What I Learnt About Non-Violent Communication

... and why it matters

Non-violent communication is an interesting concept, arising from the observation that communication at work can often come across as threatening or antagonistic to the recipient, which results in a negative response, rather than a beneficial one.

Here’s what I learnt about non-violent communication:

Observe without evaluating. For example, if someone has been late to all four meetings this week, say “You’ve been late to all four meetings this week” rather than “You’re irresponsible”. The latter is an evaluation that you came up with, but don’t say it. State the facts. Maybe someone in their family is sick, or a customer call spilled over… Something happened (late) which caused you to reach a certain evaluation (careless) or feel a certain way (frustrated) but those are two different things. You can’t control events that happen, but you can control how you feel and what you say about them. Share observations, not conclusions.

If you must criticise, criticise behaviours, not people. If someone mocked someone else, don’t say, “You’re rude!” Say, “Mocking other people is not right”. It may seem subtle, but in the first case you are criticising who the person is, while in the second case, you are criticising what a person has done. People find it hard to accept a negative judgement about him as a person, but easier to accept that sometimes we make mistakes.

Express vulnerabilities and feelings. Doing so at work is not considered okay, but that conventional wisdom is wrong. When we’re afraid to express vulnerability, we put it across as being about the other person, which sounds like blame. For example, “I promised this feature to the customer by last week, so now I feel embarrassed” is better than “You guys didn’t deliver on time!”, which feels like an attack. When we’re afraid to be vulnerable, we end up attacking others, though that wasn’t the intention. All of us are driven by emotion to some extent, so let’s put it on the table rather than hiding it. When we put it out in the open, it’s easy for others to empathise with your emotions and .

Identify the underlying need. In the previous example, the need may be “I need the features to launch by the promised date”. Again, people can understand the need, which naturally makes people want to co-operate. Whereas if you say, “We need to launch by next week” it can sound like an order. 

When you’re in a conflict, separate the person from the problem. If you’re in a conflict with Santosh about the marketing strategy, you have a disagreement about the marketing strategy; you don’t necessarily have a dispute with Santosh.

Say what you want, not what you don’t want. “Can you be on time for meetings?” is better than “Please don’t be late.” The former sounds like a request for you to do something, while the latter sounds like being chided.

Criticise in private. When you criticise in public, people’s ego comes into play, and they feel the need to not lose face in front of the whole team. People feel like they’re performing in front of an audience. Instead, pull the person you have a problem with aside and discuss in private. Ego comes into play even 1:1, but don’t make it harder by doing it in public.


Why does all this matter? Why should you care about non-violent communication? Because we all have an emotional bank account with others. Communication that comes across as antagonistic depletes your account, leaving you less effective, both immediately in the sense of the getting the current task done, and in the future. Conversely, non-violent communication builds trust and increases your influence, and when people trust you, they’ll go the extra mile for you.