The Art of (Nonviolent) Communication – how to understand what people are actually saying

Published by nedmortimer on

This article is not particularly music industry focused, but I think it’s a topic that can benefit EVERYONE.

One of the most significant interventions I can remember, especially in the context of my understanding of relationships with other people, came in the form of a three-hour Youtube video of a man in America using hand puppets to give a seminar to a crowd of people.

When someone asks you to give up 3 hours of your life to watch a video that is not even very well produced about something you think you know about already, ignore your instinct to refuse!

I was determined to hate the video and disagree with everything in it. The filming quality was fairly average and the man giving the seminar started off with a slightly awkward song on the guitar that set alarm bells ringing (for me at least). In the age of TED Talks, why should I waste my time on something as haphazard looking as this?

Marshall Rosenberg’s philosophy is as breathtakingly simple to frame, as it is difficult to put into practice. But the man knows what he is talking about – he worked in conflict resolution for several decades, including running sessions with African Tribal leaders after some of the worst civil wars and atrocities of the last decade.

His philosophy is also brilliant and if you can grasp it has real, practical applications that can have a profound impact on how you talk to and, more crucially, listen to other people.

The principles of non-violent communication run something like this:

The only thing that anyone is ever saying is either ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. To be more specific, people are only saying one of:

‘I have a need that is not being fulfilled and you can fulfil it by performing a certain request’ (please).


‘In doing X, you have fulfilled my need for Y and made me feel Z’ (thank you).

He describes this way of framing your communication as ‘Giraffe’ language (they are the land mammals with the largest hearts), and anything else – blame, criticism, threat, and other such negative expressions of need – as ‘Jackal’ language.

To focus first on the Please element, we can draw out some of his main teachings:

There is no such thing as the right way of doing something, or the right amount of something, because no one person can judge that on his or her own. To use an example, it is wrong to say ‘you talk too much’, or ‘you don’t listen enough’ because there is no correct standard, no correct amount of speaking or listening to measure that person again, only your need for a certain behaviour.

This should be framed as a request – something specific that the person can do to fulfil your need. This request should constitute something objective, not a value judgment about that person – ‘you talk too much’ is simply your opinion about the level of talking they do.

This request should be a request, not a demand. To threaten someone (e.g. ‘if you don’t do X then I’ll leave you’) is not a request because you’re not giving them the choice whether to fulfil it. In asking that person to fulfil your need, you have to recognise that it is your need and yours alone. You cannot frame a need in terms of the person who intend to fulfil it – you merely have a preference that it be fulfilled by that person.

One of the amazing things about his philosophy is that not only can you translate what YOU SAY into Giraffe, to help people better empathise with your needs and understand why you ask for certain things, but you can also translate what someone SAYS TO YOU in Giraffe. Indeed this can be the most effective lesson from his talk – the ability to translate everything negative – the blame, the criticism, the threat, and so on – into an objective statement of that person’s needs not being fulfilled which is nothing to do with you, except insofar as they request something from you to help fulfil that need.

[This is all quite difficult to capture in a thousand-word blog post and that is why it is worth watching all three hours of the video – he takes real-life examples from the live audience in his seminar and shows how Non-Violent Communication works in practice. It’s very watchable and he is also hilarious!]

The other element, the ‘Thank You’, he tackles at the end. We are accustomed to saying ‘Thank You’ to one another without really unpacking what that means. Similarly, when we compliment each other’s work or behaviour, we rarely elaborate on why we’re doing so. According to Marshall, this is the correct way to formulate a ‘Thank You’:

‘When you did [insert specific action or behaviour] you made me feel [insert a feeling] that fulfilled my need for [insert fundamental need].’

These are the general principles he pulls together in his ‘Non-Violent Communication’ philosophy.

Click here to read how to define your needs – the basic needs that underpin everything you do and want. 


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