This series is an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. This blog will cover preliminary concepts in Nonviolent Communication, which will help in understanding later blogs in this series. Part One covered why we study nonviolence, Part Two covered the practice of empathy, and Part Three covered the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs. Here is Part Four, covering observations and requests.
- Observations and requests are key NVC strategies to minimize defensiveness and foster collaboration.
- Observations aim to share clarity about specific events in a way that minimizes blame and judgment, promoting a shared understanding of the situation without triggering defensiveness.
- NVC observations go beyond external events and also include internal experiences (e.g. flashbacks) and systemic issues, allowing a broader sharing of experiences while maintaining the distinction between observation and judgment.
- NVC requests are clear, specific, and positively phrased whenever possible, providing all necessary information to fulfill the request effectively.
- NVC distinguishes between requests (non-coercive) and demands (requests with implicit or explicit threats of punishment). While there is a time and place for demands depending on the goals of the interaction, NVC teaches us how to avoid making them.
- Connection Requests are small requests made during conversations about the conversation itself. They help conversations go better by facilitating understanding, empathy, and consent.
Observations are clear descriptions of what happened in a particular time, stated in a way that minimizes evaluation and judgment. For example, “You don’t respect me” isn’t an observation, while “You began speaking while I was still speaking” is.
The purpose of NVC observation is to share clarity about what we’re talking about in a way the other person can hear. While judgments and evaluations can spark defensiveness in conflict, observations are a strategy to get on the same page about the stimulus without blame, judgment, and subsequent defensiveness.
Early in the development of NVC, people used to talk about observations as the sort of things that can be captured by a video camera—only what we can perceive with our external sense. I prefer a broader version of “observations” presented by my teacher Roxy Manning, which includes internal and systemic events as well. For example, telling someone about a traumatic flashback that was triggered by an external stimulus is considered an observation, as is a statistic or knowledge about systemic problems. The inclusion of these is important to allow us to share the breadth of our observations in a way that matches our experience of the world while still holding NVC’s distinction between observation and judgment.
At times, naming observations will help you speak in a way that is met with less defensiveness. At other times, it might feel important to reflect someone else’s judgment in order to connect with them. And of course, judgment is synonymous with reasoning; we create stories about the world and act on them in order to make decisions big and small every day. Owning and naming these judgments can be important and life-serving.
NVC requests are clear, specific, and use positive action language whenever possible.
Clear requests contain the information necessary to fulfill the request. “Listen to me more” doesn’t contain the information necessary, while “Put your phone down and make eye contact with me while we’re talking” does.
Positive action language asks someone to do something, rather than not to do something. Running children may understand “walk” better than “don’t run.”
What distinguishes requests from demands?
A demand is a request paired with a stated or implicit threat of punishment or retaliation. When we hear demands, it can bring up a need for autonomy and cue us to decline the request in order to protect our own freedom. Or, the threat of retaliation, real or imagined, can lead us to agree to strategies that wouldn’t meet our needs.
We can imagine requests and demands existing on a spectrum. The more trust we have that other ways to meet our needs exist, and the more curiosity we have about others’ needs, the more likely our own requests will be heard as requests and not demands.
As an example, let’s take the Liberation Pledge which I’ve previously written about. Upon taking the pledge, we ask people in our lives not to eat animal products in front of us. How we ask can determine whether the other person hears what we say as a request or a demand.
- Option A: “If you’re eating animals, I’m not coming to dinner.”
- Option B: “There are a few different solutions that could meet my needs here. How would it be for you to make the entire event vegan? How about just the main table? If none of that works, maybe we can see each other another time. How would that be for you?”
The latter may be more likely to be heard as a request and, paradoxically, be more likely to result in a solution that we want even while preserving the relationship.
There certainly is a time and place for demands or even force, such as to stop certain and immediate harm, but using coercion always has a cost to the relationship. Consciousness around making true requests can help us to be intentional about when we’re deciding to pay that cost and when we’re trying to stay in connection.
Requests are hard
Requests can be scary. It’s a vulnerable thing to ask for our needs to be met, because it risks hearing a no. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could just intuit what we need or want?
Some people come to NVC because they communicate too aggressively and want to learn to be kinder. Others are too passive and want to learn to be more assertive. Again, this work is about nonviolence. In the same way that nonviolent direct action confronts systems of oppression without violence, we want to be able to bravely face (and even initiate) hard conversations with unflinching nonviolence.
One thing that can make requests less scary is to first make smaller requests about a conversation you want to have, before suggesting that anybody change their behavior. In NVC we call this a connection request.
NVC’s unique contribution to the conversation about requests is the concept of a connection request. While a solution request concerns the subject of the conversation, connection requests are all the little requests we make during a conversation about the conversation itself. They check to see if we’re still in connection and ask for consent to take the conversation in a given direction.
A common error in making requests is offering solution requests too early in a conversation, before both parties trust that they have been fully heard. This might result in resistance or misunderstanding. Connection requests allow us to facilitate a conversation toward greater connection and understanding and thus toward solutions.
Examples of connection requests
For a conversation:
"I'd like to talk about what happened the other day. It's really important to me that our relationship feels comfortable and trusting for both us. Could we take a walk tomorrow and talk then?"
To offer empathy:
“I want to make sure I’m getting it. Can I repeat back what I heard?”
"I just said a lot and I'm not sure that it all made sense. Would you mind letting me know what you heard so I can be sure I came across okay?"
“To make sure we’re on the same page, would you let me know your impression of what we just agreed on?”
For empathy (feelings):
"It would help me to know that you have a sense of how I'm feeling about all this. Can you tell me how you imagine I am feeling?"
For empathy (needs):
"Would you mind letting me know what seems important to me in what I just said?"
Many people may find it unusual to hear a request that they give you a specific form of empathy, as in the examples above. A preface might help your request land. Try saying, "I'm sure you have a lot to say in response, but first– would you mind letting me know what seems important to me in what I just said?""
"I'm wondering, how do you feel having heard all of that?"
"What comes up for you, hearing that?"
"What would you like me to understand?"
To move towards solutions:
“I’m thinking of some ideas for how to move forward- is this a good time to share those?”
“Are you open to talking about how we could do it differently in the future?”
Solution requests are the requests we might usually think of, yet they are made much less frequently in Nonviolent Communication. The guiding principle is that if both parties can deeply hear each other first, they’re likely to be able to come up with a solution together that meets everyone’s needs, so the emphasis is placed on building understanding rather than negotiating. That said, the NVC advice for solution requests is to try to have at least a few in mind when we go into a high-stakes conversation. That way, when we learn that our first request won’t meet others’ needs, we have other ideas that might.
And remember, if you are feeling nervous about proposing a solution, it might be good to request connection first! Once your connection requests have given you a chance to debrief observations, feelings, and needs, here are some examples of solution requests:
"Going forward, would you be willing to try to clean your dishes within an hour of using them?"
"Could we brainstorm a few ideas for how to hold each other accountable?"
"I think it would really help if you read this article before we talk next. Does that sound doable?"
Consent in Nonviolent Communication
People who are drawn to a communication practice like NVC tend to be socially conscientious and want to respect others. Naturally, some have raised concerns about consent when having these discussions. Indeed, it is possible to end up in a conversation with someone that ends up feeling too vulnerable to one party. The Connection Requests that we have talked about aim to address this problem. By checking in with consent as we go about a conversation, it is more likely we can all walk away feeling that our needs for respect, privacy, dignity, and choice have been met.
On the other hand, consent is a word often associated with sex, and in that context is fraught with moral weight. Consent cannot hold the same moral weight in the context of having conversations with each other to resolve conflict. When we relate with people, we have conflicts inevitably, and to get to a place of peaceful resolution usually requires at least some discussion of what’s going on with us. We can’t opt out of conflicts in the same way we can opt out of physical contact, nor can we draw clear lines between which kinds of communication require consent upfront– especially when we aren’t the ones initiating conversation. Instead, we have to do the best we can with the resources we have available to us at the time. We will make mistakes, and we will learn. If we can remember that NVC is not about right and wrong but rather about having more connecting conversations, then we’re open to a creative application of the skills we learn that work for the individual we’re talking to.
What About Power?
Power can make the most gentle request language land like a demand, or a strong request feel like a gentle suggestion. Imagine an employee hearing from their boss, “Do you mind coming in this weekend?” It’s quite possible that the employee would understand that they’d be punished– or even fired– for saying no.
Vulnerability can also be magnified by power differentials. People with more power can avoid asking for too much vulnerability by guessing at needs rather than feelings or guessing at milder versions of feelings, and by letting the other person set the time and place for the conversation. Stay tuned for later blogs that will explore these dynamics in more depth.
So far, we’ve covered the basics of Nonviolent Communication: empathy, observations, feelings, needs, and requests. The next blog in the series will present some exercises to begin your practice.