The Four Ingredients to Effectively Tell my Partner to Stop Telling Me Where to Go (in the Car)! – Part II

The second in a two part series on a language-learning perspective/approach to NVC.

Photo by Dario Morandotti on Unsplash

With guest blogger Elizabeth A. Thomson

Last Fall I was very happy to discover someone on the other side of the world (Australia) who, like me, has a background in linguistics and takes a language- learning approach to learning NVC (Nonviolent Communication). As some of you know, I have offered workshops on this topic (which I call “empathy hacking”) and am now writing a book on the subject, that will be published by PuddleDancer Press in 2022. Excited about Elizabeth’s ideas, I asked her to write some guest blogs. Here is the second,  one in a two-part series. If you’d like to be in contact with Elizabeth, her contact info appears at the end of the blog. 

In the last blog, I shared how when I was driving with my husband in the car he gave me directions without checking with me first if I needed or wanted them; I actually knew where I was going and had a route in mind that I liked and made sense to me. After sharing the non-NVC version, I shared this alternative, NVC-based version:

Right now, when I think about you giving me directions to the restaurant, I feel stuck and cross because I want to be able to make my own decisions by myself on which way to go.  That’s because I need agency and autonomy.  Next time we are driving, would you be willing to wait until I ask for help?

Photo by Ivan Shilov on Unsplash

Now, let’s look at the ingredients of this alternative version. Here’s how to do it:

Ingredient 1 (Observation):  Express the incident as a recount of events without evaluation.

Ingredient 2 (Feelings):  Express how you feel about what happened without blame.

Ingredient 3 (Needs):  Express what you need to be OK.

Ingredient 4 (Request):  Make a request for action.

Below is my Nonviolent Communication version broken down into the four ingredients.

StepsNONVIOLENT version
1. ObservationRight now, when I think about you giving me directions to the restaurant, …
2. Feelings…I feel stuck and cross…
3. Needs…because I want to be able to make my own decision by myself on which way to go.  That’s because I need agency and autonomy.  
4.  Request for actionNext time we are driving, would you be willing to wait until I ask for help?

Being Nonviolent uses language patterns that make the following meanings and use the following vocabulary and grammatical structures, that is, lexico-grammar.

The four ingredientsThe meaningsThe lexico-grammatical options at stakeExample
ObservationA recount of a specific event with indisputable facts (who, what, where, when)Statements of actions and happenings within relative clauses of mental processes in the present Right now, when I think about you giving me directions to the restaurant …    
FeelingsFeelings connected to the physical sensations of the bodyAdjectives of affect in the present (i.e. predicate adjectives)
Sub: First person singular
Feeling (mental) verb
I feel stuck and cross 
NeedsUniversal needs that are shared by humanityGeneralised and abstract nouns
Sub: First person singular
because I want to be able to make my own decision by myself on which way to go. That’s because I need agency and autonomy.  
RequestsFor action, connection and clarity which are positive, choiceful, clear and doable Positive action and mental (feeling, thinking and sensing) verbs; Prefaced questions which are direct and specific.Action
Next time we are driving,would you be willing to wait until I ask for help?
I’m wondering how it feels to hear that?
Could you tell me what you just heard me say? 

So there it is: four ingredients comprising ‘nonviolent’ meanings, using particular lexico-grammatical choices.

I trust that this short example exemplifies how Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a particular meaning-making process.  It foregrounds a particular perspective on our social relationships, that of compassion and connection.  And it has a particular set of language choices which express its primary characteristics: compassion and connection.

People who know and understand NVC use a communication style or register which uses specific language choices to impart particular meanings which aid connection between people and express heartfelt compassion.  The social purpose of NVC is to connect personally and interpersonally through honesty and empathy. 

Photo by Edurne Chopeitia on Unsplash

To become proficient at this register is like learning a language.  In fact, in my opinion, NVC is a language learning process.  While it is accepted that NVC is typically described as a consciousness and a mindset, it also includes mastery of particular language choices that define the register.  And mastery takes practice, just like a language learning exercise.  

A student of NVC learns the specific lexis and grammatical structures (often in a Foundation Course) which express the semantic features or meanings of NVC, most notably the lexico-grammar of the four ingredients: observations, feelings, needs and requests.   

Importantly, it takes practice to express the meanings clearly and precisely which is why there are ‘practice’ groups.  Being adept at making these meanings is what indicates that a person has control of the register and is competent at speaking and writing nonviolently. Attending a practice group is a bit like participating in a conversation class when learning a foreign language! 

Now, if expressing these meanings is something that isn’t in your usual repertoire, then you’ll probably find it a bit challenging to make these meanings without slipping into more familiar patterns.  You’ll need practice.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

And certainly in my case, my violent example was real and I felt the feelings and had the needs as outlined above.  However, instead of using my best NVC (“giraffe”)  language at the time, I was triggered and thus reacted with less skill, selecting from my habitual patterns without pausing to think how my expressions might land on my partner.  

These old patterns did the following (see Part One of this blog for the violent version of what I expressed):

  • I cast my partner as having habitually bad behaviors (“every time”);
  • I held him responsible for my emotions, that is, he caused me to feel this way (“It drives me crazy!)”;
  • I martyred myself “(I just suck it up and do as you say”); and
  • Demanded that he change (“I wish you would just stop it!”).

No wonder he was silent.

Changing the way we talk to each other can be a challenge, but it can also offer us a new way of expressing what we need in a way that builds social bonds and connection rather than just expresses pain and blame.  

If we are alive to change and want to express ourselves honestly and with empathy, then we embark on a language-learning journey.  A journey with wonderful outcomes that enrich life and make it more wonderful.  It is as easy as learning the four ingredients of Observation, Feelings, Needs and Requests.

If you are interested in reading more about NVC and Language:

Halliday, M.A.K 2014 Introduction to Functional Grammar, Edward Arnold Press  Martin, J.R. and White, Peter, R.R 2005 The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, United Kingdom.Rosenberg, Marshall 2015 Nonviolent Communication: A language of Life, Puddle Dancer Press, Encinitas.Thomson, E.A. 2020 Connecting Through Talk online series, Open 

You can reach Elizabeth at: Coaching to Clarity, 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s