What is the Connection Between Mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication?
“If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”
There is an important link between Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and mindfulness.
As we explore this connection, let’s first define NVC so that we are working with similar definitions. We’ll define mindfulness after that, and then explore the connection between the two.
What is Nonviolent Communication?
Nonviolent Communication is sometimes referred to as a process — or a set of tools we can put into practice — the purpose of which is to create the high quality of connection out of which people naturally and spontaneously enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being.
NVC has three primary areas where we can put our attention, each of which comprises tools and skills. The three areas are: (1) empathic listening, (2) authentic self-expression, and (3) self-connection, which includes self-empathy.
The NVC model has 4 components — observation, feeling, need, and request — all of which fit under each of the areas above. We define each of these 4 components, and some important key differentiations, below.
Observation: This refers to observable behavior, for example what an audio recorder or video camera would pick up. An observation is the simply the neutral facts.
The key differentiation? Sometimes we are judging, evaluating, interpreting, or telling ourselves a story — and we think it’s the facts! For example, a video camera does not pick up someone being “rude.” This is a subjective evaluation. But the camera does pick up what somebody said or did which we are then calling rude.
Feeling: This is what happens in your body and mind indicating that there are one or more needs which are fulfilled or not.
For example, when your need for safety is met certain feelings come up; when your need for safety is not met, you have other feelings. Feelings lead us to the deeper need, and give depth and nuance to our experience. When we share our feelings and needs with another, and they with us, connection and mutual understanding can more easily happen.
The key differentiation? Our language has words that sound like feelings, but are thoughts — or they have evaluations or blame embedded in them. These are called faux feelings.
For example, of someone says “I feel stupid,” that is clearly a judgment, though underneath it might be actual feelings of embarrassment or shame. “I feel attacked,” is also clearly not a feeling — it is an image of what someone is doing to us. And within a group of individuals, all of whom perceive themselves as attacked, each might experience different feelings, for example, anger, fear, or confusion. Similarly, “I feel like hitting you” is not a feeling — though certainly there are feelings and needs underlying that expression!
The reason we use actual feelings words in NVC, as opposed to faux feelings, is that we are aiming to create a high quality of connection. Faux feelings predictably take us away from the quality of connection for which we are looking.
To be vulnerable — not in the sense of weak but in the sense of real — can give another person a window into our interior experience. This type of vulnerability — true authenticity — contributes greatly to intimacy.
One of the key crossover points between NVC and mindfulness is awareness of what is happening in our mind and body (which happen to be separate only in language)! NVC helps us take it a step further by helping us articulate our interior experience to another in a way that contributes to intimacy rather than alienation.
Need: This component refers to Universal Human Needs. In order to understand what Dr. Marshall Rosenberg — founder of NVC — was referring to by needs, most people find it helpful to consider various ways of thinking about them.
Despite the word itself, needs are NOT something that is lacking or missing. And needs, as we use them in NVC, have nothing to do with the judgment “you are so needy.”
Instead, Dr. Rosenberg wanted to find language for how Life is showing up inside us, motivating us and informing us.
Needs, as we define them in NVC, are how Life is showing up in this moment, in you, me, or another. They are closer to values — what is deeply important to us at a level that is universal to all humans. You can also think of needs as the conditions necessary for a human’s life to thrive, regardless of culture or geographic location. They are energies that want to flow, not holes to be filled. Needs are also core human motivators: they impel us to act. In fact, Dr. Rosenberg said that any time we speak or act, it is in the service of one or more needs, whether or not we are consciously aware of it.
The key differentiation? We want to distinguish between the needs themselves, and the strategies we use to meet, fulfill, or satisfy needs.
A need, by definition, does not refer to a specific person, location, action, time, or object. As soon as it does, it is now a strategy and no longer universal.
We get into trouble when we confuse the two. As Dr. Rosenberg would say, when we think that a specific person performing a specific action is the only way our needs will be fulfilled, we have taken an abundant universe and made it very scarce.
Because we all have the same needs, the needs themselves cannot be in conflict.
Conflicts exist at the level of strategies — the specific actions we take to fulfill needs.
To further illustrate this differentiation between needs and strategies, consider the following example: everyone has needs around safety and protection. You might go out and get to know all your neighbors. This strategy could contribute to your need for safety and protection. Another neighbor has the same need and goes out to buy a couple of assault rifles.
The needs are the same, the strategies are worlds apart.
When you take any conflict and distill it down to the level of Universal Human Needs — at that point people can see and connect with each other’s humanity.
You will be more effective in exploring strategies after getting connected at the level of feelings and needs.
Request: This part of the model is essential in keeping the conversation moving and generating action.
A request is a way for you to take responsibility for what you’re wanting, rather than assuming that if others really cared they would already know what you want.
Dr. Rosenberg used to say that the number one reason our needs are not met is unclear requests.
For a request to meet the criteria of an NVC request, it must be specific, doable, contain positive action language, and give others the opportunity to respond to us in the present moment.
The key differentiation here is requests vs demands.
Demands are very much like requests except that they have a hidden or overt threat that if you don’t do as you were told there will be some form of inflicted pain or punishment.
To the person expressing the demand, the action they want taken is more important than the relationship or the other person’s needs.
In a true NVC request the other person’s needs matter too, so we can receive a no with as much love as a yes, and explore other strategies for attending to everyone’s needs.
An advanced NVC practitioner can move fluidly between all three areas: expressing their honesty, listening empathically, and self-connecting. Each of these three areas gives us opportunities to clarify our observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
NVC is more of a consciousness than a technique, so we need to remember that the intention of NVC is primary!
The key intention is that of creating a high quality of connection. From there, wonderful things — preventing and resolving conflicts, and creating mutually beneficial outcomes — flow easily.
If we miss the consciousness and adopt a different intention, for example to get our way or to manipulate a specific outcome, we might use words that sound like NVC but it wouldn’t be that at all and would instead become a subtle form of manipulation.
So NVC is primarily the consciousness and intentionality that we bring to our interactions. The model, the components, and the key differentiations give us tools — skillful means — that make it more likely that we will fulfill those intentions.
Now that we’ve had this brief introduction to what NVC is, let’s clarify what mindfulness is. This will further help us identify the connection between mindfulness and NVC.
What is Mindfulness?
What exactly is mindfulness?
There are different traditions and meditation practices that use the term mindfulness.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll define mindfulness as the ability to be present and to notice, as objectively and non-reactively as possible, what is happening inside and outside, now in this moment — and from moment to moment.
We can be mindful of what is happening through our senses of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.
We can also notice phenomena inside ourselves in a non-reactive way. These include physical sensations, thoughts, images, feelings, intentions, and any other interior experiences.
Being mindful means being present to what is.
Have you ever noticed the noticer in you?
Whenever you experience something, there is a part of you that is noticing that you are experiencing it.
The fact that this is extremely simple does not make it easy, as anyone trying to stay present from moment to moment can acknowledge.
Some of the most basic mindfulness practices involve increasingly identifying with the objective witness part of yourself that is simply noticing, without judgment or reactivity.
One difference between mindfulness and NVC is that the focus of mindfulness is usually on the individual’s individual experience, your intrapersonal space. While NVC includes our intrapersonal reality, that is usually in the context of communication and relationships, in other words the interpersonal space, NVC’s main focus. And while mindfulness might focus on any experience, interior or exterior, that is happening now… in your interior space you would use NVC mostly to clarify your observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
Now that we have simple working definitions of both mindfulness and NVC, let’s look at how each contributes to the other.
How Does Mindfulness Help My NVC Practice?
Of course, if you’re reading this you probably want to know: how does practicing mindfulness support my NVC practice?
The simple answer is: in many ways!
Mindfulness helps you slow down in a positive way. Sometimes it is the speed of thinking and conversation that can lead you to miss if there was a mis-communication. When you slow down you are much more likely to respond intentionally versus react out of impulse or reflex.
Practicing mindfulness will enhance your awareness of sensations, feelings, and needs. This strengthens your self-awareness and self-connection.
And self-connection is a pre-requisite for being present with another person (empathic listening) or expressing authentically what is happening inside. (If you are not connected with yourself, how present or honest can you be?)
Of course, anything you do that strengthens the part of you that can witness objectively will contribute to you being less reactive whenever you experience a misunderstanding or conflict with someone else.
One of the simplest and most challenging practices in NVC is separating observations on the one hand, from evaluations, judgments, interpretations, and stories on the other.
Practicing mindfulness, and slowing down interiorly, you can more easily notice judgments and interpretations for what they are. Slowing down can open up space to ask yourself am I telling myself a story right now? What is true?
Mindfulness helps your NVC practice by helping you slow down, notice what you’re telling yourself, and return to the neutral observations that provided the basis for being stimulated.
For example, you and your friend agree to meet at 2 and your friend arrives at 4. If you think to yourself that they are rude and inconsiderate, you may demand an apology before hearing the circumstances and needs that led to the actual events. And you may act in a way that hurts the relationship rather than in a way that leads to connection and mutual understanding. If you notice that “rude” and “inconsiderate” are tragic expressions of unmet needs — consideration? mattering? — you are much more likely to express yourself in a way that is connecting rather than disconnecting. Speaking our values and needs rather than our evaluations and judgments is more likely to lead us to connection rather than conflict.
Imagine a parent who has told their 7 year-old that they cannot have any more candy that day. Later that day the parent finds a candy wrapper under the child’s pillow and the child says it was not theirs.
What is the observation? Did the child lie?
Before mindfulness and NVC, the parent may have raised their voice at the child and accused them of lying and hiding it.
After mindfulness and NVC, a concerned but non-reactive parent who has built trust with their child, may take the time to find out the truth. The observation does not include the child eating candy, only a wrapper under their pillow.
In this particular circumstance — based on a true story — the child had told the truth. They didn’t eat a piece of candy. What the parent finds out later is that one of the older siblings had snuck the candy and hid the wrapper under the 7 year-old’s pillow!
Slowing down and noticing your thinking helps you identify what assumptions you might be making as well as what language you’re using. The language you use in turn defines the concepts with which you are working, which largely shape your perception.
By helping you slow down, mindfulness allows you to practice NVC in a deeper and more effective way.
Mindfulness also contributes to your NVC practice by helping you be clear about what is motivating you and what you want.
If you don’t know what is motivating you, you may choose very expensive and less effective strategies to meet your needs. (For example, buying a very expensive car to boost your self-esteem.)
Knowing your deeper motivations also helps you to more easily understand why others act the way they do.
Beyond being a set of practices, mindfulness is a capacity. NVC is a consciousness and also several sets of tools and skills.
Mindfulness enhances and deepens your NVC practice by helping you slow down and be more self-aware and self-connected. You can then take the interior gifts of mindfulness and reap the benefits in your relationships by applying your new mindfulness-informed NVC in your interactions.
How Does NVC Help My Mindfulness Practice?
How does NVC benefit your mindfulness practice?
Being mindful does not guarantee either harmonious relationships nor a consciousness of feelings & needs.
Mindfulness by itself does not guarantee awareness of the importance of a high quality of connection with others, let alone the intention, willingness, and skills to get there. NVC, on the other hand, give us powerful tools for creating interpersonal harmony consistently.
NVC also gives us a language for keeping observations neutral. Because our inner dialog is not immune from the old, learned patterns of judgment, criticism, or blame — your NVC skills can help you be more self-compassionate when you practice mindfulness.
NVC will help you express what is important — at the level of the heart — that is, feelings and needs. And NVC will also give you the awareness and skills for expressing actionable requests.
When your relationships are more harmonious, your interior world contains less strife — and this contributes fewer distractions to your mindfulness practice.
As you explore your interior with mindfulness, NVC will help you discern where you are getting triggered, what exactly the stimulus was, and what requests you might have of yourself or another.
To re-emphasize the difference: mindfulness is a capacity supported by many diverse practices. NVC enhances many of our capacities, and is both a consciousness and several sets of tools and skills. And it is through this consciousness, and these tools and skills, that NVC contributes to your mindfulness practice.
Are There Real-World Applications of Mindfulness and NVC?
What are some real-world applications of both mindfulness and NVC?
Below are a few simple examples. In the years to come we imagine many more opportunities for these fields to complement each other.
The Rasur Foundation had a project in Costa Rica in the early to mid 2000s training teachers and school-children in mindfulness and NVC. The mindfulness component was delivered through Heartmath Institute’s biofeedback software. (https://connectionpractice.org/rasurfoundation/)
The Freedom Project
The Freedom Project brings mindfulness and NVC training to prisons, and helps prisoners with re-entry into society. (https://freedomprojectwa.org/)
Unlocking Your Emotions to Meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals
In 2019 PuddleDancer Press received a request for a speaker from the United Nations for the conference “Unlocking your Emotions to Meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.” The conference included Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, as well as several speakers on mindfulness. We jumped at the opportunity to have NVC represented there, and reached out to CNVC Certified Trainer, Alan Rafael Seid, who delivered this talk.
Marshall Rosenberg and Mindfulness
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was fascinated by the interplay between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal.
When asked about his influences in creating NVC, besides naming Carl Rogers and family members who provided inspiration, Dr. Rosenberg referred to Buddhism — the original source for much of what is today called mindfulness — as one of his areas of influence.
Dr. Rosenberg was asked why progress in NVC seemed to be inconsistent among people. Some people take many NVC workshops and seem to progress slowly, while others progress in NVC much faster than others.
His response, “I don’t know the exact connection, but it seems that people who have adopted some sort of awareness practice seem to progress faster in NVC than those who do not.”
The connection between mindfulness and NVC has been around since the beginning of NVC — and Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was aware of it before anyone else.
PuddleDancer Books on NVC & Mindfulness
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and mindfulness.
NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of improving in their sense of harmony within themselves as well as with others.
Because of the way NVC stimulates you to know yourself and develop interior clarity, using NVC and mindfulness together will speed up your progress in both!
Our books on NVC & mindfulness 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 mindfulness, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.
Check out our catalog of books on mindfulness… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!
More Information on Books about Mindfulness
NVC Mindfulness Web Resources
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Mindfulness Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Mindfulness Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Mindfulness Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Mindfulness 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