Nonviolent Communication Skills and De-escalation

“Our ability to offer empathy can allow us to stay vulnerable, defuse potential violence, help us hear the word ‘no’ without taking it as a rejection, revive lifeless conversation, and even hear the feelings and needs expressed through silence.”

-Marshall B. Rosenberg

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is one of the most powerful modalities for de-escalating conflicts.

However, every process, tool, or methodology has its limitations, including NVC.

When it comes to de-escalation, NVC has two principal limiting factors.

One of these is access. If individuals are punching at each other, or two groups are in a shootout, we can lose the kind of access to dialog that leads to de-escalation, which is a pre-requisite to effective resolution.

The other limiting factor will be the skill-level of the people attempting to de-escalate.

There is a difference between having a tool and being skillful with a tool.

This is why we encourage you to build up your skills before you need them.

Life brings unforeseen situations, and that’s when you want to be able to lean into all your NVC and de-escalation training.

What is de-escalation and how do you do it with NVC?

De-escalation is the process of defusing tensions, and lowering the emotional charge, so that people can begin to find solutions.

How do you de-escalate with NVC?

The short answer is found in the phrase connection before solution. And though that may seem simple, let’s unpack it for clarity.

De-escalate yourself first!

If you find that you have resistance to connecting, you probably have uncomfortable feelings as a result of unmet needs. This is where empathy and self-empathy are necessary and powerful.

After receiving empathy — and/or practicing self-empathy — you would find that you are more connected to your feelings, needs, values, and potential requests, as well as being able to approach the situation with a lowered emotional charge. This also usually translates into more openness to engaging in constructive dialog in relation to the situation.

The empathic process helps you translate any judgments or criticism you have — of yourself or others — into feelings and needs. This helps you feel more self-connected, more grounded and mentally clear, and will reduce your emotional charge.

Giving yourself empathy — or receiving it from others — is a crucial step in de-escalating yourself so that you can then defuse a potential or actual conflict.

Empathic connection before solution

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was fond of the phrase connection before solution, as it encapsulates some vital wisdom for interpersonal relationships.

But what does it mean?

Our habitual tendency is to jump to fixing or solving an issue instead of first connecting by hearing each other out. When we jump to fixing, we skip a crucial de-escalation step — finding out what’s important to each person or group — which means the “solutions” usually don’t have everybody’s buy-in, making them less effective and less durable. This is sometimes referred to as “go-fast-to-go-slow” — we try to go fast by skipping the connection, but then the resistance or resentment toward the solution slows everything down.

When you take the time to connect and understand what is important to each person first, then the problem-solving process becomes collaborative and the co-created solutions have buy-in — making them more effective and durable.

How to de-escalate and de-escalation strategies

Start with self-empathy or empathy, as above.

Remember to separate needs from strategies, and begin with a focus on the former rather than the latter. Once connection is happening you can explore strategies or solutions.

Getting curious first, before coming to any conclusions will be a tremendous asset in de-escalating. You will find that it’s practically impossible to be judgmental and curious at the same time.

NVC encourages us to use connecting requests first. These keep the conversation moving and flowing in a way that is also connecting. Examples of connecting requests include, “could you tell me back what you are hearing that is important to me,” and, “what’s going on for you now?”

You will find that focusing on the connection first, before a solution, will lead you faster to a baseline of mutual understanding. From this place of understanding each other’s values and needs, you are more likely to generate a mutually satisfying outcome.

Remember that sometimes the thing you want could be several conversations down the line. Therefore, resist bringing everything to a conclusion in the first conversation, and end with an openness to approach the next conversation, and the one after that.

Trust the process — and keep working on your skills. NVC is effective, there is no doubt. And remember that your skill level will be a supportive or limiting factor. Therefore, avail yourself of outside resources as necessary, i.e.: skilled people without a stake in the outcome other than seeking a mutual resolution.

What is the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication, and what are some examples of nonverbal communication?

Verbal communication is that which uses words. Nonverbal communication is everything beyond the words themselves, and can include tone of voice, gestures, a delay in responding, touch, and body language.

Whenever we can hear and see someone, probably both verbal and nonverbal communication are being expressed and received. Because our senses pick up on and process so much information, nonverbal communication can be the majority of what is being received even if words are being used at the same time.

However, nonverbal communication requires interpreting what we are receiving, and without clarification misunderstandings can be common. For example, if someone crosses their arms because they feel cold in temperature, and the other person doesn’t know the reason, they could interpret that body language as an expression of being closed to connection.

Other examples of nonverbal communication?

Sitting at the table chewing with your mouth full and pointing to a water pitcher and doing a pouring motion may indicate that you would like someone to pour you a glass of water. Pointing an index finger toward a door could indicate that that person wants another to leave. Sometimes up-stretched and shaking hands could indicate frustration or despair — and here the facial expression may help you decode the message. Hands together by the face and tilting the head to the side could indicate someone is tired and wants rest.

There could be hundreds or thousands of examples.

A valuable thing to keep in mind is that both the expression and its interpretation could be influenced by the culture of the people involved.

If you are ever in doubt it might be helpful to check it out — inquire with curiosity — using your verbal communication.

How do you deal with or de-escalate anger?

If you do not trust that you are physically safe, then that is priority — get to a place or situation of physical safety first.

If you trust that you are physically safe, it could be very helpful to remember the following:

  • Anger is an expression of an unmet need.
  • You are not responsible for the other person’s feelings.
  • You can get curious about the needs, and therefore you will feel less defensive and are more likely to de-escalate the situation.
  • Sometimes it takes time for someone to cool off.
  • Never stick your “but” in the face of someone who is angry – but, but, but. Trying to defend, explain, or justify, especially before empathy and when the person is still in anger, will likely only exacerbate the situation.

How do you do verbal de-escalation with NVC?

First, de-escalate yourself.

Then stay in empathy toward the other as long as you can unless you sense honesty would lead to greater connection first.

Go to your own honesty only after empathy, unless the other person feels so vulnerable about opening up that they will not unless you open up first. Then vulnerable honesty could help open up the initial path to connection.

Stay in honesty and empathy, with feelings and needs, as long as necessary. Stay away from strategies or solutions until you arrive at enough mutual understanding to be able to look at solutions together.

Sometimes we can generate “stepping-stone” strategies — things that keep the conversation and connection moving forward — keeping in mind that often what we are seeking is several conversations into the future.

The importance of trust in relationship

The greater the level of trust between you and another, the more likely you are to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts, let alone de-escalate them and bring them to a mutually satisfying resolution.

Without trust you have a minimal chance.

Everything in NVC contributes to trust-building, and trust is almost everything. Skillful use of great tools, like NVC, goes a long way. But it’s much more of an uphill climb if trust is missing.

Keep in mind that trust is like topsoil. It can get eroded very quickly, and can take a long time to build back up.

Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and De-escalation

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., was a student of renowned psychologist Carl Rogers, who at the time was very interested in empathy and authentic human connection.

NVC itself grew out of Marshall’s question: What are the essential elements in thought, language, communication, and the use of power that lead to the kind of connection from which people naturally and spontaneously engage in mutual contribution?

When we have this quality of connection, you’ll find there is rarely a conflict to de-escalate in the first place. And if we do have a conflict, we are much more likely to de-escalate and resolve it quickly, effectively, and completely.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and De-escalation

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and de-escalation of conflicts.

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

Using NVC for de-escalation gives you the best chance not only for de-escalating, but for generating outcomes that meet the greatest number of needs for the most people, as well as being more durable.

Our books on de-escalation 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, and
  • 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 de-escalation, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on de-escalation… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!

More information on Books about Conflict Resolution

NVC De-escalation Web Resources

Click here for Marshall Rosenberg De-escalation Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg De-escalation Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication De-escalation Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication De-escalation Videos

There is a wealth of information on Nonviolent Communication – in articles and videos. Of course we endorse all of Marshall’s sharing’s, however, there are many transcripts and videos created by others. Due to limited resources we do not verify the full accuracy of any particular video or articles created by others, even though there is plenty of wonderful and educational information on the web