psychology

A practical approach to non-violent communication (NVC)


We talk a lot about radical candor here, which outlines four very different circumstances in which feedback is given, but when it comes to actually giving the feedback – how the conversation will actually go, we’ve been a little silent.

One approach to giving feedback was invented by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960’s, and is referred to as non-violent communication. In a professional context, it goes something like this.

Most feedback given comes with a lot of judgement on personal capability and attributes. Here is some violent ways of giving feedback.

  1. “You’re not good enough when it comes to visual design. It’s just not up to standard.”
  2. “The budget you drafted is too complicated. No one will understand it.”
  3. “There isn’t enough boxes in the warehouse – you need to really work harder.”

We might see some of these phrases as simply being direct, but when we break them down, there is violence in their words. Let’s take a look in more detail.

A breakdown of violence

In the first example, what makes the sentence destructive is that the speaker is saying someone is not good enough when it comes to visual design. But what is good enough? How good must one be to be good? The feedback here isn’t very specific, so we’re left to believe that what is really not good, isn’t my visual design skills but me. Maybe I am not good enough?

The second example seems objective. The budget is complicated. No one will understand it. This appears to be feedback given by someone who thinks no one will understand it – but how do we know? Has anyone asked if it’s complicated? Perhaps this persons insight is misguided. Maybe my budget needs to be this comprehensive, and if someone can’t understand it, that doesn’t make it complicated – it just makes them not the right people to comment on the issue.

In the third example, the comment that someone needs to work harder, comes from a place that assumes I’m not working hard. And maybe hard work has nothing to do with how many boxes end up in the warehouse. Only by going a little deeper can we get to the real issue.

A lot of these comments come across as moralistic judgments, implying wrongness. Things like blame, insults and comparisons are all forms of judgements. The good news is there is a different path, and it’s easy enough to learn.


How NVC works

There are four elements of a conversation that need to be met, in order for it to be considered NVC. Using NVC allows us to articulate unmet needs, while avoiding any kind of judgement, and improving performance without resorting to the dreaded ‘sandwich’. This means people can absorb the feedback better, action it, while maintaining a relationship that is built on mutual respect.

Observation

Here we need to point out the facts. What do we see and hear, that are seperate from our evaluation of meaning. You need to discourage generalisations and get to specific things you’ve seen. So instead of “There isn’t enough boxes in the warehouse,” we might say, “the goal is to have 100 boxes in the warehouse, but I notice when I come into the office in the mornings, there is only 85.”

You’ll notice we place no blame here. We simply state our observations.

Feelings

Feelings are where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and express our experiences of the problem free from story. Our feelings should also be free from judgement of ourselves, or how we might think others perceive us. It is therefore not useful to feel inadequate or unimportant, or misunderstood, as those all contain elements of judgement.

Instead, we are sad. When we are first introduced to the idea of non-judgemental feelings, it can be hard to think of words that best describe our emotional state without judgement, but only because we are so used to using negative terms. Here are some examples of feelings when our needs are not met, without judgement. They appear when we are…

AfraidVulnerableAngry
apprehensive
fragileenraged
mistrustfulguardedfurious
frightenedhelplessincensed
forebodinginsecureindignant

This entire list is worth reviewing as it gives an elaborate vocabulary to circumstances we may be feeling.

When we express our emotional state we might say something like,

The goal is to have 100 boxes in the warehouse, but I notice when I come into the office in the mornings, there is only 85. This makes me very frightened and insecure about our quarterly objectives.”

Now we have outlined both our observations, and how those observations make us feel.

Needs

Next we point out our needs. This is where we point out a basic need but not a particular strategy to have that need met. To add to the previous example;

The goal is to have 100 boxes in the warehouse, but I notice when I come into the office in the mornings, there is only 85. This makes me very frightened and insecure about our quarterly objectives. What I need is to know with confidence that each morning, we’ll have the right level of boxes in the warehouse.”

Request

Finally we get to the request for a specific action that is totally free of demand. Demands are different to requests in that when someone makes a request, they must be open to hearing “no” without triggering an attempt to push the other person on the issue.

Although no isn’t a signal for combat, this isn’t to say that when you hear no, you should give up.

In those cases, we suggest you get to the heart of the reason the other person is saying no, and empathise with their position. Perhaps the reason they are prevented from saying yes is a small matter that you can deal with.

When making a request, use clear, positive and straight-forward action language. To round off our example;

Observation – “The goal is to have 100 boxes in the warehouse, but I notice when I come into the office in the mornings, there is only 85.”

Feelings – “This makes me very frightened and insecure about our quarterly objectives.”

Needs – “What I need is to know with confidence that each morning, we’ll have the right level of boxes in the warehouse.”

Request – “Would you be willing to check at 9am, that the warehouse has the right level of boxes, and if not, rectify it before 9.30am when everyone gets in?”


Have you tried NVC in your team? If so, let us know what you thought below. Or if you feel like really helping your teams raise the important issues together, give OHNO a try.

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