Conflict is fueled by and often stems from our indirect attempts to express our unmet needs, such as respect, appreciation, autonomy and equality. Instead of stating our needs clearly, we convey them indirectly by making judgments, evaluating others, and pointing out faults to justify our position. This behavior generally breeds hostility and disagreements, because it leads others to engage in self-defense and counter-attacks, rather than respond positively to our needs.
Since the blame game rarely works, we could try developing common ground and letting this connection steer how we communicate with others. Peace activist Marshall B. Rosenberg’s process of Non-violent Communication (NVC) enables us to do just that.
In the NVC process, violence refers to any use of force to get others to do things, including capitalizing on fear of punishment, promise of reward, or sense of guilt and obligation. The focus is on connecting with others, rather than on achieving a specific outcome or proving we are right. NVC is premised on honest self-expression and empathetic listening, which follow when the opposing parties engage in four steps:
- Observe the situation: Consider the bare facts and concrete actions that you observe (see, hear, recall) in the situation affecting your well-being. Separate your observations from your interpretations, including your judgments about others and your beliefs about what they should be doing. Instead of labeling and evaluating, just notice what is actually happening. Don’t confuse your observation of what the person did with how you reacted to it or how you interpreted the action. An observation is, “Jim did not deliver the report today as he promised,” while an evaluation is, “Jim is a lazy bum who never keeps his promises.”
- Notice your feelings: Take account of body-sensations and state how you feel in relation to what you observe. Are you scared, angry or sad about what you observe? Distinguish your actual feelings (emotions or sensations) from the stories (thoughts or interpretations) you have about why you feel the way you do. Note that your use of the word “feel” doesn’t always mean you are expressing a feeling. For example, saying “I feel you don’t respect me” is not a feeling, but rather speculation about how the other person feels about you. Simply express the emotions and sensations you feel without judgment or blame. And listen to how others feel without making evaluations, defending yourself, or giving excuses for your actions.
- Identify your needs: Identify the unmet needs (deep motives and values) that are creating the feelings you noticed. Needs are typically universal and are not tied to any particular situation, strategy, or action for fulfilling them. Realize there are many ways to get your needs met, so you do not have to cling to your specific, preferred way. Learn to empathize with others and acknowledge that they are simply trying to protect themselves and meet their own needs, not necessarily harm you or ignore your needs.
- Make direct requests: Instead of hinting or stating only what you don’t want, make a clear and direct request for concrete actions that will help you get your needs met and, in turn, resolve the conflict. Make sure the request is not really a demand by allowing the other person to say no or recommend another option. Even when there is no solution to meet both parties’ needs or every single need, at least you will have a deeper sense of connection that will reduce any resentment you might otherwise feel.
By attending to these four steps, we establish a flow of communication until there is mutual connection. When we are open to considering each other’s feelings and needs without judgment, there is greater potential for mutually satisfying outcomes, even in the most hostile situations. Two persons who feel an underlying sense of connection are more likely to resolve their conflict and even be satisfied with a solution that does not meet every single one of their needs.
As we replace our old patterns of defending or attacking, we see ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. This creates more honest and empathetic communication that naturally reduces conflict.