Nonviolent Communication: Mutual Giving from the Heart

An interview with Myra Walden
[Simon Watson/Getty Images]

Many of us have been brought up in environments where competition, judgment, demands and criticism are the communicative norm; at best these habitual ways of thinking and speaking hinder communication and create misunderstanding and frustration in others and ourselves. Still worse, they cause anger and pain and may even lead to violence. Even with the best intentions, we can generate needless conflict. The system of Nonviolent Communication or NVC, developed by Marshall Rosenberg and others at the Center for Nonviolent Communication in the US, begins by assuming we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies, whether verbal or physical, are learned behaviors, supported by the prevailing culture. NVC helps people learn how to communicate effectively with each other so that their lives and relationships are transformed. Here, psychotherapist and NVC trainer Myra Walden talks about her experience of teaching NVC and how it has transformed her own life and those of the people she works with.

SGI Quarterly: What blocks the flow of communication in the normal course of everyday life?

Myra Walden: We believe that the way in which we have been accustomed to think blocks the flow of mutual giving from the heart. Most of us have learned patterns of communication that block compassion. Some examples of these might be blaming, "It's your fault that we're late"; diagnosing, "She's just lazy"; denial of responsibility, "I lied to the client because my boss told me to"; words that deny choice and imply wrongness, "You should visit your elderly mother more often"; comparisons, "Your sister always gets better grades than you"; demands, "Go to bed, now"; and the concept of deserving, "Terrorists deserve to die."

SGIQ: What practical steps can one take to improve communication?

MW: I suggest that you learn to pay attention to your speech, especially when you are unhappy with another person. When expressing yourself, refer to what the other person said or did without evaluating their actions. For example, rather than saying, "When you insult me. . .," say, "When you call me inconsiderate. . ." In the latter expression, you are simply quoting the other person without interpreting the words as "insulting." Also, practice identifying and expressing your needs and acknowledging other people's needs. For example, if you are unhappy with how many things you have to do, identify and express your need for help: "I'm overwhelmed. I need help. Would you be willing to come in at 6 pm to help me set up the room?" If your supervisor has a sharp tone of voice during a meeting, try to guess and express her need: "I'm guessing you need more cooperation on this project. Is this true?" I believe that this practice alone can improve communication greatly because it promotes mutual understanding and heart-to-heart connection. We can all relate to the need for understanding, support or cooperation, for instance, because we all have these needs. Needs create the common ground where people in conflict can meet.

Some pointers for Nonviolent Communication

• What others do may be the stimulus of our feelings but not the cause.
• Expressing our vulnerability can help resolve conflicts.
• If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met.
• If we don't value our needs, others may not either.
• Classifying and judging people promotes violence.
• Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.
• Behind intimidating messages are simply people appealing to us to meet their needs.
• When we combine observation with evaluation, people are apt to hear criticism.
• The cause of anger lies in our thinking--in thoughts of blame or judgment.
• When the other person hears a demand from us, they see two options: submit or rebel.
• Empathizing with someone's "no" protects us from taking it personally.
• Empathize with silence by listening for the feelings and needs behind it.

From Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. See

SGIQ: How do we stop ourselves, when we receive negative messages, either taking them personally--hearing blame and criticism--or blaming others?

MW: Get in the habit of bypassing what people think of you. Go directly to the feelings and needs underlying their criticism or blame. It's a great way to protect ourselves from messages that can diminish self-respect if taken personally. If you find yourself getting upset, take time out to connect with your own feelings and needs. In addition, cultivate a practice that helps you connect with the compassion within you every day. I need to be connected to compassion in order to meet challenges without violence. My practice is to meditate in the morning and evening. Some connect with their compassionate self through music, nature or inspirational readings, for example.

SGIQ: What is the difference between making a demand and making a request?

MW: When we make a request, we are open to hearing "no." If the other person does not want to do as we request, we are able to respond with empathy. We may choose to ask another person to help meet our need. But if we want to continue the dialogue with the first person, we will seek to connect with him or her until we can find a strategy that accommodates his or her needs as well as ours. We can differentiate a request from a demand by paying attention to our reaction when we hear "no." If we hear "no" and still maintain connection with the other, then it was likely a true request.

Nonviolent communication workshop

SGIQ: When is it in fact appropriate to listen to someone, to empathize with their situation, as opposed to attempting to "solve" their problem for them? When we listen, what should we look out for?

MW: When someone shares a painful experience, my rule of thumb is to empathize always. I assume that the person is seeking understanding. I stay in empathic presence until the person is visibly relieved. The words come to a halt, and there is relaxation of the facial expression and posture. At this point, if I sense that the person wants something else, I ask. When listening empathically, listen with a silent mind and an open heart. Try to connect with the person's feelings and needs. For example, if someone says to you, "My boyfriend is being deployed to Afghanistan," connect with the person's heart. If you want to make sure you are connecting, you may ask, "Do you fear for his safety?"

SGIQ: The courageous use of empathy can help defuse a potentially violent situation. Do you have any examples of this in your own life?

MW: A few months ago, I was in my office at the community mental health center where I work. I heard someone scream at the top of his lungs, "Leave me alone!" He proceeded to swear and curse loudly. I waited for a couple of minutes thinking that this would pass, but it didn't, so I went to the office where the screaming was coming from and asked the woman watching the door if I could go inside, because I thought I might be able to help in this situation due to my training in NVC. Although she was initially reluctant because a crisis worker, a doctor and the father of the young man were already in the office, she eventually agreed to my request. When inside the room, I sat on the floor and asked, "Are you angry because you want to be treated with respect?" To my surprise, the young man listened to me and was suddenly quiet. At that point, I asked if everyone would leave the room so I could talk with the young man one-on-one. Although the others in the room expressed concern for my safety, they agreed with my request at that point. After ample silent time and continued attempts to connect, he spoke to me. Later on, the doctor and the father came back in, and the session ended peacefully. This is an example of a case where I was able to use NVC to intervene in a potentially violent situation and help resolve it peacefully.

From emotional slavery to emotional liberation

First stage: We see ourselves as responsible for others' feelings.
Second stage: We feel angry; we no longer want to be responsible for others' feelings.
Third stage: Emotional liberation--we take responsibility for our intentions and actions.

SGIQ: How does empathy help heal?

MW: When someone receives our suffering quietly, openheartedly and without judgment, we are able to open ourselves to our pain. We experience it fully, release it, and in so doing, we heal. Clarity emerges, and we gain access to inner wisdom.

SGIQ: In nonviolent philosophy, anger is not an emotion to be suppressed; it is in fact to be acknowledged but expressed in a responsible way. How can we use our anger constructively for dialogue?

MW: We use anger constructively when we take time to release the thoughts that are causing our anger and to identify the needs that are not met in a given situation--rather than reacting out of anger.

Underlying anger, there is always judging and blaming. In the privacy of our minds, we give airtime to judging and blaming, such as, "I can't stand this idiot! How dare he talk to me like that! Ah, the arrogance. . .," or, "It's her fault that we are in this predicament. When will she learn?!" When we become aware that this is how we are thinking, then we can endeavor to identify and connect with unmet needs in the situation. Perhaps we need more respect, consideration and trust from the other person.

From a place of connection with our needs, we can begin the dance of Nonviolent Communication, expressing ourselves vulnerably and receiving the other person empathically. We trust that this dance leads to heart connection, where solutions can arise that meet everyone's needs.

SGIQ: How has this work on nonviolence enriched your own life?

MW: NVC has enriched my life in important ways. Employing NVC processes to address life's challenges increases my sense of peace and freedom. Identifying and connecting with the needs underlying the actions of others has brought greater harmony to my personal and professional relationships. For these reasons, sharing Nonviolent Communication fills my life with passion and meaning.

SGIQ: Marshall Rosenberg writes, "The more you become a connoisseur of gratitude, the less you are a victim of resentment, depression and despair. Gratitude will act as an elixir that will gradually dissolve the hard shell of your ego, your need to possess and control, and transform you into a generous being. . ." Why is gratitude so important?

MW: Gratitude helps us become more aware and enjoy the wonderful things in our lives--being alive, having fresh water to drink and friends who support us, the beauty of nature, to name a few. With a grateful heart, we naturally want to contribute to the well-being of others and of the planet. Gratitude is powerful fuel that can promote effective social change.

Myra Walden is cofounder of the Institute for Empowering Communication: For more information on Nonviolent Communication, see