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.

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/IFS in Action: Nausea

I’m a firm believer that physical sensations on their own do not create suffering—that suffering arises when there’s some sort of internal conflict. The book Nonviolent Communication includes a story of a woman resolving a migraine by connecting with her underlying needs, which, to me, was one of the less believable parts of the book the first time I read it. Experiences I’ve had since then have made me considerably less skeptical.  

I was experiencing a lot of nausea (presumably from eating lots of food not long after a long water fast) the other night, so, after sitting around being upset about it for a while, I decided to try to turn my attention to my experience and be curious about the internal conflict producing my suffering. Sure enough, there were two pretty distinct voices.  

Voice 1: You really shouldn’t have eaten that second bowl of food. You were already feeling crappy, so you decided to eat more? That’s transparently stupid, you didn’t really even expect it to work, and you need to remember not to ever do that again.

Voice 2: You were feeling crappy, and you wanted to do something to help. That’s not so bad.  What you were doing wasn’t working, so you wanted to try an experiment, and do something to make yourself feel better.  

My plan was to recognize the positive intent behind each one and feel gratitude. So Voice 1’s concern mostly seemed to be with truth. Even while feeling crappy, it wanted me to remember to keep my beliefs truth-tracking, and recognize that I had been engaging in motivated reasoning when I decided to eat more, thinking that it might help me feel better. Voice 2 was concerned about self-care, and wanted me to keeping working to alleviate my discomfort. Both noble motives, it was easy to feel appreciation for them, and, once heard out, they were no longer in conflict.  

And sure enough, the nausea pretty much went away. It seemed like there was some chance I might still vomit (I didn’t), so I made sure I was in prepared for that eventuality, but the above exercise nearly eliminated the relevant suffering. Powerful and practical stuff.

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.

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.