NVC Question #9

Not quite a question, more of a prompt for discussion: 

I find it very interesting to say “We don’t talk except to meet our needs.” At one level it’s trivially true because you don’t do anything without a reason. At another, it’s not as true. Often the need in question is ‘fill dead air’ or ‘satisfy appropriate social convention’ or other things that suggest there might not be a ‘point’ to saying what we are saying, so it’s kind of half right. Or of course, as he points out, we might be mad and want to express that without actually needing a remedy as such. As a response one might say that this isn’t a productive thing to do and one would benefit if they only had this conversation with a concrete end in mind, which opens up the question of enforcing incentive patterns or other such less tangible goals. It also raises a point that I missed while reading, which is that the word need here seems to be overloaded in the sense that he’s using it to mean something distinct from its ordinary English meaning, although it includes ordinary needs. He doesn’t say so outright, but he implies that what he calls needs includes what I would usually call wants. It’s a vague distinction in English along a gradient, but certainly when he refers to needs he’s talking about something far less strong than most people do when they say they need something. I’ve been told that “need is a strong word” could be considered one of my catch phrases. (Reminds me of George Carlin: ” ‘My needs aren’t being met.’ Drop some of your needs!) 


I am in general interested in better understanding what is meant by NVC needs. I think what distinguishes needs from strategies (which are more like wants) is that with strategies you can ask “why do you want that” and get something more fundamental as an answer, but with needs you can’t. Well, maybe not exactly, since you can certainly answer “why do you need food?” with “so I don’t die”. But I think it’s a decent heuristic. And something is a need instead of a strategy if you are going to keep experiencing a negative emotion until you get it met one way or the other. I agree with you completely that “need is a strong word”, and I’m still okay with using it for NVC-type needs since they’re so general, and they never depend on a specific other person doing anything. So if I need to “be heard” and you don’t feel like listening I can always listen to myself for find someone else to listen to me, filling the need that way. And I think it’s fair to say that if I’m never “heard” about anything I’ll probably keep being unhappy about it.

When I think about what needs people are (subconsciously) trying to meet with dead-air conversations, I’d guess connection, community, acceptance, appreciation, emotional safety, empathy, reassurance, respect, understanding, fun, inspiration etc. probably do play into motivation, but that this type of conversation typically doesn’t end up meeting anyone’s needs. NVC says that we’re much more likely to actually get these needs met if we’re aware of them in the moment. So part of what I got from NVC is that regardless of what other people typically do, it’s in my interest to be aware of what needs I’m trying to meet whenever I do anything, certainly including communicating with other people. So the “we only talk to get our needs met” point I was making is trivially true for people in general, but is perhaps better read as a recommendation—make it more than trivially true for yourself and some of the questions about “how do I say X with NVC” will resolve themselves, since the answer is that saying X won’t actually meet your needs. I get the impression that you understand this point.

NVC Question #8


It seems to me from reading the book that what he calls “observation” can only include direct observations of physical actions and all frequency statements must be strictly numeric. In fact, any non-exact statements seem to be outside the definition, whether they include estimates of frequency or not. The examples were telling because they were so extreme, in the sense that I would predict most people would assume that the word ‘observation’ applies to them. If this is where it starts, where does it stop? Thus, we have:

“My aunt complains when I talk to her.”

This is not ok, it seems, because “complain” is not sufficiently low-level to be an observation, and because this makes a non-exact statement of frequency: “When I talk to her” is not ok, because it doesn’t include the information on when, in fact, I have talked to her, even if this has occured every single time such an interaction has occurred. Thus, I cannot convey the sentiment “The correlation between my aunt saying ‘hello’ to me and her having a smile on her face is 1” without also saying the frequency of her saying “hello” which of course also must be exact. So if I don’t have that information, it seems this is an observation I have a lot of trouble making!

His suggested alternative:

“My aunt called me three times this week, and each time talked about people who treated her in ways she didn’t like.”

Two notes:

  1. This statement is missing information that was in the first statement, some of which was not judgment, which I assume is a feature and not a bug.
  2. This assumes that your aunt is truthful, which the first statement didn’t. Is this not a judgment? All I can say, at most, is that she claimed to have been treated in a way that she claims to not have liked. I haven’t seen this type of thing addressed: “My aunt called me three times that I know of this week, and each time talked about people who she claims treated her in ways she claims she didn’t like.”

I’m hoping you can help clarify this.


I think you’re right about the second one assuming the aunt is truthful. I don’t see it as much of a leap, but I take your point. I bet when coming up with examples no one really noticed that or thought much about it. I would say that the missing information is intended as a feature. I’ll quote this part from the intro:

NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations; instead, evaluations are to be based on observations specific to time and context. Semanticist Wendell Johnson pointed out that we create many problems for ourselves by using static language to express or capture a reality that is ever changing: “Our language is an imperfect instrument created by ancient and ignorant men. It is an animistic language that invites us to talk about stability and constants, about similarities and normal and kinds, about magical transformations, quick cures, simple problems, and final solutions. Yet the world we try to symbolize with this language is a world of process, change, differences, dimensions, functions, relationships, growths, interactions, developing, learning, coping, complexity. And the mismatch of our ever-changing world and our relatively static language forms is part of our problem.”

The way I see it, there are two different motivations for being very particular about separating observation from evaluation. One is so that other people don’t hear it as criticism or judgement. The second is so that our own judgments don’t prevent us from perceiving new information. They’re related, and I’m going to address each one separately. Finally, I’ll try to touch on this distinction as it fits into the process as a whole.

How other people hear it:

Granted, we don’t know who the person who says “my aunt complains when I talk to her” is talking about, so maybe it’s kind of silly to consider this part of it without making some assumption there. I do think telling your aunt “you complain when I talk to you” is likely going to provoke defensiveness is the way that the transformed statement doesn’t. I think the same applies if you’re talking to someone who’s likely to feel protective of the aunt as well. Even if it might seem pretty objective, I think whenever you make a generalization like that, people who don’t like its implications for whatever reason find it pretty easy to come up with objections and challenges to it—which isn’t the case if you just give facts.

How it affects the person saying it:

Some of my thoughts on this issue come from another book I really liked about communication, Crucial Conversations. Our brain responds to facts and stories in different ways. Maybe the distinction would be that facts don’t create emotions, and stories do. And stories tend to be “sticky” in a way that facts don’t. As in, once we’ve told ourselves a story it tends to become self-fulfilling prophecies and by default we act in a way that provides confirming evidence. I think it’s similar to what Eliezer’s getting out when he talks about the blood type theory of personality and how as soon as we make a mental category we start harvesting similarities. The effect of saying the words to yourself “my aunt complains when I talk to her” leads your mind in the direction of thinking of other times she has complained and fitting her into a mental image of a complainer. Saying it the other way doesn’t have this effect so much, since you’ve contained the statement, after a fashion. Aggressively trying to harvest confirming evidence in the second case doesn’t do much harm, since it’s pretty specific.

To make another reference to the sequences, Eliezer also talks about we are “running on corrupted hardware“, and I’d say that’s the reason statements like “my aunt complains when I talk to her” are problematic. I would believe some people (like you, maybe) have safeguards in place in your mind to mitigate or eliminate the side-effects of statements like this. I’ve seen stranger things. But phrasing it as an observation way both provides a safeguard and tends to (subconsciously) communicate to people that you’re not letting your brain run wild harvesting evidence, so I think that’s a big part of why it makes them feel less defensive when you just present facts. Even if you don’t mean your generalization as a judgment, generally people end up turning their generalizations into judgements whether they mean to or not.

That being said, I think there are potential problems with focusing on a single instance (or two) when what’s bothering you is an overall pattern. Your emotions might seem out of proportion to the other person, and (like you said), you’re throwing out information that does in fact bear on the situation at hand. However, I think there are NVC-approved ways to incorporate the additional information about the pattern you’ve noticed.

But I think to figure out how to tackle this, we need a bit more information about the situation. Part of the point of NVC is that we don’t talk at all except to try to meet our needs. So, what’s the point of having the conversation about the aunt in the first place? Once we know that, it’ll suggest ways to talk about it.

Let’s assume that you’re actually talking to the aunt, and you’re annoyed about her complaining all the time. You could say something like, “Last week, both times I talked you you talked about people who treated you in ways that you said you didn’t like. I’m feeling frustrated because it’s important to me that the time I spend talking to you is enjoyable for both of us, and I have difficulty enjoying conversation with that sort of focus.” Something along those lines. At some other point if you think she’s not getting that it’s a pattern, maybe something like, “When you say that I’m ‘making a big deal out of just a few times’ I get concerned, because I’m seeing a pattern here and I really want you to understand what I’m getting at. Can you tell me how you see the pattern I’m describing?”.

Once again, I think the point about why you’re even talking about your aunt in the first place is relevant. Because I think it’s not so much that statements like “my aunt complains when I talk to her” are so awful, but more that they fall into the category of things that are likely provoke defensiveness in certain contexts. Also, by no means is the book saying that such statements are useless. If nothing else, one of its main claims is that if ONE person in the conversation is using NVC, it’s all good. So if you said this to someone who was very good at translating generalizations then it wouldn’t much matter how you said it and it would just be information. And maybe the people you choose to associate with are pretty good at this sort of translation, so in practice it’s not such a big deal for you.

Something else I just thought of about talking about patterns: NVC would tell you to speak up about it the first time it happens if it bothers you, so if you’re really doing the NVC then you won’t have too many patterns to talk about. NVC is not about talking about the past.

NVC Question #7


I’m wondering how one would actually make one the requests outlined in the book as un-NVC: “I’d like you to respect my privacy.” Yes, in one particular instance this could mean knocking on the door, but how would I make the more general need known? There are many times when it is not reasonable to expect an exact expression of what action is required to be possible.


Often we do want to make more general requests and we don’t know how to outline the exact actions. And in my experience it’s likely that when we’re in that boat, the other person usual is too and wouldn’t know quite what to do either. Maybe in the case of privacy you could try:

“When you came in without knocking I felt frustrated because I’m needing some peace and space for myself. I would like you knock on the door when you come in, and I’m also concerned because I’m thinking that the issue is bigger than that. Would you be willing to hear me out about what I want until it seems like we’re both on the same page about this?”

or maybe

“I’d like to talk to you about privacy, and what it would take for me to feel resolved about this issue and then have you tell me what you understood from what I said.”

Followup Question:

On the privacy issue, that second one confuses me even though I know what you’re trying to say. I’d expect a head to be scratched. The first one sounds more promising; it seems like a good beginning, but the question is where to go from there. The central problem remains.

Answer to Followup Question:

Agreed.  I think figuring out what to do when something’s important to us and we don’t really know the actions that would lead to us getting it is a bit of a conundrum that NVC doesn’t have a magic solution for.  

NVC Question #6


“I want you to stop drinking.”

This, it seems, is not a clear request that a specific action be taken.

We are, as he says, not in agreement.

He says, the speaker might have said: “I want you to tell me what needs of yours are met by drinking, and to discuss with me other ways of meeting those needs.” 

Um, no. That’s not what the speaker wants. The speaker wants the subject to stop drinking. Period. I can see the argument that technically this is a negative request, and that you don’t do negative requests. and perhaps he could say “I want you to reduce your alcohol intake to zero” or “I want you to stay sober” or some other way of wording the same thing, but not only does this strongly seem to be a request it seems to me like the alternative is a very different request. 


Okay, I’d definitely agree with you that the translation is a pretty different request. And sure, the asker probably really does want the other person to just stop drinking. Here’s a relevant excerpt: 

“Expressing genuine requests also requires an awareness of our objective. If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. When others trust that our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship, and that we expect this process to fulfill everyone’s needs, then they can trust that our requests are true requests and not camouflaged demands.” 

So I think the issue here is just that asking someone with a drinking problem to stop drinking is quite unlikely to work, and if it does work just like that it’ll probably be because it’s implied somehow that the asker will punish the other person for not doing it. I’m reminded of GTD and I think it’s definitely true that really small requests are more doable for all sorts of reasons. Also, here’s a relevant excerpt from one of the example dialogues in the book: 

Al: Burt I know we’ve talked about this a dozen times, but listen. I’m scared your damned cigarettes are going to kill you! You’re my best friend, and I want you around for as long as I can have you. Please don’t think I’m judging you. I’m not–I’m just really worried. (In the past, when Al had tried to get him to quit, Burt had often accused Al of judging him.) 

Burt: No, I hear your concern. We’ve been friends for a long time… 

Al: (making a request) Would you be willing to quit? 

Given that these conversations are given as examples of proper NVC, it seems that rephrasing it in roughly the way you proposed is kosher.

As a minor point, in the conversation with Al and Burt he doesn’t ever agree to quit smoking. So this is in line with what we seem to agree on. Phrasing it in a positive way is better and trivial to do, and something so big and general is unlikely to work.

NVC Question #5


“When others trust that our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship, and that we expect this process to fulfill everyone’s needs, then they can trust that our requests are true requests and not camouflaged demands.”

I’m not sure exactly what he means by this. Would you mind elaborating?


With NVC, we want to sincerely communicate that we care more about having an honest, empathetic relationship with the person, and about not having anyone feel bad or guilty after the interaction, than about getting whatever it is that we’re asking for. This sentence is about making it clear that we’re not interested in guilting people into doing something in a way that they’ll regret or feel bad about in some other way later.

Rationalist Conversation Patterns

A few months ago a conversation I had with someone at one of the NYC Rationality meetups prompted me to write an email on the subject of rationalist conversational norms. I kept telling myself I’d distill my points from the email into a more coherent summary, and I’ve haven’t, so instead I’m posting it pretty much without editing:

My take on some conversational patterns (no particular order):

  • Eliezer has listed “God”, “Hitler”, “absolutely certain”, “can’t prove that”, and “by definition” as red flags of irrational thinking.
  • One big positive signal that the person is thinking rationally is visibly pausing and stopping to think—looking inside and figuring out what we actually think/feel takes time, so too quick responses are suspect, though obviously this one can be faked. It’s not just pausing, but pausing and exhibiting the facial expressions and body language that indicate that you’re trying to figure something out.
  • The rationalist way is to strongly prefer positive statements to normative ones (observations not evaluations).
  • Speaking as though a counterexample refutes a correlation is not considered rational.
  • Saying that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is also not considered rational—there’s a post on exactly this.
  • Complaining, being bitter, blaming people, and labeling people are all outside of rational discourse as I see it.
  • On a related note, there are three types of “clever” stories from Crucial Conversations that are bad signs: Villain, Victim, and Helpless stories. The theme of Victim Stories is that “I am noble and pure and doing everything right, and I’m getting bad results because of outside circumstances. It’s not my fault”. The theme of Villain Stories is “not only do other people do things to make my life worse, they do it on purpose because they’re evil, and they deserve retribution”. Villain and Victim stories are about justifying past behavior. Helpless stories are about justifying future inaction. “I can’t do anything to change or improve my situation because…” All of those are big red flags in my book.
  • Also, saying “I feel x because he/she/they/it” or “I do x because he/she/they/it” or, “This other person made me do x” or “This other person made me feel x”. I think language that takes ownership of our actions, feelings, and choices, is very important.
  • Similarly, I’d say the words “can’t”, “must”, “ought”, “should”, “have to”, “unacceptable” etc. are all at least yellow flags of irrational thinking, though I can think of exceptions. My friend Molly and I used to talk about how “shoulds” are okay if there’s a corresponding “if” statement, like: “If you want to get a cheap Burning Man ticket, you should do it today, because they might sell out.”
  • Getting offended or defensive is not conducive to rational discourse, and the easiest way to mitigate the effect of those reactions is to admit them and examine them.
  • Actually, that’s a more general point. Emotions aren’t opposed to rationality—they’re data, and so the preferred way of dealing with them in rationalist discourse is to own them, admit them, put them on the table, try to explain them and question them. So “When you said that thing about red-headed people being less intelligent overall I got sad because I was imagining that maybe such a view would lead to them being treated unfairly, and it’s an important part of my value system to treat all human beings fairly”, or something like that. In my experience, this one is hard because people feel more vulnerable doing it that way.
  • Rationalist conversation is more likely to have an explicit goal than normal conversation. Keeping the conversation on track and not letting the goal drift is valued, and changing the subject to avoid things you have unpleasant reactions to or think might make you look bad without explicitly acknowledging that you’re doing so is frowned upon.

Short list of things that are positive signals of rationality:

  • Asking questions that help clarify the other person’s understanding of the situation. Like, “Wait, so are you saying that X is evidence for Y? If you believe that, does that mean you also believe this other thing?” Basically, assuming there’s a consistent model in the other person’s head and trying to figure it out.
  • Asking people for the evidence that led them to arrive at their beliefs is a good sign too. “What experience did you have that led you to this conclusion?”
  • Just generally seeming curious is a very good sign, and can be obvious.
  • Acknowledging when you have a bias that’s interfering with your ability to think clearly about something, or a motive that’s different from “seeking truth”.
  • Giving probability estimates and confidence intervals.
  • Being aware that what we’ve just heard other people say affects what we think, so requesting that each person form an opinion before either person shares it.
  • Showing surprise when presented with information that doesn’t fit your worldview is a very good sign that you’re trying to keep a consistent model.
  • Coming up with thought experiments to narrow down the source of differences in belief.
  • Prohibiting the use of certain words when we’re getting distracted by them.
  • Always asking “why?” and “how do I anticipate the world behaving because I believe this?”.
  • Using the vocabulary of rationality. This could be a much longer point, but naming cognitive biases, talking about heuristics, talking about what you anticipate happening, saying that you “intuit” something when it’s that, instead of saying that you “know” something. Referring to “motivated cognition”, “belief as attire”, asking whether particular feelings are “truth-tracking”, talking about clusters.

This is what I can think of right now, though I’d love to encourage a collaborative effort to refine it. Feel free to share it.

NVC Question #4


“We stay with empathy, allowing others the opportunity to fully express themselves before we turn our attention to solutions or requests for relief.”

Do you know what he means by “request for relief?” Is that asking them to do something so that we feel better?


I’m not completely sure. I think it means that before trying to figure out what people are requesting of you, you want to hear what they’re feeling and needing.

NVC in Action: Tovar

I often practice my NVC skills during conflicts with Tovar (my favorite five-year old :-)). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. One night last week, it worked amusingly well, so I thought I’d share.

Tovar got upset when I trapped him under a blanket for a few seconds while we were roughhousing. He did his usual “I’m sad” response, where he gets into child’s pose, cries a little, and announces that he is sad. My instincts in this sort of situation are to apologize and tell him I won’t do it again, even though by now that listening to what he’s saying usually works better. First, I was concentrating on identifying his feelings, “you’re sad”, “it seems you were scared when the blanket was on top of you”. (I think he responded to that by saying, “I wasn’t scared! I was a LITTLE scared!”)

I was starting to feel a bit hopeless, but I kept going, trying to identify his needs: “were you scared when I put the blanket over your head because you like to be able to see and move around?”, and it was like I’d flipped a switch. He said that yes, he was scared because he wanted to be able to see and move around, and then he was immediately on to the next thing, as though nothing had happened.

I know usually ease out of being upset a bit, maybe partially because I’m afraid it’ll make my original issue seem trivial if I move on so quickly, but Tovar had no such concern, at least in this case, so good for him!

He’s been leveling emotionally recently, which might be why my NVC attempts with him have been going better. Whatever the reason, I like it :-).

NVC Question #3


“When we sense ourselves being defensive or unable to empathize, we need to (a) stop, breathe, give ourselves empathy (b) scream nonviolently, or (c) take time out.”

Could you refresh me on what “scream non-violently” is?


That’s where you express your pain “nakedly and without blame”. An example from the book: “Hey, I’m in a lot of pain! Right now I really do not want to deal with your fighting! I just want some peace and quiet!”

NVC Question #2


“We accept responsibility rather than blame other people for our feelings by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values, or thoughts.”

I’m unclear on how this works with the NVC formula, or if it is something separate. Needs are the only thing mentioned in the formula, but I’ve seen the examples use values and other things. How do you see the accepting responsibility as fitting into the model?


The sentence in question is saying that we need to acknowledge that our feelings come from all those things, and I think the list is helpful for remembering why other people don’t cause our emotions. If we expected something else, or wanted something else, or had different thoughts, our emotions could be different. My best understanding is while it can be particularly nice to mention needs (of the sort listed in the list of needs in the book), as long as you say “because I …” then it’ll pretty much be okay, since you’ve made it clear to ourselves and to others that you’re the one responsible for your feelings. Here are some example sentences referencing each of the above things:

  • needs: I felt hurt when you didn’t call on my birthday because I need appreciation and recognition. 
  • desires: I felt hurt when you didn’t call on my birthday because I really wanted to hear from you and to know you cared. 
  • expectations: I felt disappointed when you didn’t call on my birthday because I was expecting to hear from you. 
  • values: I felt disappointed when you didn’t call on my birthday because it matters to me that you remember the details of my life. 
  • thoughts: I felt disappointed when you didn’t call on my birthday because I was thinking that it meant you didn’t care about me. 

When I imagine how an easily triggered third-party would react to the different ways of saying it, I think he’d be a lot less defensive with any of those ones above than with “I feel hurt because you didn’t call me on my birthday”. That being said, I think he’d be the least crazy about the expectation one and he might not be so into the thought one either. There is a part in the book about how expression thoughts is intermediate—way more helpful than not owning the feeling, but not as useful as recognizing the underlying need.