, but the situation.

No judgment. No generalization (you are ALWAYS…, he is NEVER…). Without critics, there is no defense response.

An Indian philosopher once said that « the ability to observe without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence ». I agree with this quote. It is so much easier to judge people rather than to show compassion!

Here are examples of observations:

  • The dishes are piling up in the sink
  • My colleague/ friend is 30 minutes late
  • A man mimics a violent gesture toward my cat and raises his voice with me

These are facts.

Principle 2 – Identifying the feelings arising from the situation

Let’s wait a bit longer before losing our temper and let’s take the time to identify the feeling that arises within us. It is important not to keep emotions within us. Unexpressed feelings may one day « explode », like a pressure cooker that accumulated too many untold feelings.

Here are examples of expressed feelings:

  • I feel upset… to have to clean the dishes after a long day at work
  • I feel that my colleague/ friend has low consideration of me
  • I feel afraid that the man hurts my cat

Principle 3 – Identifying the needs to be met

According to me, this is the most difficult part. It consists of identifying the root cause of the problem, without accusing ourselves or others!

Often, when we get carried away, we consider that all the wrongs and harms are caused by others. The reality is that we get upset because the other person did not meet our needs. The key is therefore to identify our needs (and to express them).

It may seem simple, but it is not always the case. Do not tell me I am the only one who sometimes gets upset without knowing why?!

It is a real introspective work to identify the root cause of our feelings!

For example:

  • I need to have a clean and tidy house
  • I need to be shown respect for my work/ who I am
  • I need my cat to be safe in the garden

Principle 4 – Expressing a clear request that will make my life better

Now that we have identified our needs, it is time to express them! Simple, isn’t it? Once again, beware of not blaming others while doing so.

Personal note: in couple relationships, I thought the goal was NOT to express our needs and wait for the other one to guess them. Isn’t it? Oh ok, my bad” 😉

When the request is expressed clearly and with compassion, it creates a compassionate response. Ideally, the request is positive: what needs to be done instead of what should not be done. The request includes concrete actions.

Here are examples of clear expressions of needs:

  • I would like you to help me clean the dishes on the days I come back late from work
  • I would like you to be on time to our meetings or to let me know sufficiently in advance when you cannot make it on time.
  • I would like you to stay calm with my cat and to call me if necessary.

Let’s summarize

Instead of triggering a couple of fights due to the piling up of the dishes in the sink for the last week, we could say…

… “The dishes have been piling up in the sink for a week (fact). I feel upset (feeling) as I need the house to be clean and tidy (need). Can we establish a schedule to clean the dishes? (Request)

What if I am verbally assaulted?

We may give the best of ourselves; we sometimes get verbally assaulted without asking for it!

The above 4 principles of nonviolent communication still apply but they require to practice the use of empathy. When we listen with empathy, we learn to hear the feelings, needs, and requests from others. The goal is to help the other person express them clearly by using rephrasing or reformulation techniques.

Example from a real-life situation

Instead of calling the man an “ass***” when he molested my cat and raised his voice with me, I could have said…

… “when my cat touched your earphones, you mimicked a violent gesture toward him, and you now raise your voice with me. (Fact). It looks like you feel angry (Feeling) Could you please explain to me the reasons for it? (Question to identify the needs)

Let’s assume the man wanted to practice air-golf in peace and does not like cats.

“I hear that you need to practice your activity without being disturbed and that you do not feel comfortable with cats [Rephrasing the feeling and need].  Would you feel more comfortable if I took my cat home during the time you practice golf? [Asking for confirmation/ rephrasing of the request]

And that’s it! Not only would I have earned the peace of mind to know my cat in a safe place, but on top of that, I would have initiated a constructive dialogue with this man.

Being compassionate is to have honest intentions!

Nonviolent communication is to be used without irony!

For example, if I had made fun of the fact that the man practices “air-golf” and that he is afraid of cats, all this with a smile on my lips, it would not have worked. Intentions need to be honest!

Nonviolent communication also works with our inner voice

Our inner speech can sometimes be violent without us realizing it: I am stupid, I am worthless, I can never do…, I always react this way, etc.

It is possible to change our inner speech by following the 4 principles of nonviolent communication:

  • 1/ What are the facts?  E.g.: my boss refused to give me a raise 
  • 2/ What are my feelings? E.g.: I feel that I am not valued as highly as I should be  
  • 3/ What needs have to be met? E.g.: I need to know that my boss appreciates the efforts I put at work, even if things are not perfect
  • 4/ What request would help restore a state of wellbeing? E.g.: I would like to have a chat with my boss to know what he likes about my work and how I could improve it. I would also like to know the reason why he refused to give me a raise (maybe it has nothing to do with me!)

It is very important to restore a nonviolent inner speech. How can we be compassionate with others when we are not compassionate with ourselves!?

If you see a bit of yourself in this description, then ask yourself: what are the unmet needs that nourish your inner voice?

Enjoy the introspection! 😉  

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