At Binary Noggin, we strive to offer a human-centric workplace where people are given what they need to be successful. This year Binary Noggin graciously invested in my well-being and growth by sponsoring my enrollment in an online course about feelings and needs entitled NVC: A Language for Connection.
Led by the wonderful Eze Sanchez, this course was both personally meaningful and professionally relevant. It provided a refresher on my skills to run retrospectives and introduced me to some powerful new communication techniques.
Here in part one of two, I am sharing some golden nuggets from the course. In part two, we’ll take a look at applying NVC specifically in a work context.
What Is NVC?
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a process developed by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg with the stated purpose of helping human beings connect from a place of authenticity, compassion, and curiosity rather than judgment. It is not a static prescriptive technique; instead, it is a philosophy about communication, based on the premise that when our communication is rooted in compassion for ourselves and others, "magic happens," as my instructor put it.
Rosenberg’s methodology provides tools that train us to communicate in a manner that seeks understanding. The end goal of this style of communication is to meet needs and increase life satisfaction for everyone involved in the interaction. To accomplish this, NVC emphasizes actively listening for feelings and needs.
Golden Nugget #1: “Feelings are just messengers.”
Many people may have negative connotations associated with invitations to “talk about your feelings.” While sharing feelings can sometimes be uncomfortable, emotions are not shameful or to be feared. They are a universal human experience; a biological feedback mechanism hardwired into all of us. Feelings give you information about your internal state, telling you if needs are being met in any given situation.
This hidden information is why retro activities like “Mad, Sad, Glad” are so valuable. Once you gather feelings data, you can make informed decisions and take actions that make life better for yourself and others.
Golden Nugget #2: “Know all the theories, master all the techniques, but as you touch a human soul be just another human soul.” - Carl Jung
During my course, I learned techniques to bring awareness to feelings and needs. However, NVC is not about following a formula or communicating “the right way.” It's about making a conscious choice to get out of your head and into your heart.
It's easy to get caught up in thoughts, describing experiences by what you think people are (labels) or what you think people are doing (interpretations). These assumptions are problematic because labeling people kills connections. By assigning others a static identity, it's like you are putting them in a coffin, leaving them no room to grow or change.
To avoid labeling, NVC encourages practitioners to observe without judgment. For example, let's say you asked your kid to take out the trash and they didn’t. “The trash is still in the trash can” is an objective observation. “My kid is an irresponsible jerk who doesn’t respect me” is a label and an interpretation.
An NVC reframe of this example might be “I feel irritated because my kid didn’t take out the trash, and I need more consideration when I ask them to do something.” Starting a conversation from that frame of reference can transform a potential conflict into an opportunity for a better connection with your child.
Jung would encourage us to practice techniques like this while not worrying about getting it right or being perfect. What matters most is a sincere desire to connect from a place of compassion. The techniques are just tools, and the aim isn’t mastering the tools. It’s offering and receiving non-judgmental presence. At the end of the day, practicing NVC is all about just being human together.
Golden Nugget #3: “What would make life more wonderful for me, right now?”
I have started asking myself this question regularly, and it has drastically improved my quality of life. The NVC principle at play here is to pay attention to what is alive now, in this particular moment. NVC focuses on identifying feelings and needs. As these both change frequently based on circumstances, there is an emphasis on uncovering and satisfying what feels good and promotes well-being in the present context.
In a sense, NVC is like Agile for your emotions — you are looking for real-time feedback about what is going on internally and with the person you are connecting with, to make the best decisions possible. In NVC terms, we might call it "striving to increase life satisfaction by meeting needs" In the work world, we might call it "working smarter." Whatever you call it, paying attention to what is alive in the present leads to better people and project outcomes.
I also apply this principle when I run retros: as a facilitator, I pay attention to the energy in the room. Sometimes I have an activity planned, and the team brings up something completely different. When that happens, I roll with what the group brought up because that topic is alive in people and needs addressing.
Golden Nugget #4: “Please do as I requested only if you can do so with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck.” - Marshall B. Rosenberg
NVC is not about paying attention to other people’s needs and feelings and prioritizing them at the expense of your own. To express displeasure while still being centered in compassion, one must master the art of NVC request-making.
Requests are different from demands in that there is an understanding that the other person has the right to say no. And as Rosenberg reminds us, complying with requests is an act done in service of another’s well-being. Complying with a request should be a form of natural giving, flowing from a spirit of joy. Non-joyful compliance can build up a debt of resentment over time that comes due later and can poison a connection.
One other pro tip: when you make a request, it should be specific and actionable in the present moment. If you are craving a banana, ask for a banana rather than making a more general request for food. This direct approach increases the odds of getting what you really want and need, thus making your life more satisfying.
Golden Nugget #5: “Empathy works because it doesn’t require a solution.”
During a workshop activity in the course, the instructor asked us to make statements so that other participants could practice offering empathy and non-empathy responses. I shared that "My room is a mess."
Responses that contained judgments (“It shouldn’t be so hard to put away your laundry”) or solutions ( “I tidy up as I go to keep my room clean. You should try that”) were considered non-empathy responses. An empathy response consisted of participants guessing how I might be feeling, for example, “Are you feeling frustrated?”
This exercise surprised me, as it turned out that I didn't want to talk about my messy room at all. And I certainly didn't need to be told how to clean my room or shamed for not cleaning it! What I needed at that moment was relief. Some overwhelming circumstances in my life were preventing me from keeping my room clean to my desired standards: The messy room was just a symptom of deeper issues.
Offering empathy guesses reminded me of the retrospective activity of "5 Whys." Receiving non-empathy felt very superficial, while the empathy guesses got closer to the heart of what was going on in my life. I didn't need solutions for my messy room problem. I just needed to be seen in my messiness. When I received empathy, a delightful moment of human connection happened that was nourishing and life-giving. I experienced the relief of having my real need met. Creating more moments like that is what implementing an NVC practice is all about.
Empathy works because it doesn't require a solution. Without compassion, I would have a draining conversation about laundry, and the discussion would not have addressed my real need.
I am grateful for the opportunity I had to learn these strategies for establishing more rewarding human connections. They have improved my personal and professional life, and I hope these insights can also help you. Be on the lookout for Part 2 of this blog, in which I discuss applying NVC at work.
Recommended NVC Resources
Information on working with Eze and enrolling in his next course:
Carolyn Tragasz is the former administrative assistant at Binary Noggin. She has a degree in liberal studies from Park University and uses her organizational communication skills to manage day-to-day logistics and facilitate team-building exercises.
Founded in 2007, Binary Noggin is a team of software engineers and architects who serve as a trusted extension of your team, helping your company succeed through collaboration. We forge customizable solutions using Agile methodologies and our mastery of Elixir, Ruby and other open source technologies. Share your ideas with us on Facebook and Twitter.