Transformational Connections Through Compassionate Communication
Individually perceived reality always contains a story, and that story is based on language. The words we think and speak can create powerful connections between people, and words can also create destructive conflict. Compassionate Communication or Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph. D., to help build bridges between ideas and people. Rosenberg studied various psychological approaches to find out what determines connection and disconnection between human beings. He focused on the aspects of needs-based communication and developed the Nonviolent Communication Model. NVC can be a powerful tool to explore group and team dynamics, support compassionate dialogue across differences, collaborate effectively, and resolve conflict, all of which are essential skills of advanced leadership effectiveness.
As a basic approach to conflict resolution, the NVC model aims to support an exchange of words that is free of judgment and blame. Instead of asking for potentially mutually unsatisfying compromises, the coach or facilitator asks about the deeper underlying needs. Through its emphasis on deep listening, the approach fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy. It builds mutual understanding and intentions and unlocks a shared desire to give from the heart and look for solutions that consider each other’s needs. The following assumptions are at the core of the NVC model:
1) Needs are the driving force behind all our conscious and unconscious behaviors and mental models. Our needs are expressed in beliefs and values. Needs are universal and common for all human beings. The American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, for example, defined five hierarchical human needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. In the NVC model, everyone’s needs are equally important.
2) Our behaviors and mental models are Strategies to meet our needs. There is always a positive intent behind every strategy – an attempt to meet certain needs. There is an infinite number of strategies to meet a given need.
3) People differ in their adopted strategies and they are alike at their basic needs level.
4) Needs are dynamic – they can change from one moment to another. Feelings indicate if our needs are met or not met. If we experience pleasurable feelings, it means that our current needs are met. If we experience challenging feelings, it means that specific needs are not met.
The Simplified NVC Process
Recognizing and naming needs creates a deeper level of self-understanding and mindful presence. It reveals our deepest, usually unconscious, motivation and facilitates resolving inner conflicts. It quickly helps bring the nervous system back to balance from reactivity to responsiveness. Then we can choose to take care of our needs in new creative ways.
The simplified NVC process can be broken down into four steps:
1. What is actually happening in a situation?
Name the concrete actions that are observed that affect your well-being. Articulate that without judgment or evaluation – simply say what people are doing that you either like or don’t like.
2. What feelings come up in the observation?
What emotions can you name? How do you feel in both mind and body?
3. What needs are connected to the feelings that have been named? What values or desires are impacted?
It could be helpful to begin with a list of the values that you hold dear. Does anything about the current situation conflict with one of these values?
4. Make a specific request for action that would help take care of your unmet needs.
Many complaints stem from unasked requests. Is there a request that you can make that would resolve the situation and address your needs?
NVC is a very practical self-compassion practice that builds resilience and helps create a grounded, impactful presence in challenging circumstances. We can practice it not only on an interpersonal, but also on a group and systemic level. By doing so, we expand our understanding of the reality by expressing our observations, feelings and needs, and then compassionately receiving the same from others. NVC invites dialogue to generate new solutions that consider needs on a deeper different level and from different perspectives.
Nonviolent Communication is a relevant concept and competency for leaders facing complexity, uncertainty and all manners of change. In relation to the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) model, one of Nebo’s highly valued assessment tools, the NVC approach can be useful to support transitioning from reactive tendencies to creative leadership competencies through the transformation of the ego identity. It is also applicable in transitioning between creative and integral leadership sensemaking in the Universal Leadership Model (ULM) through the integration of disowned parts of the self. The recognition of needs in self and others, along with the action of moving to address these needs, unlocks the compassion needed to transcend ego-focused limitations. In plain language, compassionate communication offers a simple path to deep connection and transformation.
Maslow, A (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being. Simon and Schuster.
Rosenberg, M. B. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life (3rd edition). PuddleDancer Press.