We spend a fair amount of time in our community focused on what we put into our mouths. What about what comes out of our mouths? Does it nourish us and those we are communicating with?

Does our communication style keep us connected to others?

This past week I created yet another group on Facebook. I named it Openhearted. Openhearted has two definitions. It means frank or candid and also kindly. When we are frank, we are truthful, sincere, open, aboveboard, direct and straightforward. When we are kindly we are compassionate, gracious, humane, sympathetic, thoughtful, and generous. The name of the group encompasses all that I hope we’ll develop and practice together.

The group description:

I have witnessed a downward spiral of blame and accusation on social media, and experienced it in my own circle and within myself at times. I’d love to create a safe haven for us to learn to transform any resentments we may have toward others and/or ourselves for a perceived offense, flaw, or mistake. This is a place to practice empathy and cultivate openheartedness.

We will be reading the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life together starting on September 16, 2015. The book is also available in an electronic version via our Amazon affiliation. I was introduced to Nonviolent Communication, commonly referred to as NVC, in 2004 soon after I was introduced to the book Nourishing Traditions. Interestingly, Dr. Thomas Cowan, MD introduced me to Nourishing Traditions and his wife Lynda Smith introduced me to the book Nonviolent Communication. These may very well be the two most influential books that have shaped my values and my lifestyle from the moment I read them.

Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, developed Nonviolent Communication in the 1960s. It is also referred to as Compassionate Communication or Collaborative Communication. PuddleDancer Press offers an overview:

Most of us have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand and diagnose — to think and communicate in terms of what is “right“ and “wrong“ with people. [One of the principles of NVC I resonate most with is that our behavior isn’t viewed as wrong or right but, rather as reflections of a need we are attempting to meet. We may not enjoy other people’s strategies to get a need met in any given situation, and/or regret our own choices, but, they aren’t considered wrong. It is empathizing with our own needs and that of others that is the cornerstone of NVC consciousness and practice.]

We express our feelings in terms of what another person has “done to us.” We struggle to understand what we want or need in the moment, and how to effectively ask for what we want without using unhealthy demands, threats or coercion. Rosenberg asserts:

“What others do may be a stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause.”

At best, thinking and communicating this way can create misunderstanding and frustration, or simply keep us from getting what we want. It can also keep us from the fulfilling relationships we deserve. And still worse, it can lead to anger, depression and even emotional or physical violence.

NVC focuses on three aspects of communication:

  1. Self-Empathy – defined as a deep and compassionate awareness of one’s own inner experience.
  2. Empathy – defined as listening to another with deep compassion
  3. Honest Self-Expression – defined as expressing oneself authentically in a way that is likely to inspire compassion in others

NVC has been applied in organizational and business settings, in parenting, education, mediation, psychotherapy, healthcare, in addressing eating issues, in prisons, and as a basis for a children’s book, among other contexts. Rosenberg has used Nonviolent Communication in peace programs in conflict zones including Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Serbia, Croatia, Ireland, and the Middle East.

I feel deeply blessed to have taken an all day workshop with Marshall Rosenberg some time before he passed away in February 2015. I also feel deeply blessed to have studied with both NVC trainers Miki Kashtan and Inbal Kashtan of Bay NVC. They characterize the key assumptions and intentions of NVC as follows:

Key Assumptions

  1. All human beings share the same needs
  2. Our world offers sufficient resources for meeting everyone’s basic needs
  3. All actions are attempts to meet needs
  4. Feelings point to needs being met or unmet
  5. All human beings have the capacity for compassion
  6. Human beings enjoy giving
  7. Human beings meet needs through interdependent relationships
  8. Human beings change
  9. Choice is internal
  10. The most direct path to peace is through self-connection


  • Open-Hearted Living
  1. Self-compassion
  2. Expressing from the heart
  3. Receiving with compassion
  4. Prioritizing connection
  5. Moving beyond “right” and “wrong” to using needs-based assessments
  • Choice, Responsibility, Peace
  1. Taking responsibility for our feelings
  2. Taking responsibility for our actions
  3. Living in peace with unmet needs
  4. Increasing capacity for meeting needs
  5. Increasing capacity for meeting the present moment
  • Sharing Power or Partnership
  1. Caring equally for everyone’s needs
  2. Using force minimally and to protect rather than to educate, punish, or get what we want without agreement


Language of the Giraffe and Jackal

NVC uses two animals as symbols. The giraffe is the land animal with the biggest heart. With her long neck she has a good overview and clear vision. The giraffe stands for compassionate communication. The second animal is the jackal, representing competition. Jackal language is about judging, criticising, analysing, moralising and accusing. When we feel unfairly treated, accused or when we want to impose our wishes, we tend to use the language of the jackal. Jackal language tends to separate people. Giraffe language tends to unify. The photo of the puppets is found on Empathikon, a site that offers them for sale.

Four Steps to Applying NVC

  1. Observe what is happening and describe the situation without judgement or interpretation:
    I see____________ / I hear ________ / the situation is __________
  2. Identify/express your feelings:
    Then I feel _____________
  3. Find the need behind your feeling:
    My need is ________ / because I would like _________ / I desire  _________ / I need _________
  4. Formulate a clear, positive, doable request:
    Please will you _________ / Are you willing to  ____________?

How the Process Works

  • Step 1: Observations

Many of our observations contain judgements. We are asked to separate the observed behaviour from our judgements or interpretations and to reframe our judgement into a pure observation:

Jackal: “He is so rude.”
Giraffe: “When I said “hello”, he looked in another direction.”

Jackal: “You are so messy.”
Giraffe: “You left clothes on the floor and didn’t make the bed this morning.”

Jackal: “She doesn’t care about how I feel.”
Giraffe: “She didn’t ask me how I feel.”

  • Step 2: Feelings

According to Rosenberg, feelings show us whether or not our needs have been fulfilled.  If we feel angry, it may be due to the fact that our needs for support, or consideration weren’t met in a particular situation. Here is Nonviolent Communication Center’s Inventory of Feelings.

  • Step 3: Needs

As is seen in the Inventory of Needs, Rosenberg identifies human needs as fitting into categories such as connection, honesty, play, physical well-being, meaning, peace and autonomy. In my experience, when we identify and empathize with our own needs in any given situation, and that of others, it often softens any judgements we may have. The judgement lets us know that we are experiencing an unmet need. For example, I may judge a friend as messy when I enter her house. Self empathy may be realizing that my need for order and beauty isn’t met in that situation. Empathizing with her may be realizing that she is attempting to meet her needs for ease, and saying yes to other prioritizes. Perhaps instead of cleaning house, she is focusing on meeting needs for learning while taking a class, or connection while spending time with loved ones.

  • Step 4: Request

A request is not a demand. Requests mean that you are open to accepting “no” as a response: Are you willing to help me out? Could you please prepare the figures for the next sales report? Please put your mugs in the dishwasher and don’t leave them on the desk. Could you do this from now on? If you make a request and receive the answer “no”, you do not have to give up. Instead, you should empathise with what is preventing the other person from saying “yes”. Consider this before deciding how to continue the conversation.

A conversation using the NVC 4 step process may look like this: “You know, when I heard you weren’t coming to my wedding, I felt really disappointed, and sad. I had really hoped to be surrounded and supported by each of my immediate family members. I would love to experience your companionship and presence on this special day.  Would you be willing to reconsider your decision?”


NVC is not just about the words that come out of our months, it is about developing and explanding the sense of compassion we feel in our hearts, and our capacity to listen empathetically. I have taken a number of NVC classes, participated in a week long retreat, attended numerous workshops and been a part of ongoing practice groups. While I had weekly sessions with an empathy partner for over 2.5 years, I still consider myself to be very much a student. Join us in our Openhearted group on Facebook as we read Nonviolent Communication as a community.

Do you have any experience or interest in NVC? I’d love to hear about it!

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