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Nonviolent and Non-Defensive Communication

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
talking; communication

The heart of many of the conflicts I mediate is often hurt feelings over critical, blameful, and insensitive communication. So I thought it was important to revisit the core concepts behind nonviolent or non-defensive communication which I’ve written about in the past. Much more than just an abstract notion, nonviolent communication is a core concept couched in a strong theoretical base. Not only is it a powerful tool in mediation or formal conflict resolution, it is a holistic process and a lens through which an individual can come to see all relations and communication.

What is Nonviolent or Non-Defensive Communication?

What is widely recognized today as the core theory of nonviolent communication (NVC) was spearheaded by psychologist and PhD. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. With questions about communication and violence originating from childhood run-ins with anti-Semitism and violent race relations in Detroit, Rosenberg began to develop his model during his activities in the civil rights movement. He sought to better understand how entrenched patterns of communication kept people from expressing their needs to one another without violent escalation, and how he and others could develop the ability to surpass those patterns.

Another theorist in this arena, Sharon Strand Ellison, the director of the Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (NDC), expresses some of the same ideas as Marshall. Ellison’s view is that most of our current communication structure reinforces prejudice and stereotypes and assumes that “the other” in any communication is the enemy.  As she started doing research into the definitions of some basic communication terms, she discovered that there are a lot of war analogies used. Ms. Ellison shows that people make rampant use of predications, statements, and questions to attack, blame, sabotage, and justify in our communications with others.

Both Ellison and Rosenberg’s ideas are founded on some basic assumptions about human beings and their mutual interactions. They assume that all humans are capable of compassion for other humans, and that violence ultimately arises because humans feel left with no better way to meet their own needs. It asserts that communication patterns that regularly lead to violence are taught to individuals through cultural and social norms. By breaking from those habits, we can learn to minimize conflict and foster harmony when differences arise.

In NVC and NDC, compassion becomes the central focus of communication, rather than guilt, fear, shame, or coercion. Both theories emphasizes attentiveness to ourselves and our own needs so that we can articulate clearly, without being reactive or mixing up our actual needs with projections, stereotypes, blame, or fears. In addition, it emphasizes attentiveness to the other, truly hearing them without interference. By allowing all participants full validation as humans, capable and deserving of compassion, communication becomes less about judgment and diagnosis, more about mutual care and respect, and ultimately less inclined towards verbal or physical violence.  Often changing the way we communicate creates openings for both parties to feel that their needs are fulfilled, without hurting one another or escalating into conflict.  It is important to recognize that philosophies of nonviolent communication have roots around the world.

The Model

Rosenberg’s model for nonviolent communication looks like a sideways figure eight: one side of the figure symbolizes the process of “empathetic listening,” while the other symbolizes “honestly expressing.” The shape of the figure embodies the flowing, interlocking relationship between these two integrated parts of the communication process.

On both sides of the model there are the four critical components: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Honing in on these elements, in relation to our own honest expressions as well as our empathic listening to others, helps us focus our minds on the true content of an exchange, while actively expressing empathy, compassion, and a commitment to nonviolence.

This model is a guide for practicing communication mindfully, without getting caught up in defensive, reactive, aggressive, or judgmental patterns. If you are the speaker following this four step process your job is to articulate clearly and with empathy what you observe, what feelings it causes, what your needs are and what concrete actions you are requesting.   No demands, no blaming.  In the role of listener your mission is similar, clarifying what you understand and your observations, without evaluation, judgment, blame or criticism.

In Ellison’s NDC model, the non-defensive statement is open, direct, vulnerable, subjective and descriptive. In this model, the speaker articulates their beliefs, feelings and reasoning and the impact on behavior.

In NVC and NDC, you pay a great deal of attention to the words you use, your nonverbal communication, and the emotions you are expressing. The goal is to clarify what you are thinking and feeling and communicate the impact of a particular behavior or observation without blame, guilt, or judgment.

Applying NDC or NVC

When you treat a co-communicator with compassion and empathy, and pay careful attention to the way you articulate your needs, they are much more likely to feel comfortable enough to try out a different form of communication that is less defensive. You may be surprised to find a pleasant change in the tenor of your communications with a variety of persons in your life when they find themselves feeling validated and safe by your communicative behavior.

It takes a great deal of commitment to keep focusing on the model and your goal of expressing compassion when a situation invites you to feel attacked and respond defensively, fearfully, or angrily. By practicing and thinking about NVC frequently, you can train and strengthen your mind’s ability to be mindful when difficulties arrive. We encourage you to try out strategies of nonviolent communication throughout your day, and please feel free to submit any questions or comments here if we can be of any assistance.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience.  In 2017, she was nominated by her peers to the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute.  She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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