Nonviolent Communication and Boundaries

Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, is an approach to interpersonal relating that recognizes a spontaneous generosity — a natural joy of giving — that is sparked when the quality of connection between us is high.

NVC distills and integrates the most important elements in language, thought, communication, and the use of power — to help you create this quality of connection!

When people are connected in this way, they naturally prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts, and are able to create exceptional personal and professional relationships.

NVC has specific tools and principles — and is also underpinned by a consciousness and set of intentions.

By practicing the tools you can become more skillful, and able to handle highly challenging interactions.

The consciousness and intentionality of NVC can be summed up as the understanding that we are all motivated by the same underlying needs. When we can connect at this level of our shared humanity, we reduce stress and more easily find solutions of mutual benefit.

NVC can be applied at work, at home, in day-to-day interactions, in organizations, and at the highest political levels of governance.

Boundaries: what are they and how do they work?

Boundaries are strategies we use to meet needs, for example safety or trust or ease.

Boundaries are a fact of life.

For some of us, boundaries have a negative connotation — like someone trying to keep you out or create distance.

For others, boundaries are an essential survival tactic to maintain safety and peace of mind.

Boundaries exist whether we want them or not.

The trick is working with boundaries — our own and others’ — consciously and intentionally.

We need to become more skillful at working with boundaries because they are an essential component of functional, healthy relationships!

Boundaries not only separate us.

Boundaries are where we come together — they are where we meet.

And different relationships require different kinds of boundaries.

For example, you don’t share with your child what you share with your therapist. And in a patient-therapist relationship there is usually a healthy boundary keeping sexuality and romantic feelings out — and for good reason!

It’s probably crossing a boundary to tell the cashier at the grocery store about your sex life.

In typical interactions between two people, or in a small group, boundaries are set at the level of the least comfortable person. For example, on a first date, if Person A wants to kiss but Person B is only comfortable holding hands — then holding hands and not kissing would be the healthy expression of a shared boundary. If Person B gives in to Person A’s desire to kiss they will have violated their own boundary, which will hurt the relationship.

Knowing your own boundaries requires inner clarity and self-knowledge.

Being willing to express your boundaries and advocate for them requires the self-esteem to both trust that your needs matter, as well as to know that you can count on yourself to advocate for yourself when you need it.

Boundaries as a form of self-care.

Many of us struggle with what to do when we notice that our own or others’ boundaries are either too rigid or too porous.

A boundary that is too rigid shows up as a form of inflexibility in different kinds of situations and results in keeping love out. Perhaps this rigid boundary was a survival mechanism that served us in the past but which we have outgrown and is no longer healthy — like a collar on a fast-growing puppy.

It can be challenging to know when, how, and with whom to soften the boundary. And it can be scary to make modifications in an attitude or behavior you associate with safety.

Likewise, sometimes our boundaries are too porous. When this happens, we experience others violating our boundaries or our space. This leads, at a minimum, to resentment! In other cases it can lead to extreme disconnection in order to create clarity and safety.

In both of these types of situations, NVC can help!

By understanding that a boundary is a strategy and not a need, you can go deeper, to the underlying needs. Once you are clear what underlying needs a boundary is intended to serve, it’s easer to be intentional in setting or adjusting the boundary so that it meets more needs.

Occasionally our boundary-setting has become an unconscious pattern set in our nervous system before we had the tools to be conscious and intentional about it. In these cases, the boundary has become something the person is not doing consciously but which happens as a sort of reflex.

In these cases, there are tools and modalities which are complementary with NVC but which work at another level or in different ways, in order to shift these patterns toward something more healthy. These other modalities can include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as well as various types of somatic therapy. (These are not specific recommendations, but are intended as ideas to aid you in your own research in case they apply to your situation and could be helpful.)

Understanding what the needs are and knowing what boundary to set with whom and in what context is an important form of self-care!

Different Kinds of Boundaries

There are different kinds of boundaries:

  • physical: “No, I would not like a hug at this time”;
  • energetic: for example, choosing not to make eye contact or engage in conversation;
  • emotional: knowing what is mine and not mine, what I am responsible for and what not; another example could be knowing when I’m done giving someone empathy;
  • intellectual: “No, I would not like to hear about how the Earth is flat”;
  • financial: when somebody asks you for money, what is true for you and how do you express it?;
  • sexual: what do I want and don’t want; what works for me and what doesn’t,
  • time: not everything can happen at once, and not every task or relationship is of equal priority; you may choose to spend hours with one person, but only minutes with another, as a boundary in the service of needs.

NVC leads you to a greater level of interior clarity, as well as skillfulness, in how to express a boundary as an act of contribution to life.

Nonviolent Communication is not about being nice!

One of the biggest misconceptions about NVC is that you are supposed to be nice or even permissive! Some people misinterpret NVC as being about not having boundaries!
This is a misconception both about NVC as well as about boundaries!

Boundaries can be an act of self-care as well as an act of care for the relationship or for something else. Boundaries can create clarity and safety.

NVC is not about being nice — especially if nice is not authentic. (In some NVC circles people differentiate between a form of “nice” that is inauthentic as contrasted with genuine kindness.)

So rather than focusing on being nice, NVC is actually about being real!

And being real can include setting very clear boundaries — firmly and with care — as an act of service to ourselves, others, and/or the world.

NVC techniques for setting boundaries

Below are some of the various ways NVC gives you for setting a healthy boundary.

Needs and Strategies
The first, discussed above, is a language of needs. Once we understand what needs we’re trying to meet, setting a boundary becomes a strategy in service of those needs.

It’s much easier to know what kind of boundary to set if we understand what needs it is intended to serve.

Requests rather than Demands
In NVC we express requests rather than demands. So I make a clear, unequivocal request about the boundary I would like to have.

What if the other person says no?

If the situation is one in which we feel reasonably safe, and if there is enough trust between us, then a boundary can be negotiated mutually.

If we don’t feel reasonably safe, or if there is not enough trust to negotiate a boundary, then — and only as a last resort — we can take unilateral action in service of needs. More on this below.

Protective use of force vs punitive use of force

NVC does not have a prohibition against the use of force. Rather, NVC distinguishes between punitive use of force and protective use of force.

The word punitive has the same root as the verb to punish.

Therefore, punitive use of force has the intention to make someone else suffer. NVC recognizes that this is a short-sighted strategy that more often than not backfires and hurts not only others but us as well.

Protective use of force, on the other hand, is when force is used in order to protect life. One possible example would be pushing somebody hard, out of the way of an oncoming car in order to save that person’s life. The person who pushed did not engage in dialog — there was no time! They used their physical force without getting the other person’s consent — so it was unilateral.

But the intention was not to punish or hurt. To the contrary, the intention was to protect life.

There are times when we find we must use strong language or strong physical action in order to protect life.

In NVC, any unilateral action can be construed as a type of protective use of force.

However, NVC instructs us to use protective use of force, or any unilateral action, only as a last resort once we have exhausted all other possibilities.

In the context of boundaries, a negotiated, mutually agreed-upon strategy is, of course, the ideal. But sometimes this is not available and we need to establish a strong boundary in order to protect our or others’ needs.

Another skill NVC teaches you for creating healthy boundaries is the art of interrupting.

Conventional culture tells us that interrupting is rude. However, in NVC it is a key skill. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg called this skillful kind of interrupting, “bringing the conversation back to life!”

There are primarily two ways to interrupt with NVC. One is interrupting with honesty and the other is interrupting with empathy.

Interrupting with honesty might sound like, “I actually don’t have time to talk right now because I need to catch my train. I’ll follow up with you once I am settled on board.”

Interrupting with empathy might sound like, “Quick question — what I hear you saying is that you would like me to complete the project by this Friday. Am I understanding?”

Saying and receiving no
The word perhaps most commonly associated with boundary setting is the word “no.”

NVC gives us specific guidance on both expressing and receiving no.

One insight NVC reveals here is that anytime somebody says no to something it is because they’re saying yes to something else. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg called this listening for the yes behind the no.

NVC would guide you to avoid using phrases like “I can’t,” “I am unable”, and “I don’t want to.” Instead, NVC teaches you to express the needs that get in the way of saying yes.

Notice the following example:

Person A: “Would you be willing to take me to the post office right now?”

Person B: “I have an important client call in 5 minutes. How about afterwards or tomorrow? Is there someone else you can ask?”

In this case, Person B never used the word “no.” Instead, they expressed what was alive that got in the way of saying yes to the request. Rather than saying “no” to the request, Person B expressed what they were a yes for — in this case their client call and perhaps a ride later — and also offered an alternative strategy of asking someone else.

This is also the way you receive a no!

When someone gives you a no, you can assume that there are other needs to which they are saying yes.

It’s much easier to receive someone’s no — and to possibly have a conversation about it — when we intuit or connect with what their needs are behind the choice they’re making.

NVC helps you have healthier boundaries by:

  • understanding that boundaries are strategies in service of needs — and then further clarifying what those needs are,
  • knowing how to make clear, actionable requests,
  • understanding the limitations and nuances of enforcing boundaries through unilateral action,
  • knowing when and how to interrupt,
  • understanding how to express and receive “no.”

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on Boundaries

Without healthy boundaries, it’s impossible to have a healthy relationship.

Yet many of us are so conflict-averse that we will often avoid asserting a boundary in an attempt to preserve harmony.

The other side of the coin is that many of us take it as a personal criticism or affront when someone else states their boundary.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg has left us with this wonderful legacy: we can have our honesty, clarity, and autonomy — including the ability to set clear boundaries — AND we can also have harmony, connection, and community.

Nonviolent Communication gives you concrete tools and skills so that you can have both!

NVC also teaches you how to receive another’s expression of a boundary in a way that hurts less. Because NVC gives you the insight that whatever someone else says or does is in the service of one or more needs, it becomes much easier to avoid taking anything personally.

NVC emphasizes mutually co-created outcomes. When it comes to strategies, that is the ideal.

Dr. Rosenberg reminded his students often that the goal is not to speak NVC correctly, but to connect. We we are connected, co- creating mutually satisfying outcomes becomes an available possibility.

So whenever you find yourself either on the receiving or the expressing side of a boundary being set, remember Dr. Rosenberg’s teaching to look for the yes behind the no. In other words, you can speak (or listen for) the needs that the boundary is in service of.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC & Healthy Relationships

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and healthy relationships, including healthy boundary-setting.

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

Because of the trust-building process involved, and the fact that the intention is to include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC for healthy relationships — including setting healthy boundaries — predictably gives you outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

PuddleDancer Press’s books on healthy relationships 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 the books on healthy relationships, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on healthy relationships… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication