The Basics of Nonviolent Communication

As life coaches, how we speak requires mindfulness. Nonviolent Communication offers a useful framework for practicing mutual understanding and empathy.

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What Coaches Need to Know About NVC

Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, is an approach to communication developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg. The goal of NVC is to communicate and seek to understand what others are trying to say to you using honesty and empathy. 

“NVC is about connecting with ourselves and others from the heart. It’s about seeing the humanity in all of us. It’s about recognizing our commonalities and differences” - The Center for Nonviolent Communication

At its core, NVC involves:

  • Mindful awareness
  • Compassion towards yourself and others

Why Conscious Communication Matters

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us have been conditioned to react to others in habitual, automatic ways. It's hard wired into our biology!

Every second, billions of pieces of information enter our minds, but we only have the capacity to hold a small portion of them. Our brain has to sort, and utilizes existing memories to do so.

According to the American Psychology Association, the availability heuristic is "a common strategy for making judgments about likelihood of occurrence in which the individual bases such judgments on the salience of the information held in his or her memory about the particular type of event (otherwise known as availability bias)."

How does this impact our interactions with other people?

When we perceive ourselves to be "right" about something, the pleasure center of our brain lights up. Conversely, when we believe ourselves to be in the wrong, the pain center is activated. This can result in an unconscious bias toward feeling "right" that leads to defensiveness or hostility, closing us down to new sources of information and alternative perspectives.

In contrast, NVC helps us to purposefully harness the power of our response in order to speak firmly and clearly based on an awareness of our perceptions, feelings, and wants.

As we interact with others, NVC supports us in placing our awareness on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed by the speaker. When we come from a place that isn’t rooted in more typical responses of prescribing and judging, we increase compassion. 

In sum, NVC is all about communicating our needs, and listening to what other people are needing in return. Simple in theory, but it takes practice to master!

Four basic steps are involved in learning to use NVC:

  1. Observation without judgment
  2. Exploring and expressing one’s feelings that emerge from these observations (validating others, mirroring to make sure we have it right) 
  3. Taking responsibility for our feelings by expressing our needs
  4. Requesting actions from others to enrich our lives

Putting NVC to work

To use the four steps above, it can be helpful to use the basic sentence of NVC verbatim.

“When I hear _________, I feel _________, because I need _________; would you be willing to _________?”

Let's use an example to see how this might play out in everyday life.


Your partner has come home late from work every day this week, and you’re upset about it. From this place, your mind may be creating various scenarios that create further anxiety or distress: What's going on? Are they avoiding me? Cheating on me?

Step 1: Observation 

What are the facts, without judgement? My partner has been home from work 1-2 hours later than usual the last 4 nights

Step 2: Identify the Feelings

What core emotions are arising inside me in response to those facts? I feel lonely

Step 3: Take Responsibility

What do I actually need in this situation in order to feel less anxious/lonely? I need to know what to expect. If I know when my partner will be getting home, I will feel more secure and can plan my evening accordingly.

Step 4: Request Action

What would I like my partner to do differently? Text me to let me know when they are running late, and what time they expect to be home.

The Communication:

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting home late from work every night this week. I know we’re both working hard, but when this happens regularly I feel lonely and insecure. I work from home by myself all day, and I look forward to your company in the evening. It’s helpful to me to have a sense of what’s going on. When you are running late, would you be willing to text me so I know what's going on, and when to expect you home?”

Practicing NVC: What you need to know

These steps are not a specific formula. Think of them rather as a launching pad.

Holding too tightly to these four steps can disconnect you from the present moment, and may get in the way of clear and true communication. To account for this, simply practice each step as you are able. Over time, they will become more and more familiar to you.

Especially in the beginning, it can be very difficult to enact the ‘verbal mechanics’ of the NVC steps in a way that sounds natural for you. It may take months or even years of practice. Techniques of active listening and holding space that students develop in life coach training really help to accelerate this process!

From a coaching perspective, a simple way to include Step 5 of the NVC process can be woven into our conversations by actively requesting client feedback: 

  • “Am I on the right track with this conversation?” 
  • “Time out. How are we doing with resolving this issue?”

The expression of feelings and needs requires trust in the interaction, alongside one’s skills in communicating those feelings and needs. For people who are new to talking about feelings openly, this could feel strange and vulnerable at first.

The following chart from PositivePsychology.com provides a useful breakdown of the 5 Steps in conversational action:


Additional Resources

If you’d like to go deeper into Nonviolent Communication, there are workshops and training programs available worldwide through certified NVC trainers. You can also check out founder Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s book: The Basics of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Want to Become a Coach?

If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training! Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world of coaching.

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