When people ask me, “What is Nonviolent Communication (NVC)?” I have different ways of replying. At different times, I’ll describe as:
- A way to discover curiosity and unexpected creativity.
- Being honest and authentic with connection.
- Being heard and having confidence that you’re hearing others.
Lately, though, I have become fascinated with what I like to call the “positivity” of NVC. The more I think about this aspect, the more I see it as core to what I consider NVC’s “magic.” This “positivity” is what makes NVC powerful and transformative.
In contrast to NVC positivity (which I’ll discuss in more detail below), have you ever noticed that most criticism, judgment, and blame is negative? It’s focused on what we don’t like, don’t want, (or don’t want to happen), and what we consider insufficient, unacceptable, or “wrong.” This negativity stems from our focusing overall as a species on what’s not working. The proverbial squeaky wheel, rather than the wheel that’s turning, gets the grease.
In a way, this is understandable. We intrinsically want to see our needs met. And when our needs are unmet, it’s painful for us, literally. We feel frustrated, angry, anxious, depressed, or impatient. And these feelings — even if we don’t always fully notice them — show up in our bodies as constriction, pressure, tensions, and stress. So what’s “wrong” is really “in our face.” With strong emotions, it’s like a five-alarm fire. Alert! Needs up! Needs up!
In effect, this demonstrates how our systems are hard-wired to tell us when our needs are met or not. I call this the basic NVC “algorithm”: Needs Met= Happy. Needs Unmet = Unhappy. When we have needs calling for our attention, we “feel” it intensely (in our bodies, and via our feelings) because it’s our system’s way of getting our attention.
On a survival and evolutionary level, it makes complete sense that we’re hard-wired “to see the glass half empty.” If we’re warm enough, have enough to eat, and are safe, our systems can relax. It’s when that proverbial tiger is coming through the woods that our systems go into overdrive. If something is “off” in our physical environment or world, we get loud and clear messages via our bodies because otherwise, we’d be tiger dinner.
Of course, the stakes are not as high in every situation as being chased by a tiger. But the principle is the same: if we have some needs unmet (or if we’re anticipating they’ll go unmet) our systems will go into “hyper-drive” to get our attention and resolve it. And, also as a result, in the inverse, when things are going “well” in our lives and we are happy, we tend not to dwell on it. We often can take it for granted; since our system is not sounding an alarm and is actually relaxed and at peace (which I believe is our natural and preferred state).
Yet even though we’re hard-wired in this way (and neuroscience is now documenting it) all life, in fact, is ultimately about the actualization of needs. If you think about natural adaptation, it’s simply the process — over millions of years — of living beings (be they plants, animals, insects, or humans) doing the best they can to meet their needs in the environment they are in.
And it’s clear that when a plant gets the light and water it needs, it grows and thrives. We humans are no different — we thrive when our needs are met! We feel happy, relaxed, trusting, and open. When our needs are met, “happy” chemicals (like oxytocin) are released in our bodies.
So this is why empathy feels so “good.” Our needs to be heard, to be understood, and accepted are all being met. And then, in the process of being heard empathically, we are identifying other needs that are up for us and also want our attention. And what’s fascinating for me is our bodies do not seem to know the difference between identifying the need and the need actually being met. When we hear or identify the need “up” for us, our systems relax, expand and come alive, like a thirsty plant getting water.
Consistent with this, the entire practice of NVC can be seen as a focus on connection and also on finding what I consider the “gold”—the core needs we want to meet. As Marshall put it, this is about “seeing how we can make life more wonderful.” In effect, how can we take things we don’t like or unhappy about—expressed as judgments, criticism, blame, and demands–and identify these as what we and/or the other person does want, on a core level. Or, in another way to look at this, as the song goes that Marshall used to sing, “See me beautiful.” This song is about this positive intention of NVC and here are the lyrics:
See me beautiful
Look for the best in me
It’s what I really am
And all I wanna be
It may take some time
It may be hard to find
But see me beautiful
See me beautiful
Each and every day
Could you take a chance
Could you find a way
To see me shining through
In everything I do
See me beautiful
In effect, if you put aside the four steps of NVC and focus on this basic concept—of looking for “the best” in someone and their best intentions—you will be practicing NVC and you also will I believe end up identifying the heart of the NVC process—the core needs up that’s driving the situation.
By the way, this does not mean that everything that people say or do is, in fact, life-serving or beautiful. Every day we see thousands of examples of what I would call “tragic” strategies — people attempting to meet needs (their own and others) and where they “miss the mark” often with very painful and harmful consequences. And yet beneath the surface of this tragedy, I do believe that they were attempting to meet needs the best way at that moment that they knew how. They were attempting to make life more wonderful.
It’s also tragic that due to the “squeaky wheel” hard-wiring in our brains that we usually attempt to ask for what we want by telling people what we don’t like and sharing our beautiful needs via complaints, criticism, and negatives. It’s tragic because we are calling out for help. We want to be heard. We want our needs to be respected and acted on. We long for understanding and acceptance, and maybe responsiveness and support.
And yet, we’re doing so in a way that makes it less likely that we’ll be heard. No one likes being judged, or given ultimatums or demands. And talking about what we don’t want and don’t like rather than what we would like via our beautiful and intrinsically “positive” needs. This makes it harder to hear how beautiful (and doable) our desires truly are.
In my next blog entry, I will go into more detail on the “positivity” of Nonviolent Communication and how it turns up on a structural level in the four core steps of NVC. For now, without even focusing on formal steps or a process, I invite you to simply practice today seeing yourself and others as “beautiful” in terms of the positivity of your intentions. What need were you or others attempting to meet?
Again, this does not mean that you condone or agree with everything that others say or do. Even they might not like their own behavior or words; they may actually be embarrassed, regretful, or ashamed (in the interview I did with Marshall in Sun Magazine, he spoke about how when he worked with those incarcerated they had intense judgments about their own choices and actions). As I often ask at workshops, how many people have done anything today or this week that they regret?
Yet, just as all life has attempted over millions of years (leading to the amazing life forms that have evolved and live on the planet today) we are simply moment by moment doing the best we can with the resources we have to meet our needs.
P.S. I recommend the video below with Red Grammer in which he talks about why he wrote the song See Me Beautiful
To continue reading this blog series on the Positivity of NVC, check out Part 2, “Needs.“