Managing Conflict using Non-Violent Communication

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a technique employed to alleviate inter-personal conflicts. It can prevent mild verbal aggression escalating into downright physical assault. Some of us may possess an intuitive understanding of how it works but, human nature being what it is, we aren’t always inclined to stop and think before we speak. I’ve practised NVC for several years, which is fortuitous because 2023 has started at an intense pace and, with much going on within my family, my friendships, my professional life and in the area of activism with which I am involved – there is plenty of potential for conflict between all parties.  

Here’s an example of how it might work. Suppose I said to a friend, “I wouldn’t have expected that from you”, they might take umbrage and respond angrily with a prickly comment like, “Anyone would do the same in that situation”. To avoid this potentially escalating into an argument between us, psychologist Marshall Rosenburg has come up with a four stage process. Based on the proposal that everything we do or say both at a conscious and unconscious level is an attempt to fulfil our needs, conflict arises only when someone is trying to fulfil them by using ‘violent’ means, which, at the lowest level, means using negatively or emotionally charged words. Rosenburg advises thinking carefully about observation, feelings, needs and requests.

  1. Observation – the use of our senses to see and hear, but with a determined focus on what is specific to time, place and context.  Neither judge nor evaluate in the moment, as this obstructs clear thinking. (This is easier said than done, as we are hardwired to try constantly to work out what is going on.)

“Observing without judging is the highest form of human intelligence” Jiddu Krishnamurti

  1. Feelings – determining what is going on emotionally. Are you happy, sad, angry, fearful, surprised, disgusted etc?  Again, this is not as easy as it sounds, as we often describe what we are doing or thinking rather than feeling. “I feel as if you are not listening” is rationalising a thought.  (Don’t forget that emotions can show up in our body. For example, as muscles tense, our temperature changes.)
  2. Needs – what is the root of the feelings? For example, do you want to be heard, seen or involved? These are common needs. And at this stage we want to understand each other’s observations, feelings and needs. The sharing could look like this: “When I asked where we were going you were not giving me the details (observation). I feel worried about the journey (feeling) and would need more information so I can trust that we will get there safely and on time” (need).
  3. Requests – as opposed to demands. A request creates a shared understanding, though it needs to be clear, positive and specific.  Carrying on from the ‘needs’ conversation above, you might add, “Could you please let me have the journey route and timings a couple of days before we go?” (request).

What I have found most powerful about this process is that is slows everything down, thereby avoiding knee-jerk reactions, like unnecessarily cruel words and deeds.  It doesn’t always lead to a joint way ahead but, in my experience, it always leads to empathy and greater self-awareness.

Of course, there will always be disagreements and differences – life would be dull and stagnant without them – but how we prevent them getting out of control is key.  So, here’s to convivial future relations, helped along with a dash of NVC.

P.S. My fascination in this area led me recently to attend a ProcessWork 2 day course on conflict – but that’s for another blog.