Say It Peacefully

Navigate disagreements by communicating with compassion.
By Katy Butler

At my Memorial Day barbecue one year, I watched in awe as my friend Kathryn fielded baiting questions from a handsome, slightly drunk guest. I can’t remember the words she used, but instead of taking offense, Kathryn responded respectfully, without sacrificing her truth or compromising her dignity. She reminded me of an aikido master—in motion yet centered, calmly melding with her attacker and deflecting his thrusts without harming him.

When I later remarked on how skillfully she had handled him, Kathryn credited something called “nonviolent communication” and lent me a book by its creator, psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. She invited me to join a small group—part of a worldwide network accessible through the Center for Nonviolent Communication website (—that practices this approach by role-playing situations from life.

Once a month, we sat in a circle of chairs in someone’s living room, participating in role plays: a boundary dispute with a neighbor, a conflict between two singers in an interracial church choir, my tension-charged interactions with my two new teenaged stepsons. Slowly I learned to weather my intense emotions and translate my first, fear-driven thoughts into honest but nonconfrontational language, devoid of blame. Instead of a tape of You always ignore me, (which is a judgment) looping in my brain, I got at why I felt triggered—I feel lonely.

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is also called compassionate communication because the method focuses on getting needs met using compassion as a motivation rather than fear, guilt, shame, or coercion. The techniques teach you to express yourself without attacking others, and to receive critical messages without taking them personally. To do this, NVC follows a four-step protocol: observing and describing an external situation without judgment, articulating the feelings the situation triggers, connecting those feelings to an unmet need, and then making a “specific, doable request” of the other party. The most crucial points in this approach? Listening empathically and strategizing ways to meet others’ needs as well as our own.

A Gentle Giant
Marshall Rosenberg was a clinical psychologist in St. Louis who abandoned his practice in the late 1970s to, as he puts it, “give psychology away” by teaching communication skills on a wider scale. Like his mentor, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, Rosenberg maintains that one of our deepest human needs is to contribute to others’ well-being, so long as our own needs aren’t unfairly compromised in the process.

Rosenberg’s childhood was full of miscommunication and pain. His parents’ marriage was unhappy, and their neighborhood in Detroit was the center of violent race riots in the 1940s. At school, Rosenberg was beaten for being a Jew. These experiences, he recalls, inspired him to explore “what happens to disconnect people from their inherently compassionate nature and what allows some people to stay connected to it even in trying circumstances.”

From his work with civil rights activists in the l960s, Rosenberg came up with the precise language of NVC. Now based in Switzerland, he circles the globe, training lawyers, clergy, government officials, and families in crisis. He has taught his method everywhere from inner-city schools to a police station in Israel to prisons in the US and Sweden.

The Whatever Response
Initially, NVC seems awkward and mechanistic. At a workshop with Rosenberg, I heard one woman struggle with asking her son not to leave the bathroom faucet dripping. “Turn off the tap, would you?” came out something like: “Yesterday I asked you to turn off the water in the bathroom sink, and when I went in later, I noticed that the tap was still dripping. I also noticed it dripping the day before and the day before that, after I had asked you to turn it off. So I’d like to ask if you’d be willing in the future to—”

“Sure,” interrupted the man playing her teenage son. Rolling his eyes, he added, “Whatever.”

At that point, Rosenberg stepped in. “We all know ‘Whatever,’” he said, referring to the contempt a teenager can pack into that word. “But what need is he expressing? For autonomy, maybe. And what does turning off the tap mean to her? ‘Caring.’ Once they get in touch with their needs,” Rosenberg continued, “they can figure out a strategy for meeting them. Needs are never in conflict—only our strategies for meeting them are.”

NVC in Action
Take, for example, my conflict with my stepson Ned, who turned on Jeopardy each night just when I wanted to cook dinner in silence. Simply insisting he turn off the TV practically guaranteed conflict or capitulation, leaving us both unhappy. But by using NVC, we could brainstorm ways to get both needs met. Ned needn’t miss Jeopardy, and I could cook in peace, if I started dinner later, for instance, or we extended cable service into his bedroom and he watched it there.

NVC also worked for us one recent Christmas morning, when both my step-sons left the house without saying good-bye while I was making them pancakes. At first I felt crushed and insulted. In the vocabulary of NVC, however, insulted is not a feeling; it’s a tangle of emotions—surprise, sadness, and anger—plus thoughts and interpretations: Don’t they like me? Their father should discipline them. Teenagers are so rude.

Silently, I rephrased my inner dialogue to identify my unmet needs: I was surprised and disappointed because I had assumed we would have Christmas breakfast together. My needs for contact, celebration, and respect weren’t being met. Through nonviolent communication, I was, in effect, practicing a meditation of disentanglement, teasing out individual strands of thoughts and feelings that had arisen in a jumble, like snarled wool.

Later, when we talked about our blended-family holiday angst, I learned the boys had long-standing plans to exchange Christmas gifts with their mother. I better understood their feelings of divided loyalty and made a mental note to discuss holiday plans well in advance the next year.

A New Order
When I first started NVC, I saw it primarily as a way to put the right words in the right order to get what I wanted, rather than making real compromises. One spring, for instance, when my stepson Ryan wanted to move back in with us, my main goal was to figure out how to keep my study (formerly Ryan’s bedroom) without looking bad. I got lost in self-justifying and self-attacking thoughts: I’m the adult, after all—but am I being selfish? What am I doing to his relationship with his father?

Once I managed to couch my need as something anyone might want—a little nest of my own—my inner critic fell silent. Instead of insisting on my way, I found myself truly listening to Ryan; his needs began to matter as much as my own. I considered renting an office outside the house.

It turned out that Ryan wanted to move back mainly because he figured his father would drive him to his summer job across town. In the end, he gracefully decided to stay at his mom’s, but I gave him rides when he needed them.

Remapping the Landscape
So how is nonviolent communication working for me in the scheme of things? While NVC doesn’t solve every conflict, it can soften them, bringing to light hidden assumptions in my thoughts and speech. What I used to call selfishness or stubbornness I reframe as a need for autonomy. What I called codependence I now describe as my need to contribute to the lives of others. What I called a fear of intimacy I now characterize as a need for private time.

More tangibly, last spring, in negotiations with an insurance company over a car accident, I left on good terms—and with a $16,500 settlement, $11,500 more than predicted by the lawyers who refused to take my case. A recent two-week visit with my parents ended without a fight, even though we talked every day about death, disability, and money. As for Jeopardy, I’m getting used to it. While I cook, I even find myself shouting out some of the answers.

Katy Butler, based in Mill Valley, California, writes about psychology and Buddhism.


8 Ways to Resolve Conflicts Peacefully
Remember that all human beings have the same needs, such as acceptance, support, and independence.

Check your intentions to see if you are as interested in others getting their needs met as you are your own.

Notice if you are making a request or a demand.

Instead of saying what you DON’T want someone to do, say what you DO want.

Instead of saying what you want someone to BE, say what action you’d like the person to take.

Before agreeing or disagreeing, tune in to what the other person is feeling and needing.

Instead of saying no, say what need prevents you from saying yes.

When upset, think about which of your needs are not being met, and how to meet them, rather than focus on what’s wrong with other people.
Source: Adapted from