Book Review: Nonviolent Communication

Book cover: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg describes a form of compassionate communication. The foreword is by Deepak Chopra, which wasn’t a great start for me, as New Age really isn’t my thing. Rosenberg and I seem to look at the world very differently, so this is less book review and more my reaction to some of the things that didn’t make sense to me.

The nonviolent part of NVC is intended in the same way Gandhi used the term. Rosenberg writes that “words often lead to hurt and pain.” Violence is a very emotionally charged word, and I was left wondering whether labelling language as violent might actually amplify the impact.

Various bits and pieces included in the book appear in a similar way in other approaches. Rosenberg writes that “you make me feel…” is a way of denying personal responsibility, which is similar to the stance in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). He also cautions against “shoulding,” something that also comes up in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The book lays out the four essential components of NVC:

  • observing without evaluating (also a DBT skill)
  • expressing feelings
  • expressing needs
  • making requests

Rosenberg had rather lofty views of the world and existence. I am most definitely not on that level, so there were a number of things that struck me as hyperbolic. He wrote that when we make requests, we express “what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.” Okey dokey.

I had difficulty seeing where he was coming from on some of the things that he described as violence-promoting. Classifying and judging people is one example. We classify people into role functions all the time; that’s how we know what a mail carrier does, for example. We all judge, whether we want to or not, so I’m not sure how that fits in. Describing people or their actions as good or bad apparently contributes to “violence on this planet.” The people part I’m okay with, but the action part I’m not seeing.

There were some other things that made me go hmm, like this paragraph:

Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values. It is my belief that all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.

Then there was the chapter that described expressions of appreciation/praise like “you did a good job on that report” as “life-alienating communication.” Rosenberg acknowledges that readers will likely be surprised by that, but he explains that appreciation is a form of judgment, albeit positive judgment. Appreciation should only be given to celebrate, and it should address needs and feelings. I get the underlying idea of being genuine rather than manipulative in conveying praise and appreciation, but it seemed like a strange way to go about it.

The book explains that when listening to others, you shouldn’t hear anything other than observations, feelings, needs, and requests. In particular, you should be listening for needs, even if it means guessing. According to Rosenberg, even a wrong guess should help the other person get in touch with their needs. I’m not convinced, though; if anything, I’d probably get annoyed at someone telling me what they thought my needs were. A lot of the needs-guessing questions provided were closed-ended and rather long, which makes for a lot of talking and not much listening.

While I’ve focused on the things that didn’t make sense to me or didn’t work for me, I can see NVC being very helpful for some people, like I know it is for my friends at We DID It. I’m curious how it would work out if one person was using NVC to communicate to someone like me. Rosenberg says NVC can be used regardless of whether or not the other person is aware of or using it, but I wonder if, in some situations, it would end up backfiring.

I’m not a fan of non-natural-sounding language, and I don’t like therapist-speak. NVC sounds non-natural, although not in the sense of being non-genuine. From some of the examples in the book, it could come across as seeming contrived, or even a bit condescending, depending on how it’s delivered. That’s not the intent, but I suspect that might be my reaction if someone was talking NVC to me.

However, I am a weirdo (which I’m quite comfortable with), so take my interpretation with a grain of salt. I know this hasn’t really been a book review at all, but there you have it.

Nonviolent Communication is available on Amazon (affiliate link). You can find out more on The Center for Nonviolent Communication website.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Nonviolent Communication”

  1. I see that it can come across as weird but I like his approach to things, in a way that it makes me think. I read the book a long long time ago and I remember it not being that approachable (for me in that time period).
    I guess a therapist would first asses if a certain ‘tool’ or manner of starting conversation with a client is the good one for that client. I highly doubt they would use NVC with you 😉

  2. ivanabikorovih

    I guess I didn’t get the quote about the analysis of others. I should probably the book. My favorite books consist of analysis of characters.

  3. This sounds like a lot of the horseshit they spouted off at rehab, although I do appreciate the “You make me feel” stuff. The DBT teacher never liked when she’d introduce some new topic and I’d say, “I’m not going to Fantasy Land when I leave here. Can I have some real tools?” A lot of these mental health/social scientists almost seem to confuse the self-help genre with a chance to write a manifesto of how the world should be. If they can only get us to act like the peaceful automotons they desire, we can have the Stepford-like existence that will make the world a better place.

  4. By “analyses,” we think Rosenberg means judgments. He uses those words maybe as synonyms.

    It took us nearly 2 years to understand the book, because we are slow and it is definitely “out there.” Here we are now, all alone again.

    Punishment and rewards are part of the same system, he tells us more clearly in Speak Peace in a World off Conflict. They are two sides of the same coin, which is why praise of performance goes away. Loving, connecting communication does not. Rosenberg gets this topic from Alfie Kohn (see Punished by Rewards as well as Unconditional Parenting).

    Were you rolling your eyes as you read it?

    In Speak Peace, Rosenberg takes all of human history to task—8,000 years of myths: good/bad, hero/villain, right/wrong. All of theses in our schools (teacher is right, boss is right, authority is right). This Rosenberg gets from Who Rules America? by G. William Domhoff.

    AJ does not like myths, though E-Squared does and learned a lot about them in college. Myths are lies to AJ. Marvel superheroes and villains, Bible Heroes and villains. Rescuers and bad guys. Things we don’t believe in anymore. This is to try to keep us alive, do you see?

    We understand this wasn’t your thing. We are flattered you read it no matter your reasons or conclusion. We love you very much. For reals. You are a real friend. We are so lonely. Maybe you’ll see some NVC in our words and understand part of why we are so weird. The trauma is the other reason lol

    We enjoyed your sharing what was alive in you when you read and reflected on this book.

    Ps: we still are new at using NVC and we have been able to use it for some meditation at home. It really does help us lead with love and try to meet everyone’s needs. No one else at home knows NVC (yet?) except through our talking about it. It is inspirational and, for us, we hope, transformational

    1. I think where the praise of performance bit lost me is that I don’t see how only his specific way of expressing it can be genuine. I agree that praise that’s not genuine isn’t accomplishing anything for anyone; I just think there are many ways of wording genuine praise.

      I’m with E-squared in liking myths of the type one would learn about in college. Myths tend to do black and white, and reality is mostly grey.

      I love you very much too. I’m so glad you’ve found this way of communicating that’s helpful for you. Because really, that’s all that matters. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  5. I am not totally sure, but I think that the praise for performance can be violent in the sense that it sets an expectation that they person needs to live up to in order to be accepted or viewed as worthy. If your daughter sees other girls getting praise for wearing a certain kind of makeup, and then she tries it and you praise her too – “You look beautiful!” – then she could get caught in a trap of feeling like she can only be beautiful if she wears that makeup. Or gets good grades, or performs well in a recital, or whatever.

    For me personally, I call this pattern of behavior the “hustle for love.” It eventually deadened most things that I enjoyed because I got mired in the hustle to perform them at some level of external expectation that would get me praise so I could feel loved. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I realized how unhealthy this was for me.

    But, what I struggle with, is that I still think we should celebrate and praise people in our lives, so I’m not clear how to do that in a way that doesn’t inadvertently set the expectation that this is about me instead of about them enjoying something or feeling proud of doing something hard. I think unconditional acceptance and love matter here, with expressions of gratitude and love occurring outside of settings where accomplishments occur. Things like that. But I’m still struggling to understand exactly what NVC offers there. I have only read blog posts and probably need to read the book in more detail.

    Btw, I get the “not a fan of non-natural-sounding language” thing. But I also think that the goal should be health, not feeling natural. Having grown up with significant trauma, what feels natural to me involves a lot of unhealthy patterns, so getting out of that mess has been very unnatural for me in many ways.

    1. Those are some very good points. I agree, conveying unconditional acceptance is important, and perhaps positive feedback is better off focused on the effort put in rather than the specific outcome.

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