“The underlying intention in using NVC is to connect: to connect with ourselves first and only then to attempt to connect with others.”
(From What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, by Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike Lasater.)
Connecting With What We Feel
The second step in practicing non-violent communication (NVC), after making observations without evaluations, is connecting with our own feelings and needs. Only then can we express them to others, which is essential to communicating in a meaningful and productive way. When we can identify our own feelings, it’s that much easier to identify the feelings and needs of other people, even when they don’t recognize them themselves.
I’m fairly representative of the general population in that I’m pretty clueless when it comes to identifying and expressing my actual feelings. Having been raised in an uber German household, I was taught to deny feelings as weak and self-indulgent (with the possible exception of anger, which seemed to be the one strong emotion that was OK to express). Heck, even in Morris Alpert’s song “Feelings”, the guy is “trying to forget” his feelings of love. Learning to recognize and express our feelings is a critical part of self-understanding and NVC. As explained in What We Say Matters:
“Unless and until we are aware of what we are feeling and needing, we are unlikely to relate in a direct way with others. Unless we are clear with ourselves, our words create consequences (karma) for everyone that we will probably not enjoy.”
Distinguishing Feelings From Thoughts
NVC teaches the importance of distinguishing between feelings and thoughts, assessments and interpretations, which are often expressed with the phrase “I feel”. Telling someone “I feel like you don’t understand me” isn’t expressing a feeling; it’s expressing an opinion about that person. Saying “I feel I didn’t get a fair deal” is also expressing an opinion.
In fact, any time the phrase “I feel” is followed by the words that, like, as, by pronouns (I, you, he, she, they it) or by someone’s name, we’re expressing opinions and thoughts, not feelings. When we’re really expressing a feeling, we don’t need to use the word feel at all. We can say “I’m feeling lonely” or just “I’m lonely.”
It’s also important to distinguish between words that describe feelings and those that express interpretations of other people. Here’s an example from Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:
“‘I feel misunderstood.’ Here the word misunderstood indicates my assessment of the other person’s level of understanding rather than an actual feeling. In this situation, I may be feeling anxious or annoyed or some other emotion.”
Other examples of commonly used words that express our assessments of others instead of our feelings include abused, bullied, intimidated, let down, neglected, rejected, threatened and used.
Since many of us were raised in environments that discouraged us from expressing how we feel, it’s not surprising that we lack a “feelings vocabulary” beyond a few basic terms (happy, sad, tired, pissed off). To help with this, Rosenberg provides a “feelings inventory” – dozens of words, divided into “feelings when your needs are satisfied” and “feelings when your needs are not satisfied”. He also provides a “needs inventory” with a similar design. Armed with an increased literacy of feelings and needs, we can pause when we find ourselves being triggered by someone or something and increase our awareness of what’s happening inside.
Accepting Responsibility For Our Feelings
Why bother with so much work to accurately identify and express how we feel in a particular situation? It helps us come to grips with the fact that other people don’t cause our feelings. Rather, as Rosenberg explains, “our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as our particular needs and expectations in that moment.”
Instead of accepting responsibility for our feelings, we tend to blame others and think about what’s wrong with them and what they should do differently. The phrase “makes me feel”, as in “You make me feel angry”, is one example of how we use language to shift responsibility for our feelings from ourselves to outside forces. In Nonviolent Communication,Rosenberg identifies other common speech patterns that mask accountability for our feelings:
- Use of impersonal pronouns such as “it” and “that”: “It depresses me when the Cubs lose.”
- Statements that mention only the actions of others: “Mommy is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.”
- Use of the expression “I feel (an emotion) because” followed by a person or a personal pronoun other than “I”: “I feel angry because the doctor is running late.”
In each instance, we can deepen our awareness of our own responsibility, feelings and needs by substituting the phrase, “I feel … because I….” For example:
- “I feel depressed when the Cubs lose, because I want Chicago to have a winning baseball team.”
- “Mommy feels disappointed when your don’t finish your food, because I want you to grow up strong and healthy.”
- “I feel angry that the doctor is running late, because I have a long list of errands to get done.
I have to confess that I’m enamored with the phrase “I feel … because I ….” It helps me catch my tendency to blame others for my own feelings (having been a frequent user of phrases like “You make me feel …”). It causes me to be much more aware of the fact that I have a choice in how to respond to people and events around me. It also gives me a tool for stopping in the moment and determining what need of mine isn’t being met that’s creating the unpleasant feeling. In addition to creating more compassion for myself, tapping into my feelings and needs and expressing them in a way that avoids assessing and blaming others allows other people to respond in a more compassionate and less defensive and aggressive fashion.
Don’t let the seeming simplicity of this practice fool you. It can be tough to apply, particularly in situations of conflict and charged emotions. But as I’m learning, the results it produces — both in ourselves and the people with whom we communicate — are well worth the effort. To get you started, here’s a fairly short (10-minute) video of an NVC training session with Rosenberg on expressing feelings and needs.
Next week: NVC 4: Making Requests