How to read NVC

Nonviolent Communication is one of my favorite books. I recommend it to pretty much everyone I know who hasn’t already read it, and I’ve found myself repeating (and I hope refining) roughly the same disclaimer/explanation about how to approach the book, largely derived from the questions people keep asking me about it. So, to avoid reduplication of effort and further clarify my thoughts, here are my best thoughts on the subject.

There Is a Consistent Underlying Model

“NVC is not simply a language or a set of techniques for using words.”

The way I see it, the whole NVC process can actually be specified quite concisely: “communicate (internally and externally) in way that does not induce fear, guilt, or shame” (I credit Jeremy Zucker for stating it this way). I suspect the rest of it can be derived from that one directive. And I don’t think Marshall Rosenberg came at the process by thinking about individual rules about what is and isn’t a request, or what is and isn’t a need. I think he had an insight, or a set of insights, which allowed him to see to the heart of what human beings are actually trying to get out of communicating with each other: what will make people satisfied and happy, and what will trigger resistance. Achieving this awareness results in a shift in mindset.

The book is a set of procedures for teaching that mindset. I’d say it’s largely the “fake it till you make it” approach. Talk in this way, you’ll understand how it feels to talk in this way, and you’ll learn the mindset. Which isn’t to say that the protocol for transforming your speech patterns aren’t useful on its own—I’ve found it ridiculously useful. I also think the book is best understood from the perspective of applying the protocol in service of grokking the underlying principles.

It Actually Works

The example conversations in NVC are likely to strain credibility. They seem to imply that NVC can, if properly applied, not only resolve conflicts between parents and children and help friends discuss sensitive subjects, but also establish rapport with terrorists, prevent violent crime as it’s happening, and cure headaches. When I first read it, they sounded too good to be true. I had trouble accepting that following a fairly simple set of well-defined as outlined in a popular self-help book could be that useful.

Here’s one data point: now I believe the examples, not only because I don’t think Marshall Rosenberg would lie, but also because what he describes fits with my model of what’s possible. Humans seem to crave authentic communication: communication where what’s going on inside us matches up closely with what we’re expressing. We really want to be heard, and to get visceral, real-time feedback that we’re being heard, and so giving people that is really quite powerful. The convincer for me was using NVC to stop a fight on Caltrain. I’ll blog about that soon (edit: done!).

Of course, it still may not be worth your time to master NVC.  Everyone has different low-hanging fruit. My goal writing this was to clarify my view of its potential.


To get the most out of NVC, I recommend that when you read it you: 

  • Assume that there is an underlying model which, when understood, produces a distinct shift in mindset.
  • Keep in mind that Marshall Rosenberg is teaching something potentially quite powerful.

If you’re interested in Nonviolent Communication, you may want to check out this excellent summary instead of diving into the book itself.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about NVC that I’ve answered at length over email, so, to further flesh out my views on NVC, I’ll be posting a series of the questions I’ve gotten along with my answers.

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