Dancing with nonviolent communication to change the conversation in organisations

One of the methodolgies we use to change the habits of conversation in organisations is nonviolent communication (NVC). This is a clunky name for a practice, developed by Marshal Rosenberg. It is deceptively simple but also profound in the insights it generates about what’s going on when people talk to each other.

Marshal Rosenberg’s key insight is that often communication, people are seeking – consciously or unconsciously – to satisfy needs. It’s the frustration of these needs that can cause relationships to become mired in conflict. The route to understanding needs is to notice the feelings that are at play in a situation. So Marshal Rosenberg proposed a four-fold grammar for communicating in a way that could help people bring empathic attention to these factors.

The four elements are:

  • Observations: attention to observable facts that can be heard, seen, remembered or imagined. We describe these without interpretation.
  • Feelings: communicating one’s present feelings about what we have observed, taking responsibility for the fact that the feelings are ours not caused by someone else. Again, the aim is to avoid interpretation.
  • Needs: describing the underlying needs that the emotion points to.
  • Requests: doable, specific actions that can be done now. These are invitations not demands, and we should be prepared to accept that the request may be refused. A refusal might lead you to enquire about the other person’s needs and to work towards strategies that might help meet the needs of both parties, or to compromise, or to agree to differ.

Marshal Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, sets out the theory with great clarity. Unfortunately, it advocates formulaic and, to my mind, inauthentic ways of putting it into practice. So for a long time, I used it only internally, to apply his analytic concepts to conversations in which I was participating. It’s taken a while to find ways to introduce it explicitly into my work that would not seem alienating.

The breakthrough came in adapting an approach developed by Bridget Belgrave called NVC dance floors. When using the model with a group, I set out the four stations – observations, feelings, needs, requests – in a large space on the floor. The group holds a conversation about an issue that is real and present for them using the dance floor to guide them through the grammar of NVC. The group typically begins at the observations space in the room and gradually, via feelings and needs, works its way up to requests. People speak from whichever station is appropriate to what they have to say. But also, as listeners, gravitate to whichever station is live for them as they listen and process what is said by others.

Two immediate benefits arise. Firstly, getting people to stand up and move around as they discuss removes them from the habitual context of meeting while sitting round a table – a context which tends to foster disembodied, cognitive discourse that comes from the head. Moving around on the dance floor encourages more embodied conversation as people connect not just with what is said but how that lands with them. Standing up and moving is also energising, so the conversation has more life.

Secondly, the act of people moving around as they connect with their responses to what others are saying gives visual expression to the fact that they are experiencing feelings and needs. This has a material impact on the conversation as people who are speaking gain non-verbal insight about the impact on others of what they say.

One thing you notice when using the dance floor is that people often find it difficult to express feelings and may even be unclear what a feeling is. It’s important to be careful not to express feelings in a way that is blaming someone (“I feel like…” or “I feel that…”) but to identify the genuine feeling (“I feel…” plus an adjective) and to own it as yours. In describing your feelings, you shouldn’t use words that actually refer to what others are doing (“ignored”, “criticised” and so on) but words that describe your own experience (“sad”, “frustrated” etc.) In this way, you avoid blame another person but helping them to understand your experience.

Fostering greater appreciation for feelings and needs (one’s own as well as others’) generates empathy. This can help reduce the antagonism that can arise when conflict comes into play. Ultimately, the dance of NVC is one of attempting to satisfy each other’s needs. But the resolution comes from the connection of mutual respect of needs rather than the satisfying of them. It is not necessary for needs to be satisfied for communication to achieve connection. Simply paying attention to someone’s needs ensures they feel cared for and this nurtures the quality of connection between you and them. This can only be beneficial for working relationships.

Image courtesy Suz Tyler.