A Nonviolent Communication (NVC) cheat sheet

Last year I participated in a 10-week workshop on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). And as cliché as that may sound, it has helped me tremendously in experiencing making progress as a human being. It certainly has enabled me to engage with people on a much more connected level around difficult topics and conversations in a way that no longer feels as painful and “stuck” for me and, so I hope, also for the people I communicate with. Before going into detail, I’d like to try to offer a TL;DR short-hand in three phrases:

First, listen to and work with your feelings and the feelings of others–just not literally, rather as in your feelings telling you: “something important is going on” that requires your attention, but feelings do not tell you “the truth” or what you have to do.

Second, always remember, all human beings act out of the same values and needs, but often their chosen strategies (and goals) collide and seem impossible to reconcile–once you focus on and connect with these needs, you’ll live in a different world.

Third, to do this it is important to slow down your thinking and acting, and don’t get caught up in emotions, especially those that come from a long distant past, like experiencing always being blamed as a child for all the things that went or go wrong.

Watching the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, left me with a strange thought: aren’t we all already living in a society in which others constantly tell us that they “know what’s best for us”? Only that instead of chopping off our fingers or gauging out our eyes, we simply are conditioned with (mainly economic) punishment and reward as pressure, and if that no longer works then through the judicial system, into behaving in ways that we feel isn’t really all that good for us or what we want, but we also feel we have little choice.

To bring this thought into clearer focus, I am summarizing the core principles and ideas I see as crucial ingredients of NVC into this cheat sheet. And if you were to consider and follow this to the extent that you not already do so, I predict that this will allow you (and pretty much anyone) to experience some improvements in your life, especially when it comes to how you relate to other people. Most of these apply to both your experience of your own thoughts and actions as well as those of others. So let’s dive right in–I will first give the list of ideas, followed by some minimal explanation for why I believe them to be “life serving” (even if not necessarily objectively true or proven in a scientific sense):

  • let go of certainty (especially thinking in terms of true/false, right/wrong, good/bad)
  • and together with certainty, also let go of authorities making certainty claims (“we know what’s best for everyone, and if you don’t do as we say you will suffer!”)
  • become aware of your autonomy and choice at every moment, even when you do things habitually, particularly with behaviors that you don’t like: you have choice!
  • slow down your decision making (and general thinking) process, so instead of simply reacting habitually (in conditioned ways) use your curiosity to explore choice
  • see that the source of all feelings (besides physical pain) is in your thinking (e.g., anger is caused by how you think about a situation or person)
  • instead accept feelings as signals for underlying values (in NVC: needs)
  • practice to focus your attention on these values and needs, instead of being caught up in the emotional experience; that is shift from feelings to needs
  • don’t mistake empathy for pity or advice or other things; empathy is your openness to another’s experience, requiring presence, letting go of thoughts
  • realize that all human beings act out of needs and values, not evil intentions
  • so also shift your focus about other people’s experience from their feelings to their needs, which is really hard, especially if your initial feelings suggest a threat
  • clearly communicate your feelings, values/needs, and when you ask people to act differently than what they are doing, connect this as requests to your values/needs, not demands with fear of punishment
  • do not get attached to “getting what you want” (strategies), instead keep dogging for your needs, seeking strategies that can get everyone’s needs met

The first principle is to let go of a thinking that makes certainty desirable. What does that mean? Well, in almost any situation in which you want to engage in communication with someone, you can take one of at least two (and possibly many more) stances about what you are saying (and doing) to the other person. The first stance, which seems to be the default in many cultures, is one of “I know what I know, and I am certain of it, and everything I am telling you is the truth!” (certainty and authority/domination). A different and in my opinion ultimately more helpful, life-serving stance would be one of “I know I have a set of beliefs, and so far these beliefs have served me well, but I am curious as to what you have to say…” (curiosity and cooperation). And this is particularly true about inferences or judgments you might make about someone else, like “he didn’t help me with something I asked him to do, he is really totally unreliable!”, and even more so when you feel strongly, because we can easily confuse the strength of our feeling (for instance being offended) with being certain about our inferences.

Imagine that you are in a conflict with someone, and this person tells you something like, “you’re wrong! What you are saying is false, and what I am saying is correct! You have to see the world as I do!” How likely are you going to accept this (in the absence of this person having the authority and power to punish you)? And if you now reverse the roles, if the person does change their mind, don’t you think it will make the relationship more difficult in other ways? Human beings have a strong preference for experiencing autonomy, that the choices they make are made because they agree with the premises. So, forcing anyone to agree with you will easily make that person feel resentment toward you. Hence, let go of authority that uses punishment and rewards as means of influence.

The next idea is to slow down thinking enough. Cognition can be separated into unconscious (more automatic, non-reflected) and conscious thought, and conscious choices have the wonderful property that they are far slower and more deliberate than automatic decisions. This combined with another principle, accept feelings as signals of value not of truth (or certainty), means that when we feel a certain way about our experience, we can then either react habitually (as biological evolution and even culture has made humans react in circumstances of such experiences), or you can slow down and start thinking in a state of curiosity. Try to figure out what particularly your painful feelings (anger, shame, guilt, depression, etc.) tell you about what you would want to see different in the world.

And when you think in that direction, focus on values instead of on who needs to be punished. Here it helps to use the awareness that whatever the people who are acting in ways you don’t like do, they do so because of their values. And then communicate that to the people who can make a difference in a way that emphasizes the values you focus on, not what you initially may have thought the people are doing wrong. And whenever you make requests, asking people to act differently because of your values, remain conscious that your chosen strategy (what you ask for) is only one of many ways to get your needs met. If the other person says no, that’s not the end of the world, just go back one step and look for a different strategy–especially including talking to the person to find out why they said no.

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