Marshall Rosenberg describes his life's work, as the pursuit of two
questions: "What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate
nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And
conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their
compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?" With
the authoring of the book "Nonviolent Communications", Rosenberg
believes he has discovered the answer to these essential questions, and
lays out a methodology for "speaking and listening that leads us to
give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other
in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish".
goal with this review, is to provide an overview of the theory and
methodology as described in the book, to highlight the philosophical
concepts underlying that, and to assess the effectiveness of the
methodology at achieving Rosenberg's stated goal of teaching us to
"stay compassionate".An Overview of Compassionate Communication
defines compassion as the "natural state" of man, after "violence has
subsided from the heart", and argues that the language we use every day
conditions us to one state or the other ("violent" or "compassionate").
a "natural state" and voicing a preference for it, is something subtly
yet significantly different than attempting to define the "nature of
man". Rosenberg makes it clear his aim is the former, because he
doesn't explicitly argue that "violence" isn't also a natural state. He
merely implies through his work in this book, that a state of
"compassion" - described as a state of "giving and receiving purely
from the heart" - is preferable, if the goal is establishing a deep
connection with other human beings. This, then, is why he developed NVC
- to provide an effective means through which we can condition
ourselves to maintain a consistent state of compassion, in order to
improve the opportunity for, and maximize the breadth and depth of,
The methodology he devised can be summed up in two fundamental processes:
1) Express honesty through the "four components"
2) Receive emphatically through the "four components"
examining the "four components" of this process in detail, I want to
stop here to draw attention to something key underlying Rosenberg's
goal, that I'm not sure he was aware of. "Language" and "communication"
are constant themes in this book, but what can be clearly seen by this
summation, is that for him, "compassionate communication" is merely a
euphemism for a means to achieve two core virtues of a philosophical
life: Honesty and Empathy. The "four components", then, is really a
procedural prescription for living a life of philosophical integrity.
Understood in this context, NVC is Rosenberg's treatise on ethics. Is
the prescription successful? Let's look at the four components in
detail, to find out:
Observations - "We observe what is actually happening in a situation:
what... others are saying or doing that is either enriching or not
enriching our life... The trick is to be able to articulate these
observations without introducing any judgement or evaluation..."
2. Feelings - "We state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated, etc.?"
3. Needs - "We say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified."
4. Requests - "Address what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us"
giving this information honestly, and then receiving the same
information from another emphatically, Rosenberg believes we can
achieve a deep connection with others that is rooted in that honesty
and empathy, and in so doing, nurturing our "compassionate nature".
An Critical Analysis Of The Methodology
share Rosenberg's desire to achieve compassionate connection with those
around me, and I was excited to read this book, because of how similar
it is to other more philosophically oriented texts I've read, while
still focusing on the underlying psychology involved in human
To begin with, he states that one of the goals of
the four components, is to elevate our level of consciousness - to
"focus attention" - on the facts, thoughts, feelings, and desires we
experience in the moment. This, then, restores a power
previously hidden: to consciously choose how we want to act toward
ourselves and others, in real time. Secondly, the method stresses
empiricism - asking us to observe without qualification or judgment,
both the facts before us, and our feelings about them. Focusing on
facts and feelings is one way to give ourselves time to assess a
situation, and provides an opportunity for the conscious mind to
intervene in the decision-making process. Thirdly, it encourages the
gentle expression of needs and desires, which must be part of any
healthy relationship, if it is to flourish. As another favorite author
once put it: Without needs, there is no relationship.
believe a more careful examination of Rosenberg's own description of
the four components exposes a crippling problem with NVC.
he rightly instructs us to observe "without judgment or evaluation",
but then in the same description, makes room for exactly that: to
observe what others are saying or doing "that is enriching or not
enriching our lives". Later, he goes on to tell the reader to note
whether he "likes" and "doesn't like" those things. How is that not
introducing judgments into the data collection process? One could argue
that "like" and "dislike" is simply taking note of personal preferences
(i.e., more of the data collection process), but that doesn't explain
how "enriching" or "not enriching" isn't an evaluation.
in step three, Rosenberg then instructs us to make an immediate leap
between how we are feeling, and what we believe we need in connection
to those feelings. How did we get from A to B? What process of
evaluation or estimation or introspection or dialog has given us the
knowledge of what our needs are, in connection with these feelings? Why
should we trust the first impulse to be the correct one? This is
something I've taken to calling a "failure of the BECAUSE test", and It
is instructive to take note of the hypothetical example Rosenberg
provides in the book, to illustrate what I mean by that:
mother might express these three pieces of information to her teenage
son by saying, 'Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the
coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common'..."
the passage I have highlighted. It is automatically assumed that
Felix's mother "needs more order" to "resolve" her irritation. How did
she come to that conclusion? Why was there no attempt at exploring the
irritation further? Why should we assume that her stated "need for
order" is in fact, why she is irritated? There are those of you who
will experience the expression of that distinction as 'snarky' or
irritating in itself, but I'd ask you to take a step back and consider
the possibility that her irritation might have other causes. For
example, let's not forget that we're dealing with a teen here. How do
we know that it's not Felix who is actually irritated, and that he has
projected that irritation onto his mother by acting in ways that are
sure to irritate her? What would be one way we could discover whether
that's true or not?
Most instructive - and in preparing to
answer that last question - is the fact that Felix was not given a
voice in this hypothetical example. The reader is lead down an
unconscious garden path, to simply imagine that Felix is going to
happily jump up and comply, because his mother expressed her "need" in
a "compassionate" way. There are a number of fatal presumptions in
that. Primarily, it requires us to ignore the fact that this is a parent-child
relationship. Why is Felix's mother not asking about Felix first? Why
should we assume that it is Felix's obligation to not irritate his
mother? Why is Felix acting this way in the first place? Which is
interesting. What if we were to turn this hypothetical around? Imagine:
"Mother, when I hear you telling me that you need more order, I feel frustrated because I am needing less constraint and more freedom in the rooms we share in common..."
then? Again, I haven't read the whole book just yet, but thus far, NVC
doesn't explain how these two diametrically opposed - and automatically
assumed - "needs" will resolve themselves. Indeed, it would appear that
the result is likely to be escalation. If the two parties are simply
going to state observations and feelings, assume needs, and then
request fulfillment of those needs from the other, the process as
described in this turn-around, could only end in frustration.
the final step closes the loop on "enrichment" in a rather frightening
way. In the first step, we judged someone's actions to be either
"enriching" or "not enriching" to us, and in the last step, we
"request" what we've assumed we need from them, to either cease
the non-enrichment, or perpetuate the enrichment. The reason I describe
that last step as "frightening", is because the way it appears to me, I
could perform all four steps in the absence of any other person. In
other words, Rosenberg describes NVC as a process that is supposed to
connect us to each other emphatically, but what I see, is a process
that simply locks two closed loops into a repetitive struggle for "air
time" with each other. In the case of the hypothetical example, it is
particularly troubling, because the child will always lose that fight.
A Potential Solution To The Problem
I've only examined chapters one and two of NVC so far, I believe that
what is missing from NVC, is some form of collaboration within the four
components. To put it in the language of a programmer: there is no
"exit point" out of the four components, until the request is made.
Each person steps through them in a loop, and then waits for a response
from the other, who then executes the same process. I am not offering
the other party any incentive during my recitation, to actually comply
with my requests in step four. I'm simply handing the initiator token
off to him, to start the four step process again himself (complete with
potentially unfounded assumptions about "needs" and "wants").
believe the path to escaping this problem, and achieving the
collaboration needed (and thus, gaining full engagement and "deep
connection"), begins by breaking down the automatic thinking in steps
one and three, and involving the other person in discovering exactly
what the true nature of the emotions are, and where the true needs lie.
Stefan Molyneux's book, "Real-Time Relationships: The Logic of Love",
provides the essential mechanism. In step 2, Rosenberg asks us to
observe our emotions: "I am feeling X". At this point, Molyneux
suggests taking the Socratic approach to ourselves: "...and I'm not
sure why!". Rosenberg's process simply expects us to assume not only
why, but to go so far as to project what is "needed" to resolve that
assumed need. Molyneux's approach, on the other hand, invites the other
person into the discussion, encouraging Socratic questioning: "Tell me
more about X", "What are the thoughts around X?", "Under what other
circumstances does X arise?", "Where do the thoughts lead?", and so on.
then, what is fundamentally missing from Rosenberg's approach (so far
as I can tell yet), is a third essential virtue of the life of
integrity that I spoke of above: curiosity. Without curiosity, NVC is
simply a synchronous simplex exchange of unidirectional "requests" to
be "met". With curiosity, however, the interaction becomes a
simultaneous, bidirectional exchange, primarily focused on discovery of the truth,
rather than the "satisfaction" of someone's subjective (and assumed)
"needs". This distinction deserves to be highlighted. When the focus of
our attention is exclusively on ourselves, and we see others as merely
a means of satisfying what we rightly or wrongly assume are our
particular "needs", we cannot possibly "connect" with others in the
sense that Rosenberg expects. But when we change the focus of our
attention to the actual truth, even if it is viewed relative to our own
experience in the moment, we can acknowledge the presence of others in
the pursuit of that truth, in an objective reality, in which our
subjective experiences are only one part of a larger picture.
Let's have another look at that hypothetical example, again. Only this time, let's apply curiosity to the scenario:
"Felix, when I see your soiled sock lying in the living room, I feel irritated. I have this impulse to ask you to be more 'orderly',
but I'm not sure if that's really the source of my irritation. Can you
tell me, what were you feeling when you put your socks there?"
stands out immediately and starkly in this example, compared to the
first, is the exposure of yet another judgement - one that was thickly
veiled in the first example. By assuming her "need" was "more order",
Felix's mother communicated to him, that she believes he is
"disorderly" - i.e., "a slob". So, even in this opening statement, we
can see that curiosity, coupled with honesty and empathy, takes us to a
level we could not have gotten to, without it. By passing the baton before
she states any needs or makes any requests, she invites Felix into the
discovery process, and treats him as an equal. She also models concern
for others - a trait she must be interested in passing on to her son.
While getting Felix to pick up his socks certainly may be a desired effect
of an exchange like this, it cannot be the goal. If Felix is a
sensitive boy, he will most assuredly notice that, and experience it as
manipulation, or worse, bullying. Felix, then, might respond something
like this, to our new example:
know, mom, lately I've been feeling really frustrated and depressed.
I'm not certain why, either, but the thought I had, when I tossed my
socks there, was 'I wish I could be my own boss, for a change!' "
it's crystal clear that this exchange has nothing at all, really, to do
with dirty socks, "order", or "laziness". It's about Felix's desire to
take control of his own life, and about his mother's lack of visibility
to this change in him. They both now have some powerful information to
help guide them in re-organizing the nature of their relationship, as
it grows into the future. But this is just one possibility. Let's
suppose Felix responded like this:
"I didn't feel anything particularly strongly, around that action, mom. Can you tell me a little more about the irritation?"
this point, Felix has asked his mother to explore the irritation with
him, and has opened the door for receiving her preferences as part of
that. In this example, Felix indeed, might be more than glad to comply,
since he has participated as a collaborator in the discovery process,
rather than simply being "told" what is expected of him. By offering to
consider Felix's feelings first, his mother demonstrates that she is
open to reason, cares about what is going on in her son's inner life,
and earns the respect of her authority, rather than demanding it.
What's more, there is no irreconcilable dichotomy. Regardless of the
direction the conversation takes, Felix's mother never has to surrender
her own needs or desires. All she is doing, is insuring that she is
clear about what those really are.
Conclusion To the First Segment
we are committed to discovering the truth - both in our relationships,
and in the world - we are open to meeting others together, in an
objective reality where subjective experiences can be shared and
compared. But when we are merely committed to the goal of meeting our
subjective "needs", we have no choice but to treat others as objects,
to whom we can only make requests and wait for compliance. Searching
for the truth together, however, our needs are discovered and met in
reality, as an effect of that process, not the end goal in
itself. This is, as I see it, the essential flaw in NVC (so far as I've
read), and the core distinction between NVC, and much better
methodologies like RTR.