Poor communication is often at the root of interpersonal conflict. It’s easy to misinterpret tone, skip out on answering an email, or interrupt a colleague during the morning meeting without realizing. And whether it’s talking to your partner at home or speaking up to a supervisor in the office, saying what we mean—and what we need—can be hard.
The fear of being seen as needy, unprofessional, or lacking talent keeps many of us quiet. Thankfully, there’s a single strategy (complete with an easy-to-follow script) that makes it easier to speak up.
Nonviolent communication may sound like something reserved for peacekeepers and conflict zones, but this simple approach to dialogue developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg is truly for all people in all places.
At its heart, nonviolent communication encourages compassion and empathy, and equally promotes speaking as well as being heard. According to Rosenberg, this practice is transformative because “When we hear the other person's feelings and needs, we recognize our common humanity.” Voices shake when speaking the truth because vulnerability is high and defenses are low. It can be hard to ask for help or support—especially in the workplace.
The four tenets of nonviolent communication
Rosenberg’s strategy for talking to friends, partners, colleagues, and supervisors is rooted in honesty and humanity, and it’s outlined in even more detail in his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. His approach forces interpersonal connection by acknowledging wants, needs, actions, and desires.
Nonviolent communication offers a simple script for moving through conflict and defusing arguments using the following four sentence starters: “When,” “I feel,” “Because I need,” “Therefore I would like.” Here’s how it works:
Say what you want and how you feel
Poor communication typically lacks clarity and content, which is why nonviolent communication explicitly asks practitioners to state what’s happening and how it makes them feel. If a colleague always arrives late to meetings, a nonviolent communicator might start a conversation by saying, “When you come late to meetings I feel like you don’t value my time.”
If a project collaborator drops the ball on a deadline, someone practicing Rosenberg’s strategy might say, “When you miss our deadlines I feel like I can’t rely on you for our project.” Linking an action to a feeling helps draw a connection between what’s happening and our humanity.
Ask for what you need and what you want
In a world that values innovators and individuality, asking for help can be especially difficult. But few people rise to the top without a little assistance from others. Nonviolent communication recognizes this fact and encourages naming needs and actions as part of the practice.
Remember that colleague who always arrives late to meetings? A nonviolent communicator might round out “When you come late to meetings I feel like you don’t value my time” with “I need to feel like my time is valued, and so I would like you to be punctual when we have something on the calendar.” There’s little space for confusion or misunderstanding since nonviolent communication links a situation to a feeling, then a need with an action. It’s a roadmap for interactions as much as it is for outcomes.
What about the coworker who missed the essential deadline? Someone practicing Rosenberg’s approach will likely say “When you miss our deadlines I feel like I can’t rely on you for our project,” and then add “I need to feel like I can trust you in this partnership so please turn in your assignments on time.”
Find freedom in the formula
Saying what you need or what you expect can be hard, but Rosenberg’s script makes the challenge of getting vulnerable easier to stomach.
Start small, using his four sentence starters with close colleagues or friends. Then work up to supervisors and outside partners. Remember that conflict is often steeped in poor communication and that connecting with clarity, humanity and humility can pave the way towards more compassionate, empathic, and productive professional relationships.
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