NVC on Caltrain

I’ve decided to finally write up a story I’ve been bragging about ever since it happened (around this summer, I think). I was on the Caltrain heading to the South Bay from San Francisco, and somewhere along the line a bunch of drunk guys got on and started yelling pretty heatedly at each other about baseball. I gathered there had just been an important Giants game. I remember hearing one of the guys say something close to, “Everyone on this train who’s not a Giants fan, fuck you!”

No one was physically attacking anyone else, but there were some beer bottles, and the body language of the participants was pretty aggressive.

I noticed something odd. I expected, from past experience, that my instinct would be to move away from the angry drunk guys who were getting in each other’s faces, because that would be safer. This time, my gut was telling me something different; it was puling me towards the guys who were fighting. It wanted me to defuse the situation by empathizing with them. Presumably, this change was brought about by all the NVC I’d been studying. I’d memorized at least a few examples conversations of people successfully using empathy to calm people down and make things safer, and my brain seemed to be doing a patten match. Upon reflection, I decided that I agreed with my gut. My explicit model of reality predicted that I might well be able to help, and trying seemed fairly low-risk.

At this point, the (also drunk) friend of the most aggressive perpetrator was trying to intercede, and had somewhat cornered him over by the stairs to the upper level of Caltrain seats. The friend’s approach wasn’t working very well though, and the main guy kept pushing him aside and was continuing to shout at the other faction (I was beginning to get a sense of the bigger picture of what was going on), and at everyone on the train. So first I worked on positioning myself next to this main guy, whom I’ll now refer to as Drunk Guy #1, or DG1. Here’s about how it went; obviously the whole scene is quite imperfectly remembered: 

me: Hearing you raise your voice and seeing you holding that beer bottle, I’m getting kind of scared, because I’m thinking that someone might get hurt, and I want to feel safe.

Not much response from him at this point. I vaguely remember him seeming slightly sympathetic, but not paying much attention. Getting closer to him and telling him how I felt without provoking a negative reaction increased my confidence some. I think I chatted with DG1’s friend a bit–nothing memorable.

Before too long, DG1 sat down on the steps for a bit between episodes of shouting. I took my opportunity and moved over next to him.

me: It doesn’t seem like they’re really listening to you right now, and I’m curious about what you’re thinking. Why don’t you talk to me instead?
DG1: It’s just that a lot of these fuckers on the train aren’t Giants fans, you know?
me: So you’re noticing that a bunch of people on the train aren’t Giant’s fans, and you’re upset because…
DG1: They’re not real San Franciscans. That’s the problem.
me: The way you see it, they aren’t real San Franciscans, and that bothers you.
DG1: Yeah, you know that real San Francisco character. What do they know about that?
me: It seems like there’s something about the character of San Francisco that’s important to you, and you’re worried that these other people don’t have that?
DG1: That’s right. I mean, I grew up here. I know what it used to be like. And it’s not the same. All these new people coming in, and the city’s changing.
me: You’re worried that the character of San Francisco is changing because new people who are moving in?
DG1: It’s not how it used to be, you know? Being a San Franciscan used to mean something. me: I’m curious to understand how this relates to what you’re saying about the Giants. Is that what makes you upset when you hear about people who aren’t Giants fans?
DG1: It’s not just that.
me: So what else is there? I want to hear.
DG1: San Francisco always gets the short end of the stick, you know?
me: Sounds like you’re mad because you think San Francisco is being treated unfairly.
DG1: The rest of California, like LA, they’re greedy.
me: You’re concerned that resources aren’t being allocated fairly?
DG1: Yeah, like water. Did you know that the Bay Area produces X% of the state’s water supply, and we only get to use Y%? The rest of it goes down to Southern California. (I don’t remember the details of his exact complaint.)
me: Hmm. So the Bay Area produces more of the water, and then some of it gets used by other parts of the state?

I think it was around that point in the conversation that we arrived at his stop, and he and his friend got off the train. Pretty sure at least once early in the conversation he had gotten up to yell at the people on the train again, but I don’t remember the details. Notably, almost as soon as we started talking I saw him visibly relax, and seem much more lucid (seemed less drunk). I was making some effort to break down his points into feelings and needs, but mostly I was just repeating back what he was saying. The interaction surprised me mostly because it matched the examples in the NVC book so closely. Sure enough, when I empathized with him, we moved pretty quickly from his surface thoughts to deeper concerns. Who knew that a drunk guy on the train going on about baseball was actually worried about the changing character of the city he grew up in, and the fairness of California’s water distribution policies?

There’s one last piece of the story. After DG1 got off the train, the main guy from the other faction approached me. I guess I’d somehow put myself in a mediator role, and he wanted a fair hearing too. He was calmer, less drunk, and wanted to clarify that he’d gotten so upset because DG1’s comments had gotten racial in nature. (The other faction appeared hispanic.) I empathized with him too until I got off at my stop. That’s my story! Some takeaways:

  • NVC seems to work the way the book said it would. 
  • It’s easier to implement NVC with strangers, even in a heated and unfamiliar situation, than with people I’m close to.
  • Because of this incident I’ve started to relate to the world around me differently: angry and aggressive people don’t scare me as much, since I trust my strategies to defuse tension better.
  • Acting on my explicit beliefs when it doesn’t feel quite natural is fun every time I do it, since I get new information.

The situation I just described is the most attention-grabbing thing I’ve done with NVC. (Markedly improving the quality of my personal relationships matters to me, but it’s not dramatic.) Runner up would be that I’ve empathized with strangers and had them pour their hearts out to me shortly after having met me, which never used to happen before I learned NVC. That’s been cool too, in a perspective-shifting sort of way.

I want to keep testing my worldview, I want to further internalize the true extent of my agency, and I want good stories :-), so if you’re ever out and about with me and see a (not too dangerous) situation that NVC might help with, I welcome being encouraged to intervene.

NVC Question #1


“Mommy is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.” is changed to “Mommy feels disappointed when you don’t finish your food, because I want you to grow up strong and healthy.” Why?


So the basic NVC model is observations, feelings, needs, and requests. And when you’re doing NVC for real, not just saying the words, you’re actually breaking it down that way in your head. The central mistake we make when we’re upset with other people is believing–on some level–that they control our emotions. Or maybe a fair thing to say is that we “anticipate as if” the other person causes our feelings. So even I might say out loud, “I know this isn’t your fault–this is just what I’m feeling”, the sorts of things that pop into my mind as possible solutions revolve around the other person. For me, the easiest way to mess up NVC when using it expressively is to give only nominal attention to my need component of the equation. And in my case I think it’s because thinking about something as a need of mine, instead of something I deserve, or a shitty way that someone else is acting, feels much more vulnerable. Partly because it primes my mind to think of things I could do differently to fix the problem, and that implies thinking for myself and I become aware that I likely won’t get it perfect right away. So I start to try to make excuses that lead me back in the direction of how really the other person or the circumstance “should just change”…

The mother who says, “Mommy is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.” is saying words about her feelings, but she’s clearly focused on what her kid could do to fix the problem. As NVC says, what you’re requesting is just your strategy, not your fundamental need. And whether you voice the need behind the strategy makes a huge difference as far as which possibilities are primed to pop into your mind. So if the mother says “because I want you to grow up strong and healthy” and the kid doesn’t do what she wants she’s going to respond more from a mindset of wanting the kid to be healthy than from wanting the kid to eat his food. And that’s way more conducive to creative problem-solving.

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.

Responding to difficult psychedelic experiences deck

I like the idea of being prepared for whatever difficult situations might come up in my life. That’s why I made the deck about how to talk to the police. Given that I do stuff like, say, attend Burning Man, I figured I’d throw some knowledge about how to deal with people having psychedelic crises into the mental preparedness backpack too. I made this deck from the resources I found on the MAPS website:

Download this file

And even though I haven’t had occasion to use the advice in its intended context, I think it is much more broadly useful. For example, “Talk through, not down”, and “Difficult is not necessarily bad” are useful principles to remember when talking to anyone who’s upset.

I’ve noticed a pattern: the selection pressures on specialized communication advice seem to be especially good. Some of my favorite tips on how to talk to people came from advice about how to talk to kids, abusers, crazy people, and people having psychedelic crises.

Crucial Conversations deck

The third deck of communication cards I made was from Crucial Conversations. Recommended to me by Anna Salamon, this book gave me a lot of insight into the inner workings of the stories we tell ourselves that create our emotions.

The basic model is that the purpose of dialogue is to get all the relevant information into the shared “pool of meaning”, and then to decide what to do with it. When people don’t feel safe, they become either silent, withholding meaning from the pool, or violent, trying to force meaning into the pool. The entrance condition of dialogue is Mutual Purpose–having a shared reason to talk about the thing in the first place. The continuation condition of dialogue is Mutual Respect.

The book also describes what it calls our “Path to Action”, where we first see or hear facts about the world, then tell ourselves stories about them, then feel emotions based on the stories, then act based on the emotions. We want our emotions to both be based on true stories and to lead us in useful directions. If any of our emotions lacks one or both of these qualities, we can change it by figuring out the facts that generated the relevant story and choosing to tell a different story. 

One of the key lessons for me was learning to recognize three types of stories the book calls “clever stories”: the Victim Story (“it’s not my fault”, the Villain Story (“it’s all your fault”), and the Helpless Story (“there’s nothing else I can do”). We make up these stories because they conveniently excuse us from responsibility and help us justify continuing to act in the same way that created the problem instead of modifying our behavior. We tell the stories when we’ve done something we feel bad about and don’t want to admit it–and they’re almost never true. I started tagging both my own and others’ stories with these labels when they applied, and I’ve found it quite valuable. 

A lot of the rest of the advice in the book is so simple it’s embarrassing how much mileage I’ve gotten from using it. For example, if someone misunderstands something you said, Contrasting (“I didn’t mean X, I did mean Y”) can be very useful. Don’t let yourself get away with saying stuff like “Someone has to tell her how she’s acting, even if it means being cruel”. Instead, present your brain with a more complex question: “How can I tell her how she’s acting AND be kind?”. If you find that you’re becoming either silent or violent in conversation, return to your motive. Ask yourself, “What do I really want to get out of this conversation?” and “How would someone who really wanted those results behave?”.

Here’s the deck:

Download this file

10 Rules for dealing with the police deck

Getting clear about what why legal rights are in police encounters had been in the back as something I wanted to do someday for years. I finally did it! I used the information from Flex Your Rights to make this deck. They do a good job of explaining what the official rules are, which is most of what I wanted to know. Barry Cooper, who has actual experience being a cop has some conflicting advice: he recommends minimizing suspicion by consenting to searches during traffic stops if you have items you don’t want the police to see that you’ve hidden well.

With that caveat, here’s the deck:

Download this file

The only police encounter I’ve had since learning the deck was a cop who saw me walking (barefoot :-)) along the side of a highway in a place that wasn’t for pedestrians.  Didn’t need to use any of this–he was friendly and he gave me a ride home.  It still makes me feel safer to have the information internalized though.

How to Talk to Kids deck

I’ve been living with Tovar, my favorite five-year-old, for a little over a year now. I’ve always liked kids a lot, so when I moved in I knew my plan was to interact with him a bunch, and I wanted it to go as well as possible. I didn’t have much experience handling situations where kids didn’t want to do what I wanted them to, and I wanted to be better at connecting with them overall, so I read the book on this subject that my friends recommended the most highly: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I loved it, and as with NVC, the hardest time to remember all the advice was during an actual conflict with Tovar. The book came with helpful cheat sheets with the most important strategies for different categories of communication.

The cards really helped even more than I thought they would. Sometimes the strategies improved the situation a lot right away, and sometimes they didn’t, but having a mental list of things to try helped me feel a lot more in control, and THAT always helped quite a bit. The real secret about this book is that it’s definitely not just for communicating with kids. I use this stuff all the time on adults and kids both. And to be clear, I love it when people use the techniques on me! In particular, when I’m upset an easy and fun one to use is #3 from helping children deal with their feelings, give the child his wishes in fantasy (e.g. “I wish I could make that banana ripe for you right now!”). It cracks me up that this works as well as it does.

Here’s the deck:

Download this file

Nonviolent Communication deck

Nonviolent Communication has a lot of ridiculously useful communication advice. Of course, the hardest time to remember communication advice is in the middle of a conflict. Eventually, after getting frustrated with myself for not being able to remember how to do what the book said in the moment, I got an idea! If the problem was about forgetting, perhaps SRS was the solution…

So I extracted all the material that seemed important and made an Anki deck. Reviewing the deck made me realize that successfully practicing Nonviolent Communication relied on understanding more of the subtleties than I had realized, so I ended up including a fair amount of detail. I also put all the exercises from the book in there, and the NVC half of all the sample conversations. I found that doing so made it easier for me to automatically mentally classify and translate statements. Evidence that memorizing these things was actually have an effect is that for a while I was having crazy NVC Tetris effect dreams.

My best NVC story is that I was on Caltrain once and there were some drunk guys fighting loudly about some sports thing, and I noticed that my visceral reaction to the situation had changed: in the past my impulse was to move away from angry drunk potentially violent people, but instead I felt drawn to them, and I intuited that the safest thing would be to go empathize with them and defuse the situation. My brain pattern matched the situation to the sample conversations in the book. Sure enough, it worked! I cornered one guy, calmed him down, and then when I was done with that the other guy came over to talk to me because he wanted to be heard too. I like to brag about this one, so feel free to ask for details if you see me in person and haven’t already heard my story :-). 

Please email me with any questions that come up when you use it, and I’ll post my answers here.