Nonviolent Communication and Abortion

by Alan Rafael Seid, CNVC Certified Trainer
Author’s note: This article covers how NVC would address women’s reproductive health and more specifically the topic of abortion.

As a male and non-doctor, I am not presenting myself as an expert on abortion. I present this article as an expert in NVC, exploring how NVC would view abortion and women’s reproductive health. By its nature, an article of this length omits much information.

In this article I try to strike a balance between objectively reporting from the perspective of NVC insights, values, and principles on the one hand, and the seemingly impossible task of omitting my personal perspective and opinions!

I am open to receiving feedback regarding important issues I may have left out, or ways in which you, the reader, think my personal bias has clouded my views on the issues.

So…how does Nonviolent Communication hold the issue of abortion?

Understanding Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

Let’s first clarify what NVC is, followed by looking at the intersection of NVC and abortion.

What is Nonviolent Communication (NVC)?

Definition and principles
NVC helps you create the quality of connection with others from which you can arrive at mutually satisfying outcomes more reliably.

NVC teaches you how to speak your truth in a way that is most likely to result in your own needs being met, that is also in harmony with the needs of others. Using NVC, you are more likely to elicit understanding when expressing your point of view.

NVC is also a way of receiving blame, judgment, criticism, or a verbal attack in such a way that, instead of hearing those things, you can put your attention on the needs and values of the other person. As a result, you can stand in a more compassionate place, are less likely to get defensive, and are much more likely to defuse any potential conflict.

NVC is based on the premise that all human beings share the same universal human needs, also understood as core human motivators. Needs are how life wants to show up in this moment, in me, in you, or in anyone else.

Because needs refer to what is alive, it’s useful to think of them as energies that want to flow rather than holes to be filled.

Because needs are universal they are never in conflict.

However, strategies — which are important because they are the ways we go about meeting needs — are not universal.

Conflicts happen at the level of strategies, not the level of needs.

When you clarify each side’s universal needs in any given conflict, then people can see each other’s humanity and conflicts get resolved more quickly and easily.

History and development by Marshall Rosenberg

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was a student of famous psychologist Carl Rogers, who at the time was studying empathy and the question of how authentic human connection can be so healing.

NVC addresses the question, what are the essential elements in thought, language, communication, and the use of power, that contribute to authentic human connection?

Core Components of NVC

NVC has both a consciousness and a concrete framework or model. Let’s look at some of the elements of the NVC model first and afterwards clarify what we mean by the consciousness of NVC.

NVC has three areas where you can put your attention in the service of connection: (1) self-connection (which includes self- empathy), (2) honest and authentic self-expression, and (3) empathic listening.

Empathic listening is the way in which you are present for someone else such that their need for a respectful or compassionate understanding (empathy) is met.

Honest and authentic self-expression is speaking your truth from the heart in a way that is more likely to lead to harmony than conflict.

And self-connection, which includes self-empathy, turns out to be a limiting (or supportive) factor for the other two. If I am not self-connected my ability to share honestly is limited. If I am not self-connected, my ability to be empathically present is compromised or unavailable. This area of self-empathy is also a form of emotional self-care, a skill for transforming negative self- talk, and a way to re-ground yourself in what is important to you.

Each of these three areas — self-connection, honesty, empathy — contains the same four components:

  • Observations,
  • Feelings,
  • Needs,
  • Requests.

(Some trainers refer to the above four as steps. I do not think of them as steps, as that can give the impression that they are applied in a linear fashion. Rather, I think of them as components or elements of the model.)

The Observation clarifies the stimulus, and answers the question “what are we talking about?” Usually, the more specific the observation the more useful. As soon as stories, interpretations, or evaluative language (judgments and criticism) are mixed in, then it is no longer a neutral observation and can take us away from connection. Here, the key differentiation is often expressed as observation versus evaluation.

Clearly stating Feelings can help the listener experience more connection, because they are indicators that something deeper is happening. Feelings give us a sense of the flavor and intensity of the other person’s experience. In addition, there are words that sound like feelings but which have evaluative, judgmental, or interpretive language mixed in — also known as faux feelings — which take us away from connection. Here, the key differentiation is often expressed as feelings versus faux feelings.

Needs are a way of describing how the life impulse shows up in any given person at any given time. Needs are universal in nature, and constitute the conditions under which any human being can thrive, regardless of cultural background or geographic location. As stated above, needs are energies that want to flow, not holes to be filled — and as such, they can be seen as core human motivators. Needs impel us to speak or act. We get in trouble when we mistake them with strategies, which are concrete actions that contribute to satisfying needs. Strategies are by definition not universal. Conflicts happen at the level of strategies, not needs. If we take the time to connect at the level of feelings and needs first, then we can co-create strategies that meet the greatest number of needs. Here, the key differentiation is expressed as needs versus strategies. (To be clear, the word versus here means not in opposition to, but rather as differentiated from.)

(There is a deep question that’s mostly outside of the scope of this article but which bears mentioning: What causes needs? Where do needs come from? My personal conclusion as I’ve investigated this for many years is that needs arise from the meaning someone is, consciously or unconsciously, giving a situation. So it is the meaning people give to this issue that ultimately leads to the needs that arise for them.)

Requests are a way of taking responsibility for what you want. The more specific the request usually the more useful. In a true NVC request you can receive a no with as much love as a yes. By contrast, in a demand the other person’s needs don’t matter compared to a specific strategy. Expressing demands destroys connection, trust, and goodwill because it communicates “your needs don’t matter to me.” Here, the key differentiation is often expressed as requests versus demands.

Farther ahead I’ll discuss how these four elements can be applied in conversations around abortion.

However, no matter how skilled you are at stating clear observations, feelings, needs, and requests — if your intention is to get your way or manipulate a specific outcome, you could use words that sound like but would not at all be NVC.

This is why it’s so important that we clarify the meaning and significance of NVC consciousness.

NVC Consciousness

As mentioned earlier, besides a concrete framework, NVC has an intentionality and a consciousness.

The intention in NVC is to create a high quality of connection out of which people naturally and spontaneously want to contribute to one another’s well-being. It is through this high quality of connection, and the good will it engenders, that together we arrive at mutually satisfying outcomes.

The consciousness of NVC reminds you that any judgment, blame, criticism, or verbal attack, is simply a tragic expression of unmet needs. When people are hurting emotionally, the tendency is to lash out or withdraw. In other words, when we most need other people’s love, care, and support, is when we tend to act in ways that make it least likely that we will get that love, care, and support from the other person. Hurt people hurt people, as the expression goes.

NVC teaches you how to be with pain — your own or another’s — in a way that can preserve the connection.

So the consciousness of NVC allows me to have compassion, to listen more deeply, to understand that we do impact each other even though we are not responsible for each other’s feelings.

The consciousness of NVC gives me the ability to connect to my own and somebody else’s heart — and create the connection out of which we can both have a mutually enriching result. The model, or the framework, gives me tools, skillful means, for being more successful in manifesting that intention.

The Intersection of NVC and Abortion

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
— Rumi

The cultural and societal issues surrounding abortion specifically, and women’s reproductive health and freedom, generally, are not simple or straightforward!

Violent Communication

At this point, it’s useful to mention that NVC has its opposite: life- disconnected, life-alienated thinking and language — most of which is an old habit and something we do unconsciously, and — which destroys connection, relationships, and good will.

One of the characteristics of life-disconnected, life-alienated thinking and language is moralistic judgments based on rigid ideas of right/wrong, good/bad.

In NVC we make the distinction between values-based judgments and moralistic judgments.

One example of a values-based judgment is knowing when and when not to cross the street. Another is that I choose to listen to this podcast but not that one. There are foods I eat and foods I don’t. This is all based on what I value, and is also known as discernment.

Moralistic judgments, on the other hand, have to do with who is good and right versus who is bad and wrong. This is often followed by thinking that those who are good and right deserve to be rewarded, and those who are bad and wrong deserve to be punished. And, of course, I’m the one who gets to judge who is good and who is bad!

This is the conundrum people find themselves in with regard to the issue of abortion, and so many other issues. NVC helps us transcend moralistic and punitive thinking with a way of connecting with what is important in each other’s hearts, so that we can then enter a collaborative process to find the solutions that meet the most needs for the most people.

The larger issue is whether we can see each other as human beings, seek to deeply understand those who have a radically different perspective and approach, and find the common ground that could lead us to solutions we can all live with.

Even as I write this, it’s challenging to extract my own perspectives and opinions in service of a certain level of neutrality and objectivity.

There are many circumstances where I believe it’s dangerous to create a false equivalency between two sides of an issue — democracy (rule by and for the people) versus fascist authoritarianism is one of those.

And though I have my own strong opinions about abortion, women’s rights around reproductive health care, and much of the rhetoric I hear culturally and politically, NVC has taught me to look deeply at the heart and humanity behind the perspectives.

The Emotional Landscape of Abortion

Besides the fact that women’s reproductive health has featured prominently in recent news, the topic of abortion is also charged because it elicits some of the most fundamental needs humans experience, from reverence for life to reverence for freedom; from religious and spiritual beliefs to the question of what should be the role of government in our personal lives.

For people deeply involved in the issue, it is literally a matter of life and death. On the one hand, some people believe abortion at any stage of pregnancy is the murder of a human being. On the other, clinics have been firebombed (and more) and doctors murdered over this issue! (

Because the issue is so culturally charged at this time, it’s incumbent on leaders and people who have a platform to contribute to lowering the temperature and toning down the rhetoric — in order to have the conversations and discussions that could lead us to solutions we can all live with.

The Importance of addressing emotions

When people have strong feelings, these can get in the way of a reasoned and reasonable conversation.
Understanding the role of feelings in conflict

As the above graphic illustrates, intense feelings often create a type of “turbulence” that affects the transmission of basic information.

Once we settle the emotional line of communication — through empathy or other means — then the kind of connecting conversation that can lead to co-created outcomes becomes possible.

Using NVC in Conversations about Abortion

Empathic listening
Empathy gives people a safe place to vent, without judgment, which also helps to lower tensions.

When I receive high quality empathy I leave the conversation more connected to my feelings, needs, and potential requests — and also with a lowered emotional charge.

Understand the timing of empathy

If I cannot give empathy it’s because I need it. When I am in emotional pain it can be hard to be fully present to the pain of another person.

If the other person cannot give me empathy, it’s because they need it.

When we’re both needing empathy at the same time, that’s when the conversation can get stuck. In these situations it might be best to take a time out and get empathy somewhere else before coming back to the conversation.

A common mistake people make is to try to bring everything to a conclusion in one conversation. Keep in mind that the resolution you might be looking for could be several conversations down the line.

Get curious!

Curiosity is a superpower in NVC. When you are curious, it’s hard to stay in moral judgments and punitive thinking.

When you’re curious, you can extend grace by giving some benefit of the doubt, which often leads to discovering new things.

When you’re curious you can seek to understand the other person’s needs, which can help you get out of right/wrong thinking.

When the other person feels heard first and receives not agreement but compassionate understanding for their views, then they are usually more open to hearing other perspectives!

Compassionate Honesty

The four components of NVC, which I described above, can be useful here. With practice, you can integrate the key differentiations. As a result, you are not mixing evaluative or judgmental language into your statement of the facts (observations), by expressing clear feelings and needs you are cultivating genuine connection, and through your use of actionable requests you are keeping the conversation moving or leading it toward constructive action.

Keep in mind that there is a big difference between having a set of tools and being skillful with them. NVC, like anything immensely worthwhile, takes time and practice to master. I highly recommend availing yourself of classes, workshops, and practice groups, led by CNVC Certified Trainers or other qualified professionals.

And even when you do develop good skills using NVC tools, remember that the consciousness of NVC is paramount! The intention is to connect, along with a willingness to work toward mutually agreeable outcomes.

If you forget the intentionality and the consciousness of NVC, no matter how skilled you are, it can become a subtle form of manipulation which inevitably leads to less durable outcomes.

Challenges and Considerations

Addressing Controversial Views with NVC

NVC is not a panacea. It is also not a permission structure for indulgence, permissiveness, or an anything-goes approach.

In NVC you are allowed to have strongly held beliefs and convictions.

However, NVC would ask you to:

  • notice where you’re making an interpretation or telling yourself a story,
  • connect with the needs underlying your perspective, and also which needs it might leave out,
  • make sure that you are doing the emotional self-care, including getting empathy, so that you have the interior resources to engage in challenging conversations without falling into dehumanizing thinking and language, and while also preserving your own mental health and integrity.

(NVC does not require you to engage in conversations that feel unsafe or unhealthy to your system!)

Handling disagreements and polarizing opinions

It’s very hard to offer empathy when you are under-resourced.

It’s challenging to get through a tough conversation in a way that leads to more connection and mutual understanding if everyone involved is not willing to both share their opinions honestly and also listen with sincerity and curiosity.

Empathy does not mean agreement! It means that I’m willing to give the other person the experience that I understand. I can understand somebody’s perspective and still have my own, different perspective.

This is where people often misunderstand NVC and it becomes “weaponized”: NVC is not for changing peoples’ minds or to get them to see the world more how you see the world.

The purpose of NVC is to create a high quality of connection. From that quality of connection, people are more open and more willing to understand, and consider different perspectives.

All the persuasion techniques in the world will not change the mind of someone who is convinced they are right and is closed to other perspectives.

Paradoxically, though the intention of NVC is to connect, it is through connection that people become more open to understanding other points of view.

Strategies for maintaining respect and empathy

The most powerful strategies I know for maintaining respect and empathy involve:

  • Staying resourced, so that I can access empathy for the other person;
  • Having strong self-empathy skills, so that I can take care of myself in the middle of a difficult conversation; being able to bring myself back to feelings and needs helps me stay grounded in myself, and also more present with the other person;
  • Reminding myself that I have a human being in front of me, that the entire issue of women’s reproductive health does not hinge on this one conversation, that I don’t have to prove that I am “right” (even if I am convinced that I am);
  • Titrating the conversation — in other words, allowing the conversation to slow down enough to allow both people’s nervous system’s to get through it in digestible segments.

And remember that asking for a time-out in a conversation is allowed. That said, I will usually request a time-out with two parameters: (1) reassuring the other person that the time-out is in service of the conversation and the relationship, and, (2) I propose a concrete time-frame, for example, two hours, three days, or whatever it is that I actually want to request.

Using a time-out in a strategic way can give the conversation a bit of a cooling down period, and allow each person to integrate and come back to the conversation with fresh curiosity.

Ethical Considerations in NVC and Abortion

Balancing personal beliefs with empathy

Again, empathy does not equal agreement!

People can have strongly held personal beliefs that are different from one another’s, and still strive to understand where the other person is coming from or how they came to their beliefs.

It’s the dehumanizing thinking and language that will block curiosity and the possibility of deeper connection that could lead to win-win solutions.

That said, recent anti-abortion laws in the United States have put peoples’ lives and livelihoods at risk! This goes way beyond an intellectual exercise about how to have a hard conversation.

It’s ok to name things as they are. Where NVC would draw the line is around language that demonizes or dehumanizes others. Merely thinking a dehumanizing thought adds more violence to the world.

Painful beliefs that block empathy — including this author’s personal perspective

(This section comprises my personal views and does not necessarily reflect the views of PuddleDancer Press.)

Much anti-abortion sentiment in the US comes from biblical influences.

When you have a country based on both freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state, it seems incongruous to enact policies and laws drawn from a specific moral code from one organized religion. This qualifies as a special interest forcing its views on others.

The state mandating behaviors based on the moral code of a specific religion — and criminalizing unaligned behaviors — is what happens when a government becomes a fascist theocracy.

There is a Christian Nationalist movement in the United States that appears to want just that. While I could empathize with their needs, I would disagree with their beliefs, strategies, and tactics.

Though there is some debate around the question when does a human life start? — the people creating anti-choice policies appear to be lacking sound medical information. This easily leads to the suspicion that the anti-abortion movement is more about controlling women than it is about saving babies’ lives.

This is further reinforced by the fact that the very people who claim to want to save babies by denying abortion are usually the same people who have been systematically dismantling the social safety net, trying to get rid of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) which helps low income families, and waging a war on poor and disadvantaged people.

My mother once joked that the pro-life movement ought to call themselves the “pro-intra-uterine-life” movement. Once a baby enters the world the high level of care and concern seems to disappear.

I find further evidence in the defense of Donald Trump’s policies which led to family separations at the US border and children being held in what were essentially cages. There was not much of an outcry from people who consider themselves to be pro-life.

It’s a further irony that most of the people against a women’s right to reproductive care are the same people who for decades have advocated for small government and to keep the government from intruding in peoples’ personal lives. Somehow, they don’t see a disconnect here!

It’s easy to conclude that their concern is more of a ruse, the real purpose of which is to control women to bolster the systems of oppression we call the patriarchy and neoliberal economics.

Any time historically, anywhere in the world, when abortion has been illegal, women have continued to seek abortions — for a myriad of reasons. Making it illegal does not make it go away! Instead, it creates conditions in which people who need this kind of care are forced into dangerous and unsafe situations.

Forcing anyone to carry their rapist’s child to term is inhumane and cruel — and this is only one small example of what happens under these policies.

Additional Resources


Anti-abortion violence

Abortion Bans Will Result in More Women Dying

Dobbs-era Abortion Bans and Restrictions: Early Insights about Implications for Pregnancy Loss

Selected excerpts from one of the above resources:
Both the excerpts below come from the article “Abortion Bans Will Result in More Women Dying” found here:

“Researchers have found that if abortion is banned throughout the United States, the overall number of maternal deaths would rise by 24 percent. This number is even worse for Black women, whose deaths would rise by 39 percent.
“The states with the highest expected increases in maternal deaths are Florida (29 percent), Georgia (29 percent), and Michigan (25 percent).
“States such as New Mexico—which borders states hostile to abortion and currently serves as a haven for care as a result—are projected to see a 25 percent increase to their maternal deaths under a total nationwide ban.
“A nationwide abortion ban, for which some policymakers have voiced support, could lead these dire projections to become reality.”
“Horrifying stories from the states that have banned abortion demonstrate the medical crisis that now grips nearly half the country. A woman in Wisconsin experiencing a miscarriage was turned away from the hospital and sent home to bleed without medical supervision. In Arizona, a 14-year-old, caught in the crosshairs of abortion restrictions, was denied medically indicated medication she had taken for years. A woman in Texas had to drive 18 hours to receive care for an ectopic pregnancy. And doctors across the country have been put in the untenable position of navigating their medical training and professional ethical obligations amid a lack of clarity about what is allowable under the law.”


The societal debate around abortion: more questions than answers

The issue of abortion and reproductive health is much larger than what this article can cover!

As you ponder the issue, consider these questions left unanswered.

Unanswered questions:

How does our broken information environment, in which entire groups live in completely different realities, affect how our society moves forward around difficult issues and topics, including abortion?

How do we fix, heal, or repair the way our society collectively takes in information, processes that information, and then collectively makes decisions around that information?

When there is an impasse, under what conditions is it ok for one group to impose its views on another?

To what extent can we create a culture that says, “all your needs always matter, but not all your needs will always be met in the way you want”?

Is it even possible around the issue of abortion to agree to disagree? Is this practical or even desirable?

Marshall Rosenberg on NVC & Abortion

Dr. Rosenberg often talked about a tension that exists simply by being human and living in human society.

He referred to it as the tension between autonomy and interdependence.

Some synonyms for autonomy would be freedom, choice, liberty.

Interdependence points to the fact that we are connected. None of us lives isolated or in a vacuum. We affect one another. Some synonyms for interdependence could be interrelatedness, interconnectedness, communion, mutuality.

In other contexts, these two are referred to as rights and responsibilities.

A person cannot have just one and not the other, only rights but no responsibilities, or vice versa.

When it comes to abortion — and the legal frameworks surrounding the issue — what is the right balance?

Dr. Rosenberg always encouraged us to find common ground, whenever we could.

That might beg the question: what is common ground between groups that refer to themselves as “pro-choice” and “pro-life”?

The one place that it appears common ground lies is that both sides of this issue, generally, share the desire to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In many contentious situations, identifying common ground is the most constructive way to start.

Dr. Rosenberg would also encourage us to slow down on the strategies, and make sure the underlying universal needs are identified and on the surface.

By starting at the level of needs and values people can then humanize each other, and relate to each other’s perspective.

By focusing on mutual understanding at the level of needs and values, first, the pathway to identifying mutually agreeable strategies then opens up.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC & Healthcare

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and healthcare.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of arriving at mutually crafted solutions.

Because of the trust-building process involved, and the fact that the solutions include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC in relation to healthcare policy predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on healthcare can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including books on healthcare, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on communication, relationships, and healthcare… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!