Tag Archives: Marshall Rosenberg

We Can Do Better (Talking to Each Other)

The more I watch and engage in public discourse, the more I believe that one of the most important things we can do for our children and our society is to learn and practice new ways of communicating with each other.

Right now, we’re learning to engage with each other in ways that are damaging and thoughtless and building habits that perpetuate harm and disconnection. Trading memes and sound bites, labeling each other based on assumptions, and not acknowledging the emotions that are being generated as a result only serve to polarize us more and make it harder to find common ground.

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a phrase most often associated with Marshall Rosenberg and a specific method of interaction, and I find the basic principles incredibly useful and sensible. Unfortunately, when I try to put it in to practice, I often find it to be rote and robotic, and often, if only one person is embracing the practice, it feels awkward.

Because of this, I’ve thought a lot about how to build the ideas in to a way of conversing that feel more natural to me. [I am absolutely not disparaging the work of Rosenberg. I see this more as building on it and working to make it accessible to other folks who may feel the same about the role-playing as I do. I am tremendously grateful for the work he and others have done in this area.] To that end, I’ve put together a list of things I think are necessary for more compassionate, purposeful communication.

  • GENUINE CURIOSITY – Going in to a conversation or dialogue where you’re convinced you “know” and it’s your intent to teach the other person or get them to adopt your perspective is not conducive to an honest, respectful exchange.
  • TIME – This kind of interchange takes effort. It requires pauses to digest what the other person is saying, an attempt to ‘read’ their body language and tone, and it’s important to make sure you’ve really understood what they’re trying to say to you. This doesn’t come quickly. And it’s challenging. We often want conversations to be quick and simple – especially when they are about difficult subjects. 
  • WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – Learning requires growth, and NVC is about learning. It is also often about giving up the idea that there is a Right and a Wrong conclusion, or that there is any clear conclusion at all. That is scary. Our brains are wired to look for certainty, and we’ve been taught that the ideal outcome of any interaction is a winner and a loser. In order to communicate this way, we have to give up those ideas and sink in to uncertainty and really listen for what resonates as we navigate the conversations. And we have to be open to the possibility that more profound understanding is the outcome, as opposed to a concrete resolution. 
  • EMPATHY – Being willing to entertain the notion that someone else’s perspective is both very different from yours and also totally valid is key. Empathy is about acknowledging everyone’s right to feel the way they feel, honoring their lived experience even when we can’t understand it, and not judging them for the conclusions they’ve come to based on those experiences. It is also about a feeling of compassion for someone who is struggling and resisting the urge to minimize it, justify it, or fix it. 
  • DESIRE TO CONNECT, LEARN, UNDERSTAND – This kind of conversation leads to deeper, more authentic connections between people. Anytime someone feels that their world view is heard, validated, and respected, they learn to trust a little bit more. When we can enter in to a dialogue by setting aside the need to be Right or exercise our power, and set the intention to learn, we are creating a setting where we can connect on a deeper level. 
  • PRACTICE – Most of us have grown up watching people battle it out for supremacy in debates – whether by coercion or negotiation or outright fighting. We have been conditioned to think that any conversation that doesn’t require a definitive conclusion is “small talk” or “fluffy.” It takes a lot of time and patience to undo those lessons. 
  • EVERYONE ON EQUAL FOOTING, FEELING HEARD AND RESPECTED AND LEARNING – When we begin by “othering” the person we’re talking to (thinking we know what they believe, labeling them, mentally listing all the ways they are different than us or the things they ‘don’t know’), we’ve already made the interaction ten times harder. Starting with the assumption that the person we’re engaging with deserves equal time and opportunity to talk, and that they know things that might be valuable for us, allows us to be more receptive to what they’re saying. Eye rolls, sarcasm, mocking, and labeling change the dynamic so that not everyone feels respected and heard. 

The added bonus of this kind of conversation is that it doesn’t trigger our fight/flight response because we’re not automatically on guard. When we’re focused on learning and leading with curiosity and empathy, we are less likely to be emotional, which means that our pre-frontal cortex is working more effectively. We are able to think critically and learn better. But that’s only when all the participants are willing to show up with empathy and curiosity and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Even one person who doesn’t use the above tools can trigger emotional responses that derail the conversation and lead us back to those old habits. 

Mindful Parenting and Conflict Resolution with Non-Violent Communication

By Nallive Andrea Pestaña – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

If you are parenting an adolescent, you have conflict. Maybe not all the time, but it is inevitable that there will be times when the two of you don’t see eye-to-eye. It may even feel as though you don’t live on the same planet from time to time. The good news is that mindfulness can play an important role in handling disagreements with your t(w)een, especially when you use it in tandem with a communication style known as non-violent communication.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg wrote extensively about the benefits of non-violent communication (NVC), especially as it affects our most personal, intimate relationships. One of the foundations of NVC is learning to communicate our needs to the other person, and while this may sound simple, it takes a little bit of practice and, I think, mindfulness.

The first thing we as parents need to do when we think about approaching our kids with a topic that will almost certainly lead to conflict (missed curfew, grades not what we expected them to be, that speeding ticket, etc.) is ask ourselves the following questions before we ever talk to them:

  1. How do I want to connect with my child? (Am I going in to this with no desire to connect at all – ie. do I just want to lay down the law? Or am I really hoping for a situation to show them that I am supportive of them, that this is not about power or control, but about trust and love?)
  2. What do I need* from this situation?

*Often, “need” is a pretty huge category of things for us as parents. We tend to lump our desires and strategies for getting what we want or need in with “needs.” For example, we might say to our child, I need you to ask me for permission to go anywhere after school that isn’t straight home. That is a strategy. Perhaps the real need here is for us to feel as though we are in a trusting relationship with our loved ones. Our true needs are either physical (food, shelter, air), or emotional/spiritual (support, honesty, to feel important). One way to decide whether we are incorrectly characterizing needs is to ask whether what we say we need is tied to a particular person or action. If it is, it’s not a need, it’s a strategy.

It is also important to recognize that our kids are really not capable of making these determinations quite yet, so very often, in our conversations with them, their “needs” won’t be actual needs. That’s ok, albeit frustrating, and it’s up to us as parents to model for them just how to have an NVC discussion.

According to Rosenberg, the four elements (in this order) of positive conflict resolution are:

OBSERVATION Tell your child what the triggering incident was. What did you see happening? What are the facts as you know them? {It is critically important here to avoid analysis, criticism or judgment. If your child feels attacked, blamed, judged, or if they think you’re making assumptions, your chance to connect is lost.}

FEELING Own your reaction. Tell them how you felt upon learning this information or witnessing this situation. Were you scared? Angry? Sad? {Avoid using language like “you scared me” or “do you know how that made me feel?” This part may feel a little clinical at first, but stick to stimulus-response language.}

NEED This is where you state what you need. Do you need to feel like your child is safe? Do you need to feel as though you are important? Again, be careful not to prescribe certain actions or conditions. This is about what you need. {This is also where you make it clear to your child that they are under no obligation to meet that need. I know. You’re saying, WHAT??!! We can’t present our needs as demands or emotional blackmail if we are hoping to connect in a meaningful way. The good news is that this goes both ways. You don’t have to see your child’s statement of need as a demand for action, either.}

REQUEST This is where you get to ask for a certain set of responses or behaviors. {Try to phrase it as a request: Would you be willing to …? Now, because your child has the context of how you feel and why you feel that way, along with an understanding of what you need, they can fully consider what it means to you to have that request fulfilled.}

There are some difficult pieces to this. First of all, it’s really tempting to talk consequences. If you don’t fulfill my request, you’ll be grounded/lose car privileges, have to cancel that sleepover… For younger kids, those boundaries are perfectly acceptable, but if what you are trying to do is build a strong, mutually-respectful, adult-like relationship with your adolescent, this is the best way to invest in that right now. They will disappoint you, and it takes a lot of practice, but they will eventually learn how to communicate in this way. As Dr. Rosenberg said, “This is not about compromise, it is about creating an environment where everyone’s needs get met.”

Another challenge is learning to not take your child’s rejection of your request or inability to hear your needs as important personally. When someone says they can’t or won’t meet your needs right now and you feel rejected, it makes future interactions incredibly hard. Remember that that response has everything to do with them and nothing to do with whether your needs or feelings are valid. 

It is really tempting to tell our kids what we don’t want when we are feeling angry or upset. I don’t want to see you get hurt, I don’t want you to ruin the rest of your life by not getting into a good college… Unfortunately, when we tell someone what we don’t want, this does one of two things – stops them from focusing on the conversation at hand because they are performing mental gymnastics trying to figure out how you leapt to that conclusion, or it makes them defensive and defiant and determined to prove you wrong by doing that exact thing and showing you that it won’t end up with them hurt/dead/suspended. 

It is also hard to extend the same courtesy to your child by really listening to their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It takes a great deal of self-control and self-awareness to set aside your emotional reactions and really hear what they’re saying (or parse it out as they yell or cry or accuse you of horrible things). But the more we can employ these tactics when we have difficult conversations with our kids, the more we can create an environment where everyone feels heard and believes that their needs are important. Questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to help.