Beginning a Practice in Nonviolent Communication

Eva Hamer
August 15, 2023
Credit: We Animals Media

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. However, the largest benefit to attending real-time workshops is practice. As with any skill, reading isn’t enough. What follows are suggestions for practice to be used individually and as a supplement to workshops or practice groups. 

If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

The Gist:

  • Start practicing NVC in less challenging situations, allowing for mistakes with lower stakes. 
  • NVC exercises can be done individually through journaling, serving as a systematic method to process thoughts and feelings.
  • To practice empathy, start in predominantly safe relationships, gradually extending its practice to more challenging conversations.
  • Initial stages of NVC practice involve recognizing personal communication habits and identifying tendencies towards judgment or empathy.
  • Self-empathy is fundamental; it's crucial to listen to oneself before effectively listening to others.
  • We offers a format for practicing NVC: starting with our and judgments, moving to observations, identifying feelings, recognizing needs, and finally, determining requests.

Start Easy

An important consideration for practice: start on easy mode. When attempting to integrate new communication practices, focusing on easier situations can let us get a feel for the skills without getting overwhelmed. It also lets us make mistakes in lower-stakes situations. 

Practice Alone

Every exercise can be done journaling instead of with another person. Writing can be an intentional way to guide yourself through the process to systematically process thoughts and feelings. 

Practice in Safe Relationships

I’ve occasionally heard people say that they tried NVC and it didn’t work. Usually, this means that they came to someone they had a difficult relationship with and said something like, “When you yell at me, I feel frustrated because I have a need for respect.” When the other person didn’t respond differently than they had in the past, the person declared the experiment failed. 

Of course, NVC doesn’t provide magic words that will make every person you are in conflict with see your point of view. If we consider it, instead, a skill set we can master, its application changes. We don’t say, “Great, something I can use to finally make my estranged mother hear me!” We say, instead, “I’d like to give this a try. Maybe, next time my friend tells me about something going on in her life, I can see if she’s okay with me guessing her feelings and needs.” 

To begin a practice of NVC, I recommend starting by offering empathy (before asking for it) and in relationships that are mostly safe. See if you can identify feelings and needs in day-to-day conversations. Occasionally voice a guess out loud. See what happens. Once empathy becomes a habit, see if you can bring it into more difficult conversations.

Notice old habits

An early step in the practice may just be to notice. What are my tendencies? When someone is telling me about something that bothers them, what is my impulse? Where am I using judgment and where am I using empathy? 

Notice judgment in your own language. This gives you an opportunity to then replace some of that judgment with observations that are more nonjudgmental. In day-to-day conversations, can you name your own feelings, and connect them to your needs? 

Nonviolence Starts Inside

Self-empathy is a vital prerequisite skill for the application of Nonviolence in our relationships with others. Every exercise we’ll explore includes self-empathy as an initial step because it’s really hard to listen if you haven’t been heard. Hearing ourselves first can take some of the pressure off the conversation and give us the capacity to listen to others. 

Stages of Practice

In this piece, we’ll go through a general format for practice. This can be used as a guide for any situation where you’re feeling emotional tension that you’d like to process. Processing tension can prepare you for finding solutions on your own or with others, or can bring acceptance such that no external solutions are needed. 

Story, Thoughts, and Judgments

We’ll talk about some exercises that use an NVC framework to untangle your own experiences. These exercises usually ask you to reflect on your observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Before that, though, it can be helpful to let out your story about the world, in all its judgmental glory. What are we telling ourselves about what happened, about what’s wrong with the other person, about what this all means? We try to only do this in a safe place, like to a journal, a therapist, or a trusted friend. 

When confiding in a friend about conflicts with people they may know, it’s important to be clear on your intention. Try saying something like, “I’m having a hard time with this situation and I want to be able to see it from the other person’s point of view. Before I’m ready to try that, it would be helpful if you could just hear me vent for a moment.” By stating the goal of a supportive conversation—to vent out frustration with the aim of being able to resolve the conflict—we can avoid gossip and side-taking. 

Marshall Rosenberg sometimes used a metaphorical jackal to represent judgmental language, and he’d go so far as to bring puppets to his workshops to illustrate the point. The giraffe was the counterpoint to the jackal and represented NVC consciousness. Silly as it was, the separate puppets helped to draw a clear distinction between the jackal and giraffe consciousness even while making room for each. 


Once you’ve gotten out any burning judgmental thoughts that were keeping you distracted (“my roommate is a slob!”), what you can try next is writing or stating observations. This is an exercise that can prepare you for a conversation by revealing what solution requests might meet your needs. For example, if I observe that my roommate left blueberry stains on the floor, it becomes clear that I can request that they wipe the stains immediately next time.

Attempting to state observations, when we’re very escalated, can bring out more judgments. Let those come out in your journal or with your practice partner and then find the observation. 


Next, write or state all the feelings you had in the moment—as well as the ones you are experiencing now, thinking about it. Those might be pure emotions (sadness, frustration), sensations (chills, knots, heat), or even images or metaphors (ripping paper, a boat in a hurricane). Sometimes, naming feelings results in feelings changing, as if being named lets them know they’ve fulfilled their purpose, or, on the other hand, invites more intensity to arrive for processing. 


Identify the needs that are alive for you in relation to this situation. As each need emerges, reflect on how it feels to be a person with this need. Feel its importance and the sensation of it being unmet. 


Lots of situations need multiple rounds of this reflection process. Continue identifying your judgments, observations, feelings, and needs, until a sense of resolution is reached. Returning to the observation, you will hopefully find it less activating to your nervous system on repeated encounters. Once you’ve experienced a shift towards relaxation or peace, move into the last stage: requests. 



  • What requests do you have of yourself going forward?
  • What requests might you have of others? Can you think of multiple requests of others that might help to meet your needs? 

Knowing how to process our own tensions is important, but equally important is knowing how to respond when somebody else is tense toward us. Part Six of this blog series will explore an NVC approach to acknowledging harm when we’ve done something that impacted someone else. Stay tuned and enjoy your NVC practice this week!

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