A Somatic Approach for
Embodying Nonviolent Communication
A Brief Overview of Nonviolent Communication
NVC as a language of the heart takes us into the body where feelings are understood by sensations. Without inclusion of the body NVC can become disembodied and
All the practices that form Nonviolent Communication ground our words and actions in the compassionate consciousness underlying the practice.
Once we can embody the qualities of universal needs we can become creative let go of the form to express with authenticity, TRUSTING that whatever comes out of our mouth will be connected to our hearts.
Marshal speaks of needs as the energy of life that moves through us --something divine—that we all share. Identifying the needs underlying our own and others’ feelings and actions to create empathetic connection is key to the practice of NVC. Identifying needs gives us both the focus and the energy to find the necessary words, take effective action and form the kinds of requests that produce life-enriching results. Universal human needs are something that we all share, and the notion is that we all have an equal right to have our needs met and to be seen as an equal with one another. This concept is at the heart of the great philosophies and religions around the world. I like to extend this idea to include the non-human world as well, recognizing our partnership and equality with the plants, animals, and earth as a whole. In other words, no one’s life is greater or lesser. It is how we think, judge, and interpret that differs. When we focus on our differences, we are really focusing on how we think differently. Focusing primarily on our different ways of thinking, we can easily lose sight of our humanness and the deep needs that we all share.
The collective wounds and traumas left in the wake of thousands of years of strategies based in domination and control, wars, holocausts, greed, and imperialism run deep through our collective psyche. It stands to reason that these violent behaviors are reflected in our relationships and patterns of communication. I heartily recommend picking up Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life to read and study it. He clearly and simply identifies cultural patterns of speech that we use unconsciously and that propagate the violence of the culture from which our communication was born.
The power of NVC is how linguistics shape our perceptions.
When Judith and I first began to learn NVC, we invited practice groups to our home for two-hour long sessions. Afterwards we would talk about things we might improve and, more often than not begin to argue as all of the wonderful skills we thought we had learned flew out the window. We’d teach a one-hour class and then fight for two. After many years of practice, it still gets pretty awkward and comical to navigate our own fights when we fall into using NVC language without the deeper consciousness that it is grounded in. Words are secondary to the volumes we transmit through tone, gesture, and presence. NVC is a path of self-mastery that develops the capacity to be present, compassionate, and clearly express ourselves. If our body is feeling tense underneath loving worlds, a double message is heard and the listener invariably feels mistrust and resistance. When our bodies communicate a different message than our words, a double message is communicated.
The forms and structures of Nonviolent Communication provide a path to come back to when you lose your way. But they are only the training wheels that eventually must be removed or, like training wheels, they will slow you down. Throughout our trainings there are clear and deliberate somatic practices for developing inspiring qualities that become embodied. In any art, including NVC, in every moment we are either practicing connection or disconnection, so we must be mindful to imbue what we practice with the qualities we choose to communicate. Dedicating ourselves to practicing wherever and whenever we can is what it takes to embody any art and the more the better.
Marshall Rosenberg and other trainers often give a list of words that help identify universal needs (See Needs and feelings lists pgs.). Increasing your “needs and feelings” vocabulary to express such qualities of being is revelatory and essential, but words alone fall short in expressing the l beauty and scope of what needs actually are. NVC is not a religion; however, it can be a very spiritual practice. A brilliant distinction that NVC brings forth is that our individual needs and humanness are one and the same and that where we get hung up is in the strategies we choose to meet our needs.
With the embodiment of Nonviolent Communication, each word that expresses a need becomes a somatic exploration, a welcome signpost pointing toward something much more expansive. Needs express different aspects of something divine; each is a facet of the same gem. Needs are archetypes, doors to understanding our collective human narratives. Marshall and other NVC trainers speak in terms of “meeting your needs” or “hearing others’ needs” or even better, “having a meeting with your needs.” Somatic practice lets the words invite you to feel, to derive meaning, and through practice “become what you need”.
Nonviolent Communication is brilliant in its simplicity, and there are many distinctions and nuances to learn. Below are some of the main principles:
- Train with the intention to connect on the heart level and, as much as possible, keep your attention in the present moment. Try not to get stuck in the past or the “he-said” “she-said” blame and shame game.
- Observation: Learn to express what you observe without evaluation, as if you are capturing it on a video camera. Separate your judgments and evaluations from the facts of what is happening. (This is much more difficult than it sounds.)
- Feelings: Identify and articulate what you are feeling as distinguished from what you are thinking or the judgments you may have. Feelings include emotions, body sensations, moods, and states of mind.
- Needs: Once you know what you are feeling, use that to help identify and articulate your needs, the universal human needs we all have in common. Be careful to distinguish your needs from your strategies to meet your needs. If your perception of a need includes a specific person, location, action, time, or object, it is a strategy masquerading as a need.
- Requests: Make requests that are clear, positive, actionable, and that honor one another’s needs. Be sure to tell the other person what you would like them to do, never what you want them not to do, or what you want them to stop doing. The primary difference between a request and a demand is that, if the other person says “no” to your request, there are never any negative repercussions.
- Mourn and Celebrate: What you love that you miss is mourning. What you love that is present is a celebration. Both are forms of gratitude, and their expression is healing and honors life.
- Learn to dance between Honesty and Empathy.
- Honesty in the form of expressing your present-moment observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
- Empathy in the form of connecting with one’s own or another person’s present-moment feelings and needs.
A Useful Disclaimer
For those of us learning NVC and wanting to utilize it on unsuspecting friends, associates and family, here is a helpful disclaimer. When first learning NVC, it is easy to get caught up in the initial exhilaration of learning the fundamental language skills. It’s common to be tempted to try it out everywhere, on everyone, especially those with whom you are struggling most in your life. The excited beginning NVC student can come off to others (especially family) like someone who has just had a revelatory religious experience and feels compelled to share the inspiration, fervently, before fully assimilating their new insights. Because of this, many of us who set out to learn NVC have quickly encountered resistance to anything NVC-ish that came out of our mouths, and many people we tried to share with were turned off for this reason. To remedy that, here is a tip to avoid alienating those you care about:
First: Find places to practice with others who are learning NVC. Practice well, make many mistakes and corrections and patiently allow your learning to ripen before sharing it with others.
Second: When you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know what to do and would like to use your new NVC skills to find connection, try to locate your own language to say something like this:
“I am in pain here and want to connect with you. I’m at a loss as to how to do that. Would you be ok with me using some of the basic NVC skills I am learning to help me find some clarity and connection with you?”
This kind of disclaimer can go a long way to make clear that you are using these skills to genuinely connect, not trying to be manipulative or act superior.