Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Forgiveness

By Alan Rafael Seid, CNVC Certified Trainer since 2003.

Author’s note:
This article does not replace nor does it intend to replace therapy, conflict mediation, or in-person emotional support. Please avail yourself of professional support if and when you need it.

Forgiveness — and the whole topic of apologizing — is fraught with confusion and pitfalls.

Why do apologies sometimes seem to “work” and other times they fall flat?

How do you forgive someone?

Is it possible to make someone forgive you?

What does empathy have to do with forgiveness?

What does healing and reconciliation during and after a conflict look like?

And how does NVC contribute to our clarity and effectiveness when it comes to forgiveness?

Let’s answer these questions starting with Nonviolent Communication itself, and what it means to forgive.

Introduction to Nonviolent Communication and Forgiveness

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a process for creating the quality of connection that makes it easy to prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts, and arrive at mutually agreeable outcomes.

NVC is based on the premise that we all have the same Universal Human Needs. By connecting with each other about what’s important at an underlying level we can find mutually satisfying strategies to meet most if not all the needs.

However, there are some pitfalls associated with apologizing and forgiveness, including a few ways many of us have been taught that simply don’t work.

Below, I mention 3 types of apologies: (1) robotic, (2) life- disconnected, and (3) life-connected, life-serving. This last one is the NVC apology.

Three types of apologies

1) The “robotic” apology
An example of what I call the robotic apology would be when a parent says to a 4 year-old “go apologize to your sibling” … and the little person ambles over, arms stiff at their sides, head down, and says in a monotone voice “I’m sorry.”

In many of these cases it’s fairly clear and evident that the apologizer doesn’t clearly know what I’m sorry means or why it’s important, but they do know that they “should” or “have-to” or else — and so they go through the motions but it means almost nothing to anybody.

What I call the “robotic apology” could be seen as a subset of the life-disconnected apology.

2) The life-disconnected apology
Generally speaking, this is the most well-known type of apology; it’s the one most people think of when the word apology is mentioned.

This is the type of apology that happens when I’m thinking, “I was bad and wrong and I deserve to feel guilty and/or ashamed and for you to hate me for what I did. I deserve to be punished and made to feel bad about myself.”

If this type of apology actually worked — meaning that it led to more closeness, healing, reconciliation, and true forgiveness — I would have no problem with it!

The problem I have with this type of apology is that it doesn’t lead to more closeness, healing, reconciliation, and true forgiveness!

First, it reinforces life-alienated thinking about who was good, bad, right, or wrong. And this type of thinking distances us from our own and others’ needs as well as from the vulnerability with each other that would bring us closer.

Secondly, when I feel guilt or shame, or feel bad about myself, I block the path of learning.

When I am in guilt or shame I am self-involved in a way that makes it hard to connect empathically with the other person, and therefore it’s hard for me to take in the impact that the other person experienced regarding what happened that I’m apologizing for in the first place.

The guilt and shame thinking also disconnects me from my own needs because it is focused on good/bad, right/wrong.

The possibility opens up for me to forgive myself and access something remarkable we call beneficial regret, when I can connect to the needs behind the actions I took that later had a negative impact on someone.

It is through this self-compassion that I harvest the lessons necessary to not repeat the negative impact on others — while at the same time avoiding beating myself up.

This self-understanding, and being compassionate with myself, are not to justify, condone, or excuse anybody’s behaviors. Beneficial regret is about allowing myself to truly learn and grow from the times when I am much less than perfect.

I had a participant at a workshop once say, “my husband and I took a workshop with Dr. Marshall Rosenberg two years ago, and in that workshop he said that NVC practitioners never apologize. Since then, my husband has taken that as free license to be a jerk!”

I took a moment to make the distinction between life- disconnected and life-serving apologies (which I cover next), and clarified that Marshall was referring to the life-disconnected apology!

The life-disconnected apology serves to reinforce guilt, shame, depression, and blame-thinking.

3) The NVC-aligned, life-connected, life-serving apology

The type of apology that is most in alignment with NVC is the life- connected, life-serving apology.

As I will describe later in this article, this type of apology is also known as sincere mourning.

Because sincere mourning is a type of self-expression, it’s more likely to land well with the other person if they have received empathy for the impact first.

Before exploring this in more detail, let’s make sure we have a solid foundation.

Brief overview of NVC and its connection to forgiveness.

NVC has both an essence and a form. In other words, there is a consciousness of NVC and there are NVC tools which you can practice and become more skillful with.

The consciousness and the tools of NVC apply to three distinct areas where we can put our attention: (1) self-connection (which includes self-empathy), (2) empathic listening, and (3) honest, authentic self-expression.

Through applying the consciousness and the tools of NVC we engage in what some people refer to as the dance of connection. By hearing and understanding each other deeply we build trust and mutual understanding.

Once we are connected, it’s easier to access the deep, compassionate understanding and grace that people refer to as forgiveness.

The importance of forgiveness in personal growth and relationships.

Being Right is not a Need
There is a saying: you can be right or you can have good relationships!

NVC, and the topic of forgiveness, allows me to develop the discernment of what is truly important in a given situation.

For example, sometimes when I tell myself I’ve been wronged by somebody a part of me wants to hold on to this hurt, perhaps to keep me safe and make sure it never happens again.

And sometimes I have a punitive story that because this person wronged me they deserve to suffer or be punished in some way.

NVC can help me look inside and find a way to choose a path that has less cost to me than holding on to hurt, blame, resentment, and attachment to being right!

Just let it go?

When people advise others to “just let it go” — or someone tells themselves “I decided to let it go” — sometimes I wonder whether what’s happening is some version of sweeping it under the rug!

There is a subtle line between truly transcending something and suppressing it.

True forgiveness means you are carrying less heaviness in your mind and body, likely leading to better health outcomes. When I access forgiveness, it also contributes to my mental clarity and lightness of being.

When I want to hold on to a hurt, because I want to be right or safe or both, my being is more contracted, my heart is tighter, I’m less present, and I experience a sense of heaviness.

When I use NVC to navigate connection, apologizing, forgiveness, and redress — I build more trust, closeness, and healing — and tap into the field of possibilities that comes with good relationships.

The Role of Empathy in Forgiveness

Every communication process or modality has at least two parts: speaking and listening. These are also known as giving and receiving. In NVC we often use the terms honesty and empathy.

While honesty has a crucial role in forgiveness, let’s focus for now on the special roles empathy and self-empathy have to play.

The importance of self-empathy, and empathy for others, in the process of forgiveness.

Sometimes you or I may find ourselves yearning for a truly sincere NVC apology, the kind that has the potential to provide healing, like a balm for the heart… I want the person to own their actions, acknowledge the impact, and show their care.

And yet, so often the very thing that blocks the apology we yearn for is that the other person is mired in shame or guilt about what happened.

The tragedy of this is hard to overstate.

I witnessed this dynamic between two of my loved ones.

One person yearned to know that other person both understood the impact and cared — and expressed this by demanding an apology.

The other person already felt a lot of guilt for what they had done. Unfortunately, they did not know how to work with their guilt in the way we do in NVC — using self-empathy — which would have allowed her to get underneath the guilt to the underlying needs, thus allowing the guilt to flower into something more useful and constructive.

Instead, the insistence on an apology only sounded like a demand filled with more guilt and shame. It was easy to assume that the person demanding the apology wanted the life-alienated, life-disconnected type of apology: “I did a bad thing that hurt you and I deserve to feel guilty and for you to be angry with and disappointed in me.”

Mostly because of the feelings of guilt that were in the way, and the other person demanding a conventional apology, the apology was never issued and the potential healing and reconciliation did not happen. And this is how things were left… and eventually one of these people passed away.

When I am wrapped up in guilt or shame, learning is blocked, and very often so is connection.

By learning how NVC works with self-connection to untie the knots of guilt and shame, you can unblock yourself and make yourself more available for authentic connection without the caustic pain of self-judgment.

Nonviolent Communication trains people in these invaluable self- connection and self-empathy skills!

What to do if the shoe is on the other foot (as the expression goes)? What if I’m the one trying to connect with someone who is blocked in the inwardly-focused distress of guilt and shame?

In these cases I have in the past used both empathy and honesty skills to try to facilitate a shift toward connection.

I find it important here to clarify that the intention is not to change the other person, or to communicate that they’re doing anything wrong. The intention is to connect compassionately. That means that I can offer empathic understanding for how excruciating it can be to judge yourself in ways that lead to guilt or shame. And I can also share honestly, vulnerably, about my feelings, needs, intentions, desires, and requests.

For example, if it’s true, I can reassure this other person that I’m not judging them, let them know that I understand how much it hurts to feel guilt over something you did, and that I yearn to connect in a genuine way that shows care and love.

So self-empathy can play a critical role in you unblocking yourself to be more available to connection, forgiveness, and healing.

And empathy can be hugely valuable in bringing you and the other person (or people) closer, so that you can work through the issues to generate more connection, forgiveness, and healing.

More on this below.

Practical tips for cultivating empathy.

Technically, you don’t give empathy. You give your full presence, and as a result, the other person’s need for empathy is met. Colloquially, however, we call it giving empathy.

One of the principles related to empathy is that if I can’t give empathy it’s because I need it, and if the other person can’t give empathy it’s because they need it.

Another way of thinking about this is that if I am triggered or saturated with intense feelings, that makes it very challenging to be fully present with the other person in a nonjudgmental, empathic way.

If the other person is having a hard time understanding me the way I want, it might be very helpful for me to switch to listening, and help them feel heard first. Once the other person is fully heard and understood, they might have more space or capacity to hear me out.

Once we connect and understand each other, mutually agreeable solutions come about more easily.

Additional tips for cultivating empathy:

Slow down! Going fast blocks being present. Slow. Down. It will help a lot!

Get present. Give the person in front of you your full attention, with your whole being. Presence can be like a muscle or a skill — you can strengthen it and get better at it.

Get curious. I’m entertaining the hypothesis that the opposite of judgment is not compassion but curiosity. Rather than agree or disagree with this premise, I’ve been exploring and experimenting with it by way of applying it — and I have been getting excellent results by practicing being curious. Curiosity does not only extend to the other person. It helps a lot to be curious about yourself, what’s going on inside you, what is motivating you, what your feelings, needs, and wants are.

By studying and growing in NVC — not just intellectually but as an applied practice — you will improve your ability to implement self-empathy and empathy when it really matters.

Navigating Conflicts Using NVC

Navigating conflicts using Nonviolent Communication could be summarized as: slow down, cultivate mutual understanding at the level of feelings and needs, proceed to discussing solutions only after establishing mutual understanding about what is important to each person.

There are many conflict mediation modalities and methods. I have studied several of them, and they each have their strengths and limitations.

Some of the most widely adopted mediation modalities differentiate between “positions” and “interests.” (Positions are usually specific outcomes someone is rigidly attached to, while interests refer to what is important at a deeper level but can still be attended to in a variety of ways.) This is known as interest-based mediation, and it can be very useful, especially if the parties involved have never considered these exact distinctions.

One of the concerns I have is that interests are still not universal, and so not anyone can relate to another’s interests.

NVC-based conflict resolution is needs-based mediation. When we can take the core of a conflict and distill it down to the universal human needs on each side, it’s much easier for people to be able to relate to, and understand each other. From the basis of connection at the level of universal needs, results and solutions are predictably more durable.

That said, your results in any given conflict mediation will probably largely depend on the experience and skill-level of the mediator more than any other single factor.

And, of course, people who know and practice NVC use it to prevent and resolve their own conflicts, usually without the need for an outside mediator.

And, once again, one of the limiting factors will be the skill-level that is brought to bear on the situation.

So, is there a basic framework for using NVC to work through your own conflict? Yes.

Step-by-step guide on using NVC to resolve conflicts and promote forgiveness.

The framework below is for educational and instructional purposes, and not intended to replace professional support when that is what you need.

Here is a simplified version of the basic framework for NVC- based mediation. One simple way to remember it is “ABABAB.”

NVC-Based Mediation, Simple Version:

  1. Person A: Speaks their honesty,
  2. Person B: Reflects back their understanding,
  3. Person A: Confirms being understood,
  4. Person B: Speaks their honesty,
  5. Person A: Reflects back their understanding,
  6. Person B: Confirms being understood,
  7. Back to the top.

This constitutes the basic flow of communication to create mutual understanding.

Of course, there are nuances that the above simplified procedure leaves out.

For example, in NVC we differentiate between head honesty and heart honesty. In other words, the type of honesty we share in NVC is mostly related to feelings and needs. It will not serve to try to get through a conflict if all the honesty I share is my judgments, criticisms, and diagnoses of what’s wrong with the other person.

Keep in mind that it can be easy for a conversation to get stuck when both people are needing empathy at the same time. When this happens, even seasoned NVC practitioners reach out for outside support to move through an important conversation!

Applying NVC in challenging situations… even in a divorce?

One personal example from my life of how applying a high level of NVC skill created positive repercussions for many other people, is the NVC separation and divorce I went through with the mother of my children.

We had both been students of NVC for many years. We both cared about and respected each other.

Even so, a profound learning for me in this time is that regardless of the amount of love, respect, mutual care, and wonderful communication skills… sometimes people still want different things in life!

One of the conclusions my wife at the time and I came to was that nobody was bad or wrong, but instead, we were like two shrubs, one that likes alkaline soil and one that likes acidic soil — and we were both planted in the same pot, so no one was thriving.

It was then that we embarked on a healthy process of re-potting.

We had the good fortune of her and the kids being able to move next door. For the first two and a half years after the separation we had sit-down dinner as a family, five nights a week. Our relationship is probably better as friends, neighbors, and co- parents, than it was as husband and wife.

We see each other almost daily, and are a powerful team for our children. What was the magic? There was no magic, just effective use of Nonviolent Communication!

In fact, I would like to write a book with her titled, How We Got Divorced and Kept Our Family Together.

Healing and Reconciliation through NVC

By building the emotional literacy and needs literacy that NVC has to offer, you have a greater chance of achieving true healing and reconciliation when you apply NVC to working through difficult feelings and situations.

Understanding the different kinds of apologies can also help you avoid mistakes that well-intentioned people make unconsciously.

By understanding sincere mourning — and how the principle of empathy before honesty applies (more on this below) — you can use NVC to move effectively through healing, reconciliation, and true forgiveness.

Sincere mourning: the NVC apology that can lead to forgiveness

Sometimes we — intentionally or unintentionally — commit actions that result in pain for others.

The NVC process of making amends takes us to the life- connected, life-serving apology, also known as sincere mourning.

How do you do sincere mourning?

Sincere mourning means I can express with sincerity how I see that my very actions contributed neither to the other person’s needs nor to my own — and I am also able to express how I feel about that.

Life-connected mourning and grieving

Whether what we didn’t want happened, or what we wanted didn’t happen — some situations leave us primarily with the opportunity to grieve. And Dr. Rosenberg taught us about life- connected mourning and grieving.

Life-connected mourning means that I stay present with the feelings that are flowing through me, while staying connected to the needs (rather than any judgmental thinking).

Real-life story:
I was part of the training team at an International Intensive Training (IIT) with approximately 65 participants. Our morning circle was concluding, and I noticed people starting to move to get up and go — and I had one announcement that felt urgent to me for people to hear. So I stood up, and projecting my voice through the whole room I made my announcement with a volume that was much louder than usual.

In less than a minute, a participant walked up to me in some emotional distress. She said that she was feeling some hurt in relation to my tone and volume from a moment earlier.

I switched to empathic listening, took in the impact, and reflected it back to confirm that I was understanding and that she felt my care. Then I asked, is it OK if I simply take this in, let it percolate in me, and respond later? She said ok.

So I took myself on a walk and remember feeling deeply sad. As I was present to the sadness flowing through me I made sure to stay connected to the underlying need. When I made the announcement with the tone and volume I used, my intention had been to contribute.

So I was with this deep sadness, and also with the energy we call contribution. I felt sadness and disappointment because — in that instance, at least for this person — contribution was not fulfilled.

And then something remarkable happened that I had heard my colleague Robert Gonzales talk about but that I had not yet experienced. While staying connected to the feelings and needs, two things inside me that had previously been conflated then separated: the pain of the unmet need as distinct from the beauty of the need itself. Even while feeling the sadness of the unmet need, I was very connected with how beautiful the energy we call contribution is!

Empathy before honesty still applies!

If I walk up to a friend, slap this person hard in the face, and then say, “I’m so sorry!” — it might be hard for them to take in my apology.

Even if it is a true NVC sincere-mourning type of apology, my friend might have a hard time receiving it until first they trust that I understand how much it hurt.

The most well-crafted and sincerely heartfelt NVC apology is still a form of self-expression.

This means I want to attend to the impact first — make sure the other person is understood (which is an entirely separate issue from whether or not I agree) — and only once they trust that I really get the impact, only then do I express my NVC apology.

An NVC apology is being able to express your sincere mourning to the other person after giving them empathy for the impact.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Forgiveness

I remember sitting in a workshop with Marshall Rosenberg, as I had done many times, when he said something that left me stunned, a little surprised, and needing to take time to digest what I had just heard (which was also not a new experience in a workshop with him).

He said, “empathy equals forgiveness.”

This statement made no sense to me, and yet he said it with such calm confidence, and his usual sense of certainty, that I was curious to investigate the truth of what he had said.

As soon as he said it, several hands shot up in the air.

“What does that even mean?” — was the essence of several of the questioners’ inquiries.

He responded: “when you can truly connect to the needs behind what the other person said or did, you find that there is nothing to forgive.”

Instantly I got it!

Memories flooded me from times I had wanted understanding or compassion for my true intentions, and yet had been misunderstood by someone who insisted on a conventional, life-disconnected apology.

When you can truly connect to the needs behind what the other person said or did, you find that there is nothing to forgive.

Empathy = Forgiveness

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and Healthy Relationships

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

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 for healthy relationships — including knowing how to handle apologizing and forgiveness — predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our 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!