6 Mistakes You Probably Make With Nonviolent Communication

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Yes, you! Nonviolent communication is really hot stuff. While many leaders have understood the benefits of a working environment that is based on nonviolent communication, we are all prone to these pit falls when using it. Don’t be sad if you realize that you used it wrong – just try to be better next time!

What Is Nonviolent Communication?

Nonviolent communication (NVC) as developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s is an approach to human interaction based on the assumption that everybody is capable of empathy and compassion, and that conflict only arises when your own needs are not met. NVC is bigger than your workplace – for some, it’s more like a world view, and there are also parenting strategies based on NVC. It basically can be applied to any system or organization, because it’s so universal – that’s the beauty of it!

If you want to read more, you can get information at the Center For Nonviolent Communication (CVNC).

In a business context, NVC usually is broken down to how you’re formulating feedback or responses to employees and colleagues by using the four steps of the model: observations, feelings, needs, requests.

  • Observations: What did you encounter? What happened? Formulate it in a neutral way, from your own perspective.
  • Feelings: How did this make you feel? The CVNC provides a list of feelings that can help you to formulate this.
  • Needs: Which of your needs were not met? Again, the CVNC has a list of needs that may help you.
  • Requests: What do you wish for from your colleague or employee? What would you need in similar situations in the future?

The model is simple and can help you in direct and indirect communication – especially in situations that are delicate or difficult. You can start tomorrow to implement it in your own meetings – or, if you think it’s worth it (spoiler alert: It’s worth it!), have a session with your colleagues about it and convince them to make it a company-wide initiative!

#1 Mixing Feelings and Statements

The core of nonviolent communication is to present a situation from your perspective, and talk about the needs that were not met. This requires a lot of concentration! Not every sentence that follows a quickly typed I feel that… actually expresses a feeling. For example, where’s the feeling in I feel that you don’t do your job properly? Or in I feel that your team does not understand the importance of my client? What about I feel criticized by you? You see it now, right? Just calling something a feeling does not make it a feeling. You cannot feel for other people and you cannot know how other people feel or think about something. So don’t talk like you could!

Instead, ask yourself why you have the impression that someone does not do their job, or that a whole team misses the importance of your client. Or try to identify what exactly your colleague said that gave you the impression that they criticized you. What is the underlying need there? What exactly was the situation that triggered you to write that email, or ask for that conversation? How did you feel in that situation? Neglected? Sad? Confused? Distressed? Start like this, and go through the steps of the NVC model.

#2 Not listening to your colleagues

The NVC model not only has four steps, but also two crucial components: Next to honestly expressing your own observations, feelings, needs and requests, you also need to empathetically listen to your colleague’s observations, feelings, needs and requests. NVC only works if both are done. By listening to your colleague, you show them your respect. If I respect someone, it means that I value their feelings and needs. In very few cases, you will have someone sitting in front of you who starts their sentences with I observed the following…, This situation made me feel…, The following needs were not met…, I would like you to do this in the future. Instead, you will have to analyze what was said, and which the underlying needs or feelings were. Do not just assume them – as mentioned before, you can never know how someone else feels. You can use a technique called mirroring to check if your assumptions go into the right direction.

Mirroring means that after listening to someone, you will repeat it back to them with your own words. Note that you never add an evaluation of what you heard, or shift the attention to your own person. You repeat it back, reformulate it, and stay on your colleague’s side with all your attention:

  • “I was furious when I heard that X got that promotion, I mean, what have they done in the past weeks? I have worked so hard on my project, even Y and Z told me that they’d promoted me…”
  • “I hear that you are outraged over this situation. Additionally, you are frustrated that your project did not receive the recognition that you wished for. Maybe you’re also surprised that this is the case, because Y and Z were as sure as you that your project would get you the promotion. Did I hear this correctly?”
  • “Yes, I think so… I think I am damn right to be frustrated, given all the effort I put into the project during the past weeks…”

#3 Using it as an excuse

NVC is a world view, a communication style, and an attitude. It’s not meant to be an excuse for damaging behavior. We are all human, and as such, we will have situations in which we don’t behave correctly. If you did not behave in a way that you want to, the only way to go about it is to take responsibility for it. NVC is not a band-aid that you will cover up your misbehavior. If you used your power over an employee in a meeting, just having a nonviolent talk about it will not suffice. That employee might need you to apologize, and to take full responsibility. Only recognizing their feelings and needs will not work – if you do not fulfill their request to behave differently in the future. As using NVC during your one-on-ones will have some immediate benefits, there might be a little voice in your head which screams But we talked about it and we are good! – Always remember: NVC is worth nothing without being accountable for your own actions.

#4 Discarding malformed feedback

Not everyone, especially not in heated situations, will use NVC non-stop. Not even the best person in the world can do this! If you encounter colleagues who cannot express themselves in a nonviolent way – or who simply refuse to do it – it does not mean that what they say is less worthy to be heard than what you say. On the contrary – listening empathetically means to really listen! Especially in situations where someone provides their feedback in an inappropriate way. Try to be the better person and analyze what you are hearing. Of course, that does not mean that you need to endure insults and abusive language. You can still ask your colleague to continue the talk at a later stage. It still might be a good conversation opener if you mirror what you heard last time – in a neutral, nonviolent way. Simply starting anew and forgetting what happened earlier will help neither of you.

#5 Only using it with immediate benefit

If you use NVC as a tool in times that you need it, and then contradict your own behavior in other times, you risk losing your trustworthiness. If you decide to give NVC a chance, it needs to be implemented as your one and only communication style. You can’t switch back to being an authoritative leader in times where you don’t feel like listening. NVC is based on trust, so f you lose your trustworthiness, your employees and colleagues will have a hard time in believing your words, as well as expressing their own needs and feelings. Talking about your needs is only possible if you feel comfortable and save enough to be vulnerable – and trusting your colleague or employee is crucial for that.

#6 Not believing in it

If you promote using NVC, it needs to reflect on your behavior, actions and words. It’s not enough to tell others that you think it’s a great idea, or to use it whenever you see fit. Every decision you take and every meeting you join should be under the umbrella of NVC. This means for you as a leader: You need to listen, listen, listen to what others are saying, and reflect on your own behavior non-stop. Sounds exhausting? Yes, maybe it is, but the benefits it will bring you are so much worth it! Go and try it today. Start small and grow taller over time. I promise, you won’t regret it.

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