If you want to avoid defensiveness, resistance, conflict, and underperforming individuals and teams, choose empathic and compassionate ways to communicate

The culture at Microsoft in 2014 when Satya Nadella became the CEO was toxic – full of hostility, infighting and backstabbing i.e. unhealthy conflict and low employee engagement. Culture change was his number one priority and one of his first actions was to distribute a book called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by the psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg to his senior leadership team. 

If you read the book and apply the concepts, it’s not surprising that the culture of Microsoft was transformed. Why? Because NVC is a language of connection; a learnable practical method to bring empathy and compassion into all of your relationships.

Most of the time we communicate with each other (and ourselves) in a psychologically violent way. Meaning we judge, we blame, we criticise. We want to prove we are right and you are wrong. We are good and you are bad. 

Where does this type of communication lead to? Defensiveness, resistance, conflict, and underperforming individuals and teams. 

Four Ways We Communicate Violently 

Here are four ways which cause us to communicate violently and alienate ourselves from compassionate communication and healthy relationships.

  1. Moralistic Judgements

We make moralistic judgements throughout the day – our kids don’t get out of bed so they are lazy, someone pulls out in front of you in the traffic so they are idiots, a colleague doesn’t say good morning to you so they are rude. 

Judgments or analyses of others are actually indirect expressions of our own needs and values. For example, if we value getting the detail right and someone doesn’t fulfil that need we are more likely to judge them for being sloppy rather than articulate the need we desire. 

Expressing our needs and values through moralistic judgements is much more likely to lead to defensiveness and even if someone does then act in a way you want this is likely to be done out of fear or shame which sooner or later will lead to resentment and other issues.

  1. Making Comparisons

Comparisons are a form of judgement. It is so true that if you want to have a bad day, you should compare yourself to that taller, better looking and more successful person you read about that day.

How can this person achieve so much in their career and have such normal and successful children? 

This type of thinking will disconnect you from compassion for yourself and others.

  1. Denial of Responsibility

You have ruined my day by turning up late

We have a tendency to blame others for our bad mood. We fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions. We believe we do things because we had to or had no choice. 

In order to communicate compassionately we need be aware that we are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and actions

  1. Making Demands

A demand explicitly or implicitly threatens your team member with blame or punishment if they do not do what you say. 

We need to learn to make requests rather than demands – more on this later.

The Essence Of Nonviolent Communication

The essence of NVC is about raising your awareness and consciousness about your communication. It’s about paying attention, empathically listening and expressing yourself with clarity, honesty and compassion. 

NVC is also known as the “Giraffe Language”. Giraffe because it is the land animal with the largest heart. It represents the part of ourselves which connects us to our own feelings and needs, as well as the feelings and needs of others. The jackal on the other hand is the part of us that is disconnected to feeling and needs. The objective is to be less jackal and more giraffe. 

What has drawn me to NVC? Quite simply I believe NVC is one of the most powerful communication and engagement tools I have come across. You will become a more effective leader (and human being) if you become more giraffe-like in your communication.

Benefits Of NVC To Your Culture And Leadership

  • Stronger relationships. Empathic listening and expressing yourself honestly will build stronger 1:1 relationships and dynamic collaborations
  • Better engagement. The four components of NVC – observations, feelings, needs and requests – will guide you to communicate without assumptions or judgments and deliver information and requests in a way which allows your team member to willingly participate
  • Better conflict management. Many of us avoid difficult conversations but with an understanding of the NVC process not only can you solve conflict with confidence but also take good functional relationships to a higher level 
  • More fulfilled and happier leader. When you start communicating to yourself nonviolently, with deeper compassion and understanding this will allow you to act in ways which fits in with in with your core values and needs

I strongly recommend you buy the book but for those who want a teaser I’ll summarise the main concepts of NVC. It is a relatively simple concept to understand but much harder to put into practice. 

The Four Components Of The NVC Model

  1. Observations – What do I see/hear/remember/imagine?
  2. Feelings – How am I feeling?
  3. Needs – What do I need at the moment?
  4. Requests – What action do I want to take to meet my need?
  • Firstly, you observe what is happening in a situation which may be something we like or don’t like. The trick is to observe without judgement or evaluation – this is much harder than you think! 
  • Then you state how you feel when you observe this action or hear a comment. 
  • And thirdly you figure out what needs of yours are connected to the feelings you have identified. 
  • The fourth component is expressing what you want from the other person – a request not a demand.

You express and identify the four pieces of information for yourself but to complete the puzzle you need to empathically receive the four pieces of communication from others. Each component is powerful in its own right but mastery of all four is when the magic appears.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into each of the four components.

Observations without judgement

As a coach we are taught to listen without judgement. That does not mean we don’t ever judge actions and people, but it means we develop the muscle needed to put those judgements aside, and get back to listening. I compare it to meditating. Meditating is about choosing where to apply your attention (such as your breathing) and when (not if!) you realise you are thinking about something else you are kind to yourself and bring yourself back to focusing on the breath. 

When you are not judging you are more likely to be listening (and communicating internally or externally) with compassion and curiosity. 

We want to get in the habit of separating our observations from our evaluations. According to the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.

An evaluation is “You are disorganised.” 

An observation is “When I read through the document I spotted five typos.” 

Another evaluation is “You are always late for meetings.” 

An observation is “You arrived five minutes late for two out of the last three meetings.

You want to make observations specific to time and context.

Feelings and EQ

I have a tendency to bang on about emotional intelligence because I think it is what differentiates great leaders and is key to helping you thrive sustainably as a leader.

Learning to identify and express your feelings is fundamental to skilled communication. Feelings are in every conversation you have and yet many leaders shudder at the thought of chatting about feelings. 

Feelings can be confusing, a conversation can evoke a bunch of different emotions and your instinct might be to bury them but if you don’t talk about feelings, it is like putting on a theatre production with no actors.

A common problem is that we fail to distinguish feelings from our thoughts. We may use feel without actually expressing a feeling. For example, “I feel that you don’t really care about this project” does not describe a feeling and indeed is a judgment or a criticism which is likely to ignite defensiveness. A feeling would be, “I feel frustrated that you have only spent thirty minutes on this project.” 

We don’t have to use feel in the English language to express a feeling: we can say “I’m feeling tired” or simply “I’m tired.

We also have a tendency to interpret the actions of others rather than express our true feelings. For example, “I feel ignored that he hasn’t invited me to two meetings this week” is an interpretation whereas “I feel hurt by not being invited to the meetings” is the expression of a feeling.

The larger our vocab for feelings the better. Saying I feel good doesn’t really give you the nuance to allow you to connect with your feelings. There’s a big difference between feeling good and blissful.

Needs

Two parts to this:

Firstly, we need to take responsibility for our feelings. As Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” 

You absolve the other person from causing your feelings, it is your reaction to what you did that caused it. We need to establish a clear separation between stimulus and cause. 

Secondly, we connect our feelings to our needs. 

Judgments and criticisms (“you are unreliable”), evaluations and interpretations (“you don’t value our relationship”) are all unhelpful indirect expressions of our needs i.e. behind every negative feeling is an unmet need. 

It can be surprising how quickly when you shift your focus to needs that hostility dissolves, understanding grows and desire to cooperate awakens. 

Needs are the essence of our humanity; they nourish us if we meet them. All human beings share the same universal needs e.g. autonomy, integrity, understanding, support, appreciation, empathy, safety, respect, love and justice. 

If you remember only one thing from this blog please make it this – the more directly you can connect your feelings to your own needs, the more transformative your conversations and communication will be. The less you focus on what is wrong with you or one another and more on each other’s needs, the more likely you are to meet everybody’s needs.

Rosenberg encourages us to use the phrase “I feel … because I …” 

For example, “I feel upset and frustrated that the 1:1 meeting was only fifteen minutes long because I value optimising my time with you.” 

NVC is really useful for conflict resolution and two really simple questions to transform your conflict resolution skills.

  1. What is it that you are needing?
  2. What would you like to request of me in relation to those needs?

One example might be your customer delivery team getting frustrated with the product team. 

The problem is that you don’t know how to sell our product properly as all you ever do is complain and ask us to add on yet more bells and whistles to our product.” 

And this leads to the customer delivery team retorting with, “You are so far removed from the real world that you need to get out more.” 

These comments are judgements and criticisms. 

You need to shift to figuring out what the unmet needs are. The product team’s needs might include wanting support and respect whereas the customer delivery team’s needs might be understanding and trust. 

Once you understand each other’s needs you can move onto the strategies – needs and strategies are two different things. 

Needs do not refer to anyone taking any specific action. 

A strategy refers to specific actions that specific people may take.  “I need to get out of this toxic company” is not a need. It is a description of a specific person (himself) taking a specific action (leaving the company). This is a strategy not a need. 

The NVC superpower is to learn to hear needs regardless of how people express them. If you can do that a connection will be formed which becomes a key step to resolving conflict. 

Requests

NVC is not about getting the other person to do what you want. The objective is to create the quality of connection that will allow your needs to get met as well as the other person’s. Probably sounds too good to be true but if we go into a conversation with the intention of figuring out your own needs as well as the other person’s needs you are much more likely to come up with a creative solution where everybody’s needs are met. 

A request is to ask for actions which might fulfill your needs. 

Tips for making a request

  1. Make it about what you want, not what you don’t want. It is surprising how many people struggle to answer the question about what they need or want and therefore how their needs might be met. 
  2. Make the request about specific actions. Keep the language specific, not vague or abstract. “I want you to listen” is too vague and abstract. It would be better to request, “I would like you to keep silent whilst I explain the problem for two minutes.
  3. Don’t just express your feelings, make it clear what you want them to do. Rather than say “I’m annoyed you forgot to make the call” say “I would like you to make the call to the customer in the next ten minutes (specific request) because I’m worried (feeling) they will go to our competitor and I really value reliability (need).”
  4. Make sure you express your feelings and needs behind the request. Refer to the sentence in point three above.
  5. Ask for the listener to reflect back what they heard. “Would you be willing to tell me what you just heard me say?
  6. A request should not lead to punishment or blame unlike a demand.  If you are thinking they should be doing something it is likely to sound like a demand.
  7. Stay curious and empathic. Not all requests will be agreed to and that is when you need to show empathy and understanding toward the other person’s needs. Ask questions like this, “Would you be willing to tell me what you think (or feel) when you hear me say this?” Try to understand what unmet needs are stopping them from saying yes. Don’t be afraid to make a guess or indeed to stay silent in order to uncover more unmet needs. You need to give people time and space to express themselves fully and to feel understood.

Let me give you two examples:

First scenario is where NVC is not applied.

Your head of product consistently turns up late to senior leadership team meetings. You call her out in front of the rest of the team as being lazy and disrespectful. And she responds by telling you to get over yourself and start focusing on your own problems. You demand that she turns up on time for the next meeting or there will be consequences. No one is able to properly focus in the meeting, tension is growing and the meeting is largely a waste of the leadership team’s expensive and valuable time.

Second scenario is when NVC is applied. 

You notice that the head of product has turned up late a couple of times recently for the senior leadership team. So you decide to go and have a chat about it with her 1:1. You state your observations (the fact she has been ten minutes late for the last two meetings), your feelings (you feel irritated and frustrated … ), the connection to your needs (… because you would like to make the most of the time the leadership team has together) and a request (for a discussion about the impact of arriving late on the rest of the team and the meeting itself). This approach encourages openness and transparency and the leader finds out that his colleague is feeling very stressed right now at home and at work and finds the meetings largely a waste of time. The unmet needs are understanding and support. The leader shows empathy to the stress his team member is currently under, he offers another member of staff to help her and suggests she works from home more often to get her focused work done more effectively. And they decide to have an open discussion in the next leadership meeting about how to make the meetings more effective and meet everyone’s needs. 

In summary the NVC process is 

The concrete actions you observe 

How you feel in relation to what you observe

The needs, values, desires that create your feelings

The specific actions you request to meet your needs

Like with anything new you need to show some vulnerability to get started and to master NVC, you need to extend that giraffe neck of vulnerability (tough for me as I have a very short neck!). NVC is simple on the surface but much more challenging in the heat of the moment. Practice, practice, practice would be what Marshall would encourage you to do.

But it will be worth it. Your company culture and team effectiveness will be transformed – stronger relationships, more engaged team members, more effective conflict resolution – if there are more giraffes than jackals in the workplace. Just ask Satya Nandella, the CEO of Microsoft.

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Keep well. Give > Take. 

Mark