I first attended a NVC workshop several years ago and, to be honest, found myself rather distracted by the giraffe and jackal puppets that were used to characterise the empathic spirit of NVC and, alternatively, the more commonplace style of judgemental or demanding communication.
Yet the fundamental assertion of NVC, that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from miscommunication about human needs, due to coercive or manipulative language that aims to induce fear, guilt or shame, stayed with me. I've since used the basic process of NVC either as a point of inquiry and reflection for clients, or as a practical, effective, shorthand that they an use to work 'in the moment' when they are faced with difficult circumstances.
The author, Marshall B. Rosenberg, outlines 4 components of NVC: Observation; Feelings; Needs; Requests.
"First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation - to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don't like. Next we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly we say what needs or ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. The fourth component ...[is]..a very specific request [which] addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us."
I agree with the humanistic philosophy of the book and the idea that, "We can never make people do anything." Rosenberg claims that we have learned many forms of 'life-alienating' communication:
"One form of life-alienating communication is the use of moralistic judgements that imply wrongness or badness on the part of those who don't act in harmony with our values. Another is the use of comparisons, which can block compassion both for others and for ourselves. Life-alienating communication also obscures that we are each responsible our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Communicating our desires in the form of demands is yet another characteristic of language that blocks compassion."
The link between NVC and 'Dialogue' is strong and the essentially empathic, humanistic nature of both practices is discussed in a short section that has links to recent shifts in the philosophy of Organisation Development. In the section "Replacing Diagnosis with NVC", Rosenberg discusses a meeting between Martin Buber and Carl Rogers where the issue of power differential and the diagnostic relationship between the 'client' and the 'psychotherapist' is questioned. Rogers suggests that enlightened psychotherapists could choose to transcend their own role and encounter the clients authentically.
"Buber was skeptical. He was of the opinion that even if psychotherapists were committed and able to relate to their clients in an authentic fashion, such encounters would be impossible as long as clients continued to view themselves as clients and their psychotherapists as psychotherapists. He observed that the very process of making appointments to see someone at their office, and paying fees to be 'fixed,' dimmed the likelihood of an authentic relationship developing between two persons."
Rosenberg struggled as he tried to introduce this thinking into his practice. He realised that he would be working counter to the sacrosanct rule of 'clinical detachment' in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
"Instead of interpreting what my clients were saying in line with the personality theories I had studied, I made myself present to their words and listened empathetically. [...] ...the results were so gratifying to both my clients and myself that I soon overcame any hesitation."
Critics of NVC claim that the discipline lacks any serious academic research base and Rosenberg himself has never sought the backing of the academy. This leaves the work open to the criticism that it is not clear whether the approach offers reliable results or whether it can be effectively applied by anyone other than Rosenberg.
My own view is that NVC is a helpful start to any work around communication style and intervention. Clients usually 'get it' and easily grasp the core concepts and can critically use enough of it within their own programme of action learning to make a real difference to how they 'show up' with each other.
I still wouldn't use the puppets though....