Nonviolent Communication and the Impact of Mediation

“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, PhD.

What is the impact of mediation and what is the role NVC plays?

Mediation, also known as conflict resolution, is the process of helping to resolve a conflict. Usually someone not involved in the conflict plays the role of mediator.

Conflicts can be scary, not only because of the threat of violence, but also due to other potential consequences such as emotional disconnection or missed opportunities.

Conflict can be especially unnerving when you don’t have the tools, skills, experience — and therefore the confidence — to de-escalate, reduce tensions, and bring the conflict to a resolution.

When conflicts are not handled well the results include emotional distancing and resentments, and in the worst of circumstances people die as a result.

There are many methods and modalities for resolving conflicts. For example, one common modality is known as interest-based mediation, in which there is a distinction made between “interests” and “positions.” A position is defined as a rigid strategy, an approach around which one of the parties has become inflexible. Interests focus on what is important, keeping in mind that there may be several ways to satisfy an interest.

Nonviolent Communication focuses on needs-based mediation. In other words, what an NVC-informed mediator has the opportunity to do is to go deeper than interests to the Universal Human Needs. The reason this is so helpful is that interests are not universal, but needs are! Most any human can relate to any of the Universal Human Needs, whereas interests could be very personal and specific.

When you can distill any conflict to the underlying needs it’s easier for each person to see the other’s humanity since we all share the same needs.

Below is a simple graphic showing needs and strategies along a spectrum. You can roughly think of it as going from more universal to less, as you go from left to right. “The Need” — at the very left of the graphic — refers to what some people call God, Love, Great Spirit, The Great Mystery, Life, and other names. From there, we see Universal Human Needs, followed by values. One thing to note is that, while values are important to us and deeply held, they are not universal! The same is true for interests.
Needs and Strategies Spectrum

The key differentiation in NVC that is most relevant here is that of needs vs strategies.

Strategies are critically important because they are the ways we go about meeting needs.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC, used to say that conflicts cannot happen at the level of needs (because we all have the same needs), and that they only happen at the level of strategies. This is why separating the needs from the strategies is so valuable. Once we can distinguish the two we might find multiple strategies that could meet the same set of needs.

For example, when you consider your need for safety and protection, one possible strategy is to go out and meet all your neighbors. This strategy would be in support of your needs for safety and protection. Let’s say another neighbor also connects to the same needs, but their chosen strategy is to buy firearms to protect themselves; it’s the same need — totally different strategy. Another neighbor buys two very scary looking dogs, another neighbor buys an alarm system — and so forth.

One of the lessons here is that for any set of needs, there could be 100, 1000 or 10,000 strategies!

An NVC mediator will help people understand their own and each other’s deeper needs and values and facilitate the co-creation of strategies that can meet the most needs for the most people.

Compromise vs win-win

When working to resolve a conflict many mediators work toward some kind of compromise. NVC would say that if “compromise” is as far as you can get, then at least that’s better than conflict. But NVC does not aim for compromise! Why? Because most people’s definition of compromise means that each person gives up something important, or gives in to the other person, in order to “meet in the middle.” This often leads to less-than-satisfying outcomes as well as resistance and sometimes resentment. Compromise is sometimes experienced as “lose-lose” — whereas NVC aims for “win-win” also known as mutually satisfying solutions.

Because of Nonviolent Communication’s clarity of separating needs and strategies, it is usually possible to find strategies that meet all the needs of the people involved.

Co-created, mutually-satisfying outcomes are more effective and durable than decisions imposed by others or arrived at hastily without an understanding of the needs.

A seasoned NVC practitioner can see this distinction clearly, and will be flexible on the strategies while staying connected to and looking out for their needs. It almost doesn’t matter what the strategy is as long as the needs themselves are fulfilled.

An NVC-trained mediator will also help and encourage their clients to do the same: stay connected to and protect their needs even while being as flexible as possible — even creative — with regard to the strategies.

When a mediation is most successful, the impact is a path forward through which everyone’s needs can be met peacefully, trust is re-built, and friendships and alliances can be restored.

How NVC Skills are Helpful During a Mediation

How are NVC skills helpful during a mediation?

An NVC-trained mediator can ensure that each person in the conflict gets the empathy they need ahead of a mediation session. This results in each person having greater connection with their feelings, needs, and potential requests — as well as coming into the session with a lower emotional charge!

NVC skills also help a mediator do self-care during a very intense mediation, usually in the form of self-empathy.

An NVC-trained mediator will be able to skillfully handle any judgments that emerge in order to walk people through their conflict situation toward a resolution.

During the mediation, NVC skills help the parties hear and understand each other in a deeper way, and can facilitate their co-creation of a solution.

When the parties to a mediation themselves have NVC skills it can be a game-changer for many similar reasons. During the mediation they can give themselves self-empathy, they will more easily access empathy for the other party, and will know how to express themselves in a clear, powerful, constructive, and compassionate way.

Helping people know their feelings and needs better, supporting the creation of mutual understanding, and facilitating people in co-creating their own durable, mutually-satisfying outcomes — these are just some of the ways in which NVC skills can be helpful during a mediation.

The Right Time to Seek Mediation Services

What is the right time to seek mediation services?

The best time to seek third party support in a conflict is when it is still small, before things escalate. This is when most people think they can manage their conflict on their own, and so the tendency is to “go it alone” and not seek support.

Once a conflict has escalated, most people don’t have the skills to handle it effectively.

So that would be the next best time to seek mediation services: when you can’t, on your own, bring the conflict to a resolution.

Another indicator that it might be time to look for an outside mediator is if you are not able to access empathy for the other person. It is unlikely that a conflict will resolve itself under these circumstances.

These are some indicators that it would be the “right time” to seek mediation services.

Family Mediation and Resolving Conflicts

Families are the foundation of society. They help you form, as a child, your sense of safety, the world, relationships, how to relate to money, how to belong and fit in, and more. Families are SO important!

And at the same time, the pattern is that our closest relationships are the most challenging ones!

Why is this? It can be for different reasons in different situations, but generally, we have more emotionally invested in those relationships and often our expectations are higher. It’s also easier to create a static image in your mind of who you think a person is when you’ve known them a long time. This also means that it can be difficult to have others trust that you have grown, improved, or changed if they have a static image in their mind of who you are. Unfortunately this happens often in close, family relationships.

Many families resist support for the conflicts they experience. There may be shame, embarrassment, a desire to appear like everything is fine which often comes from needs for belonging and acceptance. And some families have the story “we don’t air our dirty laundry in public” — which misses the point that mediation is usually private and confidential.

This resistance often leads to families isolating which frequently results in exacerbating the underlying issues that led to the conflict in the first place.

There is a dangerous myth in many Western cultures, and particularly in the US, that says, I must go it alone. This gets extended to couples and families who then decide to forgo opportunities for vital support.

The opportunity is to notice that couples and families exist in the context of community, and to avail yourself of all the resources you need to move forward in a healthy and positive way.

The process itself of mediating in a family is the same as it is in most settings. Here is a simplified version:

Person A: Speaks their honesty
Person B: Reflects back their understanding
Person A: Confirms being understood
Person B: Speaks their honesty
Person A: Reflects back their understanding
Person B: Confirms being understood
Back to the top

A skilled mediator will help each of the parties hear each other and deepen their mutual understanding. Then, from that foundation, a mediator will facilitate their co-creation of strategies that could meet all the needs.

Even before getting an outside mediator, it’s critically important that adults in a family do not use the children either as mediators or to get empathy!

It creates a lot of distress for children to be placed in an emotional support role among adults! Each adult must have at least one person outside the relationship or the family where they can have an empathic outlet. In some cases this could be the mediator themselves. In other cases, you can reach out to a trusted family friend who will stay neutral, or a counselor or therapist.

This is another advantage of placing your relationship and your family in a larger community context: more resources for support and more support in general.

These are a few tips and pointers on family mediation and conflict resolution.

Divorce Mediation and the Importance of Reaching a Resolution Nonviolently

Childhood trauma from high-conflict divorces is quite commonplace in the United States — and the effects are devastating for children.

To be clear, there is a world of difference between a high conflict divorce (HCD) and a low conflict divorce (LCD).

In divorce situations, children are negatively affected by:

  • Any insinuation that it’s their fault,
  • Yelling, shouting, and verbal insults,
  • Physical violence including objects being thrown,
  • Parents talking poorly about the other parent in front of them or behind their back — and all other ways in which parents undermine the child’s trust in or care for the other parent.

Low conflict divorces can be very different.

In many cases people divorce because they have grown apart, or have decided they each want different things. This in itself does not need to be a source of conflict!

It’s possible to allow relationships to transition with care and integrity — with each person getting to the point that they understand the others’ needs and are able to co-create mutually agreeable strategies.

After all, Western cultures have been redefining relationships since the 1960s — and have not yet arrived at a stable cultural replacement for what makes sense to everyone.

For example, much of the culture defines the success of a relationship by the longevity or duration of that relationship — particularly if people stay together until one of them dies. This definition includes couples who live basically as housemates — perhaps they don’t even talk to or like each other — but because they were together for decades until one of them died it’s considered a successful relationship!

Is it possible to get divorced and keep your family together? Alan Rafael Seid, one of the CNVC Certified Trainers with whom we work, has provided this link to an audio in which he tells the story of his NVC separation and divorce. Alan and his wife successfully transitioned their relationship from “husband” and “wife” to “friends and joyful co-parents.” You can listen to his story here.

If you are considering or are in a divorce, another resource for you could be the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP):
One note about the IACP is that they are aware of NVC but it is not core to what they do.

You can also read our article on NVC and Divorce.

Marshall Rosenberg and Mediation

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg understood that conflicts have the potential to bring us together, to understand each other more deeply, and to lead to solutions of mutual benefit.

He also understood the limitations of trying to mediate or resolve a conflict when you are under-resourced.

He told a story about the dangers of not getting enough empathy.

Dr. Rosenberg was leading a series of trainings in Israel and Palestine, and his Palestinian friend was also serving as his interpreter and driver.

One day, after visiting the holocaust museum in Israel, they were crossing the Israel-Palestine border. Dr. Rosenberg recounted that he had been profoundly shaken by his experience at the museum. As they were crossing the border the guards were pleasant enough to him, but when he saw a guard treat his friend roughly he reacted at the armed Israeli soldier with some intensity: “Get your hands off of him!” In that instance, Dr. Rosenberg’s Palestinian friend and interpreter immediately began offering empathy to the soldier: “I understand that you have a stressful job and it must be very tense…”

After getting through the border without further incident, Marshall reflected on how he had been in an empathy deficit after the holocaust museum and had not realized it. Under normal circumstances he would have handled things differently, but his level of unattended pain meant he was under-resourced and more on edge.

This provides a great lesson for those of us in conflict or who help others with their conflicts.

Whether you are a mediator or a party to a mediation, it can be a valuable investment to enter a session well-resourced: well-rested, hydrated, fed, and having received as much empathy as necessary or possible before a conflict mediation session.

Puddledancer Press Mediation Books

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and conflict mediation. NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of collaboratively crafting mutually beneficial solutions.

Because of the trust-building process involved — and the fact that the solutions include everybody’s buy-in — using NVC to assist us in mediating conflicts predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on conflict mediation 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, 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 conflict mediation — to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on conflict mediation… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!