The Non-Violent Communication (NVC) Mindfulness Connection

Posted by on Dec 6, 2016


Marshall Rosenberg, Author of Non-Violent Communication

When I was first given Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-Violent Communication, (NVC) 12 years ago, it sat on my bookshelf, tucked between at least 25 books on Buddhism, mindfulness, and spiritual awakening, for over a year.  I had the mindset that I would “get around to it,” but if I was honest, I also thought that the book, given its title, somehow didn’t apply to me.  I didn’t see myself as violent, and therefore, I didn’t feel a rush to read it.  I also didn’t see its connection to the books that surrounded it.   Eventually I would come to realize the deep connection between NVC and mindfulness, and I would see NVC for what it actually is- a spiritual practice. 

Suppression vs. Losing It:

I’ve struggled with communicating since childhood.  I would swing between suppressing myself and lashing out, a pattern that I seemed to have little control over.  I kept thinking there had to be some middle ground between being a doormat and losing my temper.  That middle ground proved to be quite elusive, and the extremes fed each other.  The more I was a doormat the angrier I got and the angrier I got the more I lost my temper.  This often led to me feeling ashamed of myself, and I would find myself being a doormat again.  It was a vicious cycle.

As a therapist observing the way couples communicated, it was easier.  I could usually see both sides and feel compassion for the two people sitting in my office, appreciating their attempts to communicate in a better way for the survival of their relationship.  Even though I could feel compassion for both people as the observer generally free of my own personal entanglement, I noticed it was difficult for the couple to do so.  They were entrenched in their own pain- in who was right and who was wrong- and were looking for validation of their point of view which their partner was reluctant to give as that seemed to negate his/her own.

The NVC Mindfulness Connection:

One day I was scouring my bookshelf for something to read that would help soothe the pain of “losing it,” and there was Non-Violent Communication, poking out as if to say, “Choose me!”  This time the title struck me differently.  I could see the violence in my own communication, and the emotional pain that was inflicted on myself and others when I was caught in the doormat/losing it cycle.  In my work with couples it was there too – so often the pain people came in to talk about was inflicted by words as well as actions.  I started to read.  When I finished it, I felt as though I had been given an incredible gift.  Finally, someone had written down and clearly explained how to communicate in a way that honored both myself and others.  The genius of the book was that it outlined a concrete, teachable skill, and that it was pointing to a consciousness that promoted peace, compassion, inter-connectedness, presence, and non-judgment- the same consciousness that was cultivated through mindfulness.   Through my own experience as well as my experience working with others, I have found it very difficult to use NVC without the support of a mindfulness practice.  They are like 2 beams supporting a roof.  If you take one away, the roof is going to come crashing down. So what exactly is mindfulness, and what is NVC?  How are they connected?

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, has distilled the definition to be, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  Mindfulness slows everything down so that we can actually pay attention to all the layers of what is going on, internally and externally.  In our lives there is this urge to rush through everything, to get to the next “better” moment, the moment where we will feel happy or find some peace.  The problem with this way of thinking is that when we rush through the majority of our life, we miss it.  We’re not actually there, experiencing what is happening.  Mindfulness is practiced by focusing one’s attention on something in the present moment, usually the breath, and returning to that over and over when the attention wanders.  This practice strengthens our ability to have access to the part of our brain that knows NVC, especially when we are emotionally overwhelmed.

What is NVC?

Empathy and HonestyNon-Violent Communication has 4 components:

1) Observation (o)

2) Feeling (f)

3) Need/Value (n)

4) Request (r)

NVC strives to create compassionate communication by eliminating judgment, connecting feelings to needs instead of to other people’s behavior, and exploring options for different ways of behaving (requests) that would reduce conflict and promote harmony for all involved.

From Reaction to Conscious Response:

Often, our way of being in the world is: 1) something happens that is upsetting and 2) we react.  Person A did B which caused me to do or feel C.   There isn’t a lot of self-awareness going on.   There’s usually a thought, a surge of emotional energy, and then a reaction.  The whole process happens so quickly that it’s over before we know what happened.  Mindfulness slows this process down and has us examine the belief system fueling the thought, the emotional charge, and the reaction.  NVC gives us the structure to communicate what we have noticed and what is essential for the conflict to be resolved.

Let’s look at a concrete example:

It’s first thing in the morning, not my best time of day, and I’m trying to get my 7 year-old son to school on time.  We’ve actually made it out the door and I think I’m in the clear.  Then I’m thrown off- he’s not making a bee-line to the car like I think he should be.  Instead, he’s stopped to look at something on the ground.  I immediately lash out, “Let’s go!  Get in the car!”  My tone is harsh, authoritarian.  Instead of getting in the car, he looks at me, clearly hurt, and starts to cry.  “I was just looking at this ant!”  He says indignantly, and he sits down.  Through my unconscious reaction I’ve created the very thing I was hoping to avoid, and now we really are going to be late.

The Mindfulness/NVC intersection:

1)    Observe what’s happening. My son is looking at an ant.  I didn’t actually know that because I had not taken the time to pay attention to what he was doing- other than to note it was not what I thought he “should” be doing.  This makes me aware of my judgment.  I notice my thoughts: “He’s slow, why can’t he just get in the car, we’re going to be late.  I’m going to get that annoying call from the school saying he was tardy.”  My mind has a lot to say.  I notice my own self-judgment as well the fear of being judged by others- I’m not a good mom if I can’t get my child to school on time.

2)    Create a pause before reacting by practicing mindfulness, paying attention to one’s inner and outer experience.  My chest feels tight.  There is a speediness/anxiousness to my energy buzzing through my entire body.  I want to move.  My son is wearing a green coat that matches the grass.  There is a pleasant breeze.  I feel my breath moving my chest up and down.

3)    Become aware of feelings and tie them to a need(s). I’m feeling anxious because I need/value being on time.  Notice how this is distinct from I’m feeling anxious because he’s not getting in the car.  I am taking responsibility for my own experience and not blaming him.

4)    Communicate using NVC.  “I see you looking at the ant, (o) and I feel anxious (f) because it’s important to me that you get to school on time. (n)  Would you be willing to get in the car?” (r)

5)    I also have the option, and this is often a better place to start with children, of trying to guess his feelings and needs.  “I see you looking at an ant, (o) and I wonder if you are feeling very interested (f) in what he is doing, and would really like some time to watch him?” (n).  Showing him that I understand his experience, or that I am at the very least interested in understanding it, creates connection and is more likely to lead to cooperation.

The NVC state of mind is a present mind, not bogged down by judgment, interpretation, and the past.

NVC’s purpose is compassion and the acceptance of inter-connectedness.  That is, my well-being is connected to yours.  In the example above, my son and I are connected.  It’s going to take both of us to get to school on time. NVC recognizes that lashing out or avoiding conflict will create more problems in the long run, and seeks peace over being right.  It values the needs of one’s self and the needs of others equally.  Mindfulness practice enhances our ability to choose our reaction in the midst of our own emotional chaos and to actually be able to use NVC.  Together, these 2 practices can transform our relationships, helping us move from the doormat/lashing out cycle to communication that actually connects us and resolves conflict.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *