Why learn NVC?

These are transcript highlights from a 2006 interview called PEACE TALKS: NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION WITH MARSHALL ROSENBERG where you can also download the 75 minute audio.

MARSHALL ROSENBERG: We’ve been living under structures that require educating people to believe that authority knows what’s right for us to do, and that it’s our job to do what authority tells us to do. If we do not, we deserve to be punished for that. If we do what authority says, we deserve to be rewarded. Now, that is a dangerous way to teach people. There’s a lot of people who claim to be authorities, and know what’s right, and have a lot of power, and can educate people to do things that I think are rather violent – like, look at other people as enemies. We can be educated to think we have to punish them, because the authorities tell us these people are bad. That kind of thinking is, for me, very dangerous. I wanted to do what I could to show people another way of thinking and communicating that I think is more natural and more conducive to everybody getting their needs met peacefully.

SUZANNE KRYDER: So, Marshall, you suggest that the process you have outlined removes a lot of this propensity towards violence. Why don’t you just start by going over the four steps in the NVC process?

ROSENBERG: The four steps are, basically, two steps. The process is designed to help us answer two questions. What is alive in us? Now, that is not new. Every culture I work in – and I work with many, throughout the world – when they get together, the first thing they ask is, “what’s alive in you?” They do not say those words. In English-speaking countries, they say it this way, “how are you?” French-speaking countries, “Comment allez-vous” Spanish, “¿Cómo está usted?” Rwanda, “Mumeze mute?” It is a natural question: to care about how people are.

So, nonviolent communication says, “let’s learn how to be honest about how we are, not tell each other what we think the other person is, but how we are.” That is one of the central questions of nonviolent communication. The other, central question is, “what would make life more wonderful?” Nonviolent communication tries to connect us with other people, so they see what is alive in us and what would make life more wonderful. We can see what is alive in them and what would make life more wonderful for them. My experience has been that, when people can connect at that level, whatever the conflict, they can find ways of resolving it in which everybody’s needs get met peacefully. People give to one another from the heart, willingly. There are four pieces of information that we need to know how to exchange, in order to make it clear to people what’s alive in us and what would make life more wonderful.

KRYDER: Break it down. What are the steps that make it alive, and what are the steps that refer to wonderful?

ROSENBERG: First, tell people, specifically, what they are doing that is, or is not, contributing to our well-being. Be very specific about that; do not mix in any diagnosis or analysis. We call that a clear observation.

INGLES: The Observation Step.

ROSENBERG: Once we have done that, we are honest with people, but honest from the heart, telling them what is alive in us. That, more specifically, is how we feel. We connect our feelings to our needs. Then, we follow that up with the other question: what would make life more wonderful? We answer that with a very clear request, not using any fuzzy language. Exactly what would we like back from that person, at this moment, in response to what we have said, in response to the fact that some of our needs are not being met by their behavior?

INGLES: Having established how you are feeling about a given communication and linking that feeling with a need that is not being met?


INGLES: This is really a critical step. Why is it so hard, do you think?

ROSENBERG: Because we have been educated, for a long time, to fit within domination structures: to do what authority says. When you want people to be nice, dead people and do what authority says, the last thing you want them to be conscious of is the life within them. You cannot make a good slave out of somebody who is fully alive. The last thing you want to teach people, if you want a domination structure, is for them to be in touch with their needs. You ought to teach them that the highest value is not a need to express their needs. “Needs” means you are needy, selfish, dependent, egotistical. Loving women have no needs; they suppress their needs, for their family. Brave men have no needs; they are willing to lose their lives for the king. That is why we do not know what our needs are. I went to schools for twenty-one years. Not only was I never asked what I was feeling; I certainly was never asked what my needs were!

KRYDER: Give us a list of maybe the top five or seven generic, human needs.

ROSENBERG: Let me give you all nine of them, because, according to the Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, we only have about nine needs. Needs are very important to Max-Neef, because his whole, economic system is based on human needs. How do we measure them, so we really gauge our economy, its success, on the meeting of human needs – and not the tragic way we have been measuring it?

The first one he calls, “sustenance:” food, shelter, and water – the basic, physical needs. Next, “safety:” protection. Next, “love.” Next, “understanding.” Next, “community.” Next, “recreation:” play, rest; he lumps those as one. Then, one of the most important needs of all, “autonomy.” Look in the newspaper on any, given day and see how many wars are going on over that need. Human beings have a strong need to be in charge of their own lives, to not have somebody claiming to know what they have to do or should do. Anybody who says that to them, it threatens his or her autonomy. You see all the wars going on between nations. Listen in on any family with children. You will hear autonomy wars. “It’s time to go wash up for bed.” “No, I don’t wanna.” “Did you hear me?” “No!” See? An autonomy war. Another need, “creativity.” Then, according to Victor Frankl, probably the most important need of all, a need for “meaning:” purpose in life. How sad, how few people on the planet are getting that need met. They are educated to misrepresent needs, according to Michael Lerner. We have been educated to misrepresent our needs. We have been educated to think we have a need to consume, a need for money, a need for status – not realizing those are not needs.

INGLES: It is hard to overcome what I call common interchanges in speech. You talk it in one area of your book. We tend to want to jump in with advice. We want to say, “you know, that happened to me once . . .” and start telling a story. It seems so common, to offer advice, because you think people are asking for it.

ROSENBERG: Yes. My children really gave me a good lesson on this. They taught me never to give them advice, unless I received a request, in writing, signed by a lawyer. (audience laughter) It is not easy. When somebody says something, especially if what they’re saying is something we don’t believe or agree with, we want to jump in and correct them, or, we want to defend ourselves: all of which is not the best way to connect with that person. We show, as hard as it is, how to take a deep breath and, if you’re not able to do this right away, at least see what’s going on inside of you. Give yourself enough empathy to see what is triggered in you. Learn how to do that to yourself, so that you can, then, put your full attention on the other person.

When I was first learning how to do this, it was not easy. All those things you said were coming into your head were coming into mine. One day, I was having a little disagreement with my oldest son. He said something. Right away, I could not just hear his feelings and needs. I started to get angry. I started to have a desire to teach him a lesson. I had to take a deep breath, see all that going on in me, before I could start hearing his feelings and needs. Then, he said something else, and I had the same problem. I started to react, again. This was taking me awhile: to stop and get clear. Meanwhile, his friends were waiting for him outside. Finally, he got impatient. He said, “Daddy, it’s taking you so long to talk!” I said, “let me tell you what I can say quickly: do it my way, or I’ll kick your butt!” He said, “Take your time, Dad. Take your time.”

KRYDER: Let’s talk, for a moment, about anger. You devote an entire chapter in your book to expressing anger fully. We have heard that anger should not stay bottled up. How do you let it out in an appropriate way?

ROSENBERG: When you are angry, shut up, until you come back to life. You come back to life when you are conscious that you are not angry at what the other person did. You are angry because of the thinking that is racing through your head. We show people how to identify that thinking and then quickly translate it into the truth: the need that is not being met. When you are in touch with your needs, you cannot be angry. You will have strong feelings: fear, frustration, sadness, but not anger. Then, you are connected to life. Then, when you open your mouth, you are fully expressing what is going on in you.

INGLES: There are so many applications to what you are just describing. I found the example of the environmental activists, in your book, channeling their anger into empathy and specific requests, as an interesting example. This might also have application to political discourse, as well. It sounds like you’re saying that a lot of the anger expressed openly at politicians, or companies, doesn’t have much of a chance of getting an activist’s needs met, really, if it’s just expressed in anger.

ROSENBERG: We show people involved in social change that, if you really want to create change, we have to get rid of enemy images that make us angry. Realize that all of those enemy images are tragic representations of our needs. The idea is not to go out and punish bad guys. If we really are scared about what is happening, let us go and trust that these people have the same needs that we do. Let us show them other ways of getting everybody’s needs met that are more effective and less costly.