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My neck felt like tight ropes, my cheeks flushed hot pink, my whole body tensed.
My brain buzzed with thoughts like bees to a dripping honeycomb.
I paced. Then, I paused.
What am I feeling?
Oh, it’s anger. Hello, anger. Immediately, my shoulders soften away from my ears.
What need do I have that is not being met?
Connection. The need to be seen and heard.
My breathing begins to slow down. I stop pacing. I think, Oh, is that all? Yes, I just feel disconnected from my husband. And, I feel like I’m invisible.
I can relax into the knowledge of why I feel like a caged tiger ready to attack my completely innocent, loving, and unsuspecting husband.
My anger begins to soften. I know what I need.
Identifying feelings and needs are two of the steps in Nonviolent Communication (NVC). This tool, developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg in the 1970s, helps people to align and connect in a difficult conversation as opposed to creating more hostility.
I heard about this tool for many years but had disregarded it because I did not connect with the word “nonviolent.” Nonviolent? What was violent communication? I figured that violent communication must be yelling and screaming at each other. I was raised to avoid conflict at all costs, so I did not see how the tool could help me.
I studied the NVC tool more in-depth during a six-week course in my coaching program. Not only has it improved my communication with other people, but it has helped me to be more compassionate with myself.
What I learned is that violent communication involves threatening, judging, dehumanizing, blaming, or coercing others in order to get our way in a situation. You know, talking like a jerk.
Many of us are taught to express our feelings in terms of what another person has “done to us.” Unfortunately, we are not taught to take ownership of our feelings and needs in order to ask healthily for what benefits and is fair to all parties involved.
I now prefer to refer to NVC as “Compassionate Communication,” which aligns more with how I would like to talk to myself and others.
The Four Steps to Compassionate Communication
Step One: Take Out the Drama
When we are agitated or provoked by a situation, it often feels dramatic. Making observations instead of stating opinions or evaluations of someone’s behavior helps to diffuse any potential defensiveness from the other party.
Judgment can sound like, “He is too busy,” “She is so obnoxious,” or “You are not eating enough.” Blaming sounds like, “You’re bringing me down,” “She gives me anxiety,” or “You drive me crazy when you leave the dishes in the sink!” If we begin a difficult conversation with someone, it works best if they don’t feel judged or criticized from the opening pitch.
Instead, try this:
“I noticed that he worked 60 hours this week.”
“There were three dishes in the sink after dinner last night.”
“My sister called me three times this week and each time talked about people who treated her in ways she didn’t like.”
Step Two: Identify the Feeling
NVC states that our feelings are a direct product of our needs. If our needs are being met, we feel what we consider to be positive emotions. When our needs are not being met, we feel what we consider to be more negative emotions. However, when we learn that feelings are not good or bad, merely connected to our needs, the question becomes, are my needs being met or not?
There are many nuances of our emotions, as subtle and varied as an orchestra. Yet most of us are able to identify a few basic feelings that sound more like blasts from a car horn: “Mad! Happy! Sad!” In the NVC Needs Inventory, the more specific feelings listed for anger are: enraged, furious, incensed, indignant, irate, livid, outraged, or resentful. It’s almost poetic.
I believe this is the most powerful and profound step. Being able to identify these more specific emotions is an act of validation.
What do I feel? I feel outraged. Giving my anger this label helps me to see its size and shape, to feel the scope of my anger in a way that “I’m mad” just doesn’t.
Step Three: Identify the Unmet Need
Most difficult situations arise from feeling one of the emotions listed under the unmet need category. Most of us are well aware of our basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, and a stable support system. There is a slew of social-emotional needs that are lesser known.
The main categories of needs listed in the NVC Needs Inventory are connection, physical well-being, honesty, play, peace, autonomy, and meaning. These needs and their subsets are felt in some capacity by every human being on the planet.
Not only has identifying an unmet need helped me to be kinder and more compassionate to others, but it has also helped me not to be such a jerk to myself.
Here’s an example that comes up for me at work; I can get irritated when I am interrupted while trying to get work done in my office. I use the first three steps of NVC:
In the last hour, five people have knocked on my door to ask for something.
I feel agitated.
My need for harmony, effectiveness, and independence are not being met.
My old way of handling this would have been to blame all the other people for interrupting me and simmer in silence while I proceeded to say nothing to them.
In identifying my feelings and unmet needs, I realize that I can meet my needs myself by changing my environment or altering my schedule. Realizing that I am actually in control of meeting my own needs has been the biggest game changer for me.
If I am lonely, I realize I have a need for connection. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from my partner, whom I may have been silently mad at for making me feel lonely. I realize I can fulfill my need for connection by calling a friend or doing something social. There are times, however, when the need does require a request of someone else.
Step Four: The Request
A request is asking for something specific from another person. And, most importantly, it’s being willing to accept either “yes” or “no” as their answer. If the other person says “no” to a request, resulting in your anger—well, then, that wasn’t a request. That was a demand.
A demand requires “yes.” A request accepts any answer: “yes” or “no” or “can I get back to you?”
When making a request, it’s best to be as specific as possible. A request stating, “I would like you to be nicer to me,” can easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Take a pause. What is it that would really meet the unmet need? When I reflect, it’s that I want to spend more time with this person, not necessarily that they be nicer to me. So I request, “I would like it if we have dinner together one night a week. Can you honor this request?”
When we speak to another person from the place of feelings and needs, we create connection. Feelings and needs are universal. It opens up an opportunity for empathy. Oh, you’re feeling anger, loneliness, sadness? I know what that feels like. I can relate to you in this moment.
When we come from a place of judgment, blame, or evaluation, it creates disconnection. The other person feels attacked or defensive and likely does not even hear the next part of what you’re trying to communicate.
NVC has made me feel less crazy. The process of labeling my feelings and needs somehow validates them. The mere fact that there is an inventory of all of the feelings and needs somehow makes me feel less alone, less unraveled. It is also comforting when I compare what I’m feeling to some of the other options, like irritated as opposed to enraged, or worried instead of panicked.
Feelings and needs are an inherent part of human existence. Because everyone has them, they can provide a basis for human-to-human connection. Any time we can take a conflict and distill it down to the essential feelings and needs, at that point people can see each other human-to-human and it’s much easier to find a mutually agreeable resolution.
I use the feelings and needs inventories as a tool for self-awareness more often than I use them for communicating with my fellow humans. Becoming more practiced at identifying my feelings and needs allows me to better understand my emotions and where they are coming from.
So often, I can fulfill my own unmet needs myself by making conscious choices and decisions throughout my day.
For more information on Nonviolent Communication, visit their website. I highly recommend the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. There are also many YouTube videos of Marshall Rosenberg teaching his methodology recorded before he passed in 2015.