NVC and the Value of a Single Word

An article I wrote for Steve Andreas’s NLP Blog:

Years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to hear a presentation by Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NonViolent Communication (NVC), a method for resolving conflicts. This was before I worked in wilderness therapy for several years and later started my own NLP private practice, so the field of communication and counseling was still new to me.

I was very impressed by Rosenberg’s talk and his specific method for expressing feelings, needs, and desires in a clear and constructive way.

In the middle of his talk, Rosenberg asked everyone in the group to think of a conflict we experienced sometime in the past. “Notice your feelings in the situation,” he said. “Who would like to share how you felt?”

When I said, “I felt misunderstood,” Rosenberg threw me for a loop by telling me my feeling wasn’t a feeling!

To which my feeling was indignation!

Before I go on, let me quickly introduce the NVC method for those not familiar with it. There are a lot of subtleties to using NVC effectively, but the process involves breaking down your experience into four steps—Observation, Feeling, Need, and Request. For example I might express myself by saying the following:

Observation: “Your personal things are lying all over the floor.”
Feeling: “When I see your things on the floor, I feel unsettled.”
Need: “I have a need for a clean and tidy living space.”
Request: “So my request is that you pick up your things before I get home.”

Rosenberg has many books that discuss the nuances of this elegant format, with lots of great first-hand examples. I want to share a simple nuance of my own that makes this process twice as easy with the simple use of one word. Now back to my story so I can tell you exactly what I mean.

“I did feel misunderstood,” I told Rosenberg.

“That’s not a feeling, it’s a judgment,” Rosenberg responded patiently. (He must have made this same clarification for approximately 500,000 people by this time.)

He’s wrong, was my instant reaction. I knew how I felt in the situation, and how I felt was misunderstood! I could point to the feeling in my body.

Rosenberg explained, “Misunderstood isn’t a feeling, it’s a judgment about how the other person is experiencing you. I’m sure you didn’t feel good, but the feeling isn’t misunderstood.”

I had to agree there was some sense in that. I was feeling something, true, but what I was expressing was a judgment. Rosenberg gave a host of other examples of judgments disguised as feelings: betrayed, let down, abandoned, violated, hurt — the list was very long. I began to see the difficulty in teasing out feelings from judgments.

This really got me thinking, so I took a semester class in NVC, and we continued to explore the subtle differences between a statement that was purely a feeling, and a statement that contained judgment. There were long NVC lists of feelings, and other long lists of judgments. It felt like learning a new language, requiring a lot of mental processing before I could be sure whether something was just a feeling, or a judgment cleverly entwined with a very real and visceral feeling that I could point to in my body. It certainly was not intuitive, either for me or for anyone else in the class.

Then I realized that the feeling itself, the felt sensation in the body — whether experienced as a sinking feeling in the gut, anxious butterflies, a stab through the heart, or a headache — is something that will always fall under the general category of feeling “bad” or at least “not ideal.” This suddenly made everything easy for me. I realized, “It doesn’t matter if I express exactly how I’m feeling. My roommate doesn’t really care whether it’s a sinking gut sensation or a headache. The important point is, I feel bad! That’s all I need to get across.”

From then on, for the feeling step, I simply substituted the word “bad.” For example:

Observation: “You’re personal things are lying all over the floor.”
Feeling: “When I see your things on the floor, I feel bad.”
Need: “I have a need for a clean and tidy living space.”
Request: “So my request is that you pick up your things before I get home.”

Suddenly the most difficult step of the process was automatically handled. I no longer had to interrupt my dialogue and think hard for two minutes to be sure I wasn’t accidentally judging someone with my “feeling.”

I’ll share a specific example of how using the word “bad” makes things so much easier. Two friends of mine, Rob and Mary, had gotten into such a conflict with each other that they weren’t even on speaking terms anymore. Rob rented a room in Mary’s house, and the friction of living together in the same house was steadily wearing on them, sometimes leading to explosive anger. It was a troubling experience for both of them, who had shared a deep connection before the conflict. Finally Mary asked me if I would help facilitate a conversation between them, and Rob agreed.

We met in a neutral place and I explained the basic format of NVC to them, which neither was familiar with. To make sure the conversation went in a balanced way, I told them we’d start by each of them getting to express their main grievance — and be heard by the other person — before we even considered any solution.

Mary started, and I helped her break it down into Observation, Feeling, Need, Request:

“OK,” Mary said, “My observation, Rob, is that when I’m walking through the house, you don’t meet my eyes, you don’t say hello, I get no acknowledgment that I even exist!”

“OK, great,” I said. “Rob, you may have a different experience, and this is what Mary sees. When you observe that, Mary, what’s your feeling?”

“That makes me feel really hurt!” She responded immediately.

At that Rob’s eyes narrowed. After all, she was indirectly accusing him of hurting her, which is a judgment, not a feeling. I stopped Mary and said, “Mary, what we want to get at with the feeling stage, is just how you felt. At this point it isn’t important if he did hurt you or didn’t hurt you, the point is how you feel.”

“Yeah, I feel like a second class citizen in my own house!”

Again she was mixing up her feeling with a judgment of how Rob was treating her. Herein lies the problem. People can spend a long time switching from one “feeling” to another, when all they’re really doing is making things worse by heaping multiple accusations (judgments) on the other person! Not useful.

“I have a suggestion to make this step really simple,” I said. “The whole point of the feeling step is just to get across one simple fact — you don’t like it. So instead of worrying about the exact feeling, which can so easily be confused with judgments of the other person, just say, ‘I felt bad.’ It’s as simple as that. You can both use that for the feeling step for the rest of this session.”

“OK,” Mary said, continuing, “When I observe those things, I feel bad.”

When Mary said this without the judgment, I could see Rob relax.

Mary went to the next step, “So my need is this: I have a need for a basic level of courtesy in my household.”

Rob nodded.

“And my request is that you simply give me a little nod, or say hello when we pass in the hall. It doesn’t have to be much, just some acknowledgement from one human being to another.”

After I asked Rob to repeat back to Mary what he’d heard, he did a pretty good job. And where he forgot parts, Mary filled him in, until she was satisfied that he’d indeed heard her. Then it was Rob’s turn.

He said, “My observation is that when I’m playing my video games, you’ll make comments about what a nice day it is outside. And it feels like you’re my mother trying to control my life!”

As you may imagine, Mary bristled at the last sentence.

“Ok,” I said, “Great observation, Rob. Let’s slow down though, because you ran right into the feeling step without actually talking about your feeling. When you say, ‘It feels like you’re my mother trying to control my life,’ that’s another judgment. It’s not really a feeling. Instead of that, try out what it’s like to just say, ‘When I hear those comments, I feel bad.’ Go ahead and start again with your observation, and go on from there.”

“OK, so my observation is that when I’m playing my video games, you make comments about what a nice day it is outside, or about other things I could be doing other than video games…”

“…And when I hear those comments, I feel bad.”

Mary nodded.

Rob looked over at me, “What comes next?”

“What’s your need?”

“Yeah,” he looked back at Mary, “I’m an adult and I have a need to be allowed to make my own decisions about my own life…”

“…So my request is that you not suggest other things I could be doing during the times when I’m playing video games.”

Again Mary nodded. I asked her to repeat back what she’d heard Rob say, so Rob could also be sure she’d heard him correctly. Then I explained that neither of them had any obligation to agree to the other’s request—that was up to them. And if either of them wasn’t willing to agree, then it was probably best for them to find different houses to live in. But after hearing each other in this way, they were each willing to agree to the other’s requests. A few days later Mary thanked me profusely and told me she was so grateful and relieved to be friends again with Rob.

Some people might think that it’s important to accurately express every nuance of how we feel. But if I’m using NVC to solve a conflict, I don’t need to speak in prose worthy of the next great American novel. The point is that I don’t like something, and I want that known. If I can get that across in a reliable and straightforward manner, it doesn’t matter if the other person never quite comprehends the deep intricacies of my unique felt experience. Using the word “bad”* has worked just fine for me and my clients, and it can keep you out of a lot of trouble too.

*If you want to get a little more sophisticated, you can offer the option of choosing between “bad” or “uncomfortable.” If it’s not a strong feeling, uncomfortable may be a better fit. It doesn’t have to be exact, just a general word that is true about the feeling.”

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