What is the relationship between Trauma and Nonviolent Communication?
Is there a connection between Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and trauma?
Where do they overlap and where not?
Can they inform each other?
Let’s answer these questions, but first let’s define each of these terms: NVC and trauma.
What is NVC?
Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, is a modality rooted in clinical psychology developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg — who for many years called himself a “recovering psychotherapist”!
He said the language and concepts he learned in his professional training taught him to label people in a way that created separation, and took him away from meaningful — and potentially healing — interpersonal connections.
At the time, Dr. Rosenberg was interested in empathy — a quality of deep listening and compassionate understanding humans can provide for each other. He was also interested in the question of why it is that the roles we play in life sometimes get in the way of authentic human connection. And he wanted to understand how it is that people get conditioned to enjoy violence — as well as what to do about it.
NVC answers the question, how do we create a high quality of connection through which people naturally enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being?
Dr. Rosenberg developed NVC out of his attempt to distill the elements in thought, language, communication, and the use of power that contribute to this kind of connection.
NVC has an underlying intention and set of principles, which you can think of as the consciousness of NVC. It also has a well-defined framework, which you can think of as the tools of NVC.
Both the consciousness and the tools are important and support each other.
Said another way, the intention of NVC is to create a high quality of connection out of which people consistently co-create mutually agreeable and mutually beneficial outcomes.
When people use the tools of NVC without the intention and the consciousness, then it becomes something that is not NVC at all.
In the same way that someone can turn a tool, like a hammer, into a weapon, similarly people can misuse the tools of NVC to try to get their way or to attempt to manipulate others. This is when we hear of NVC being “weaponized,” and we hear people complain that NVC was used on them or against them.
So while NVC gives you tools with which you can become more skillful, the underlying consciousness is paramount! Focus on creating connection first, and improve your skillfulness with the tools over time.
The tools, or the framework, of NVC can be summarized as follows:
NVC gives you three areas of focus: honest self-expression, empathic listening, and compassionate self-connection. (Each of these can be thought of as a toolbox unto itself. So it is not inaccurate to say that NVC gives you three distinct toolboxes.) Each of these three areas of focus includes the same four components: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
People use NVC to deepen personal and professional relationships, to make meetings more effective, and to prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts in interpersonal interactions and relationships of every kind.
What is trauma?
Trauma is something humans have been able to understand much more deeply and extensively only in recent decades.
Simply put, trauma is stress that overwhelmed your nervous system’s capacity to integrate or assimilate the stress at the time. Because it’s not fully processed, this trauma remains in your nervous system — often unperceived — and its existence can come out in a wide variety of confusing and disquieting ways.
Because it exists at the level of the nervous system, it’s usually invisible to others.
Because it resides in the nervous system, trauma exists largely as a pre-verbal phenomenon. In other words, it’s very hard to access using language. Because of this it is often addressed somatically (at the level of the physical body), appealing to the body’s ability to heal and self-regulate.
There are different kinds of trauma, including trauma provoked by a single event, trauma from repeated and ongoing exposure to the traumatizing stimuli, and trauma passed down the generations.
Trauma researchers differentiate between situational trauma and generational trauma.
Some sources recognize 3 major kinds of trauma, others recognize 7 distinct types. This level of nuance is beyond the scope of this article — though it can be valuable to know that there is so much more to learn about this fundamentally important topic.
It is widely believed that most if not everybody carries some level of trauma in their body.
Can NVC be trauma-informed?
Though NVC is rooted in clinical psychology, CNVC Certified Trainers have only in recent years learned how to become more “trauma-informed” — understanding the profound implications of trauma, the causes, the effects, and how it can complicate the application of modalities like NVC that rely in large part on the use of language.
If this is a concern you hold, you can reach out to any given trainer to have a conversation with them before you attend their training or workshop.
As our understanding of trauma grows and increases over time, so does our understanding of how to use and share NVC in ways that are more sensitized and responsive to how unresolved trauma can add layers of sometimes subtle complexity to human interactions.
While many NVC circles have been slow to become trauma-informed, increasing numbers of NVC trainers and practitioners are embracing the ways we can expand our understanding of NVC so that its application can be more trauma-informed.
Approaches that complement NVC and help us understand trauma more fully
Are there other theories, approaches, or modalities that help us understand trauma more deeply and which are also complementary to NVC?
The short answer is Yes! In truth there are many!
In this section we’ll look at a couple of these, Attachment Theory and Vagal Nerve Theory.
Let’s very briefly look at Attachment Theory and how it relates to trauma and NVC.
A comprehensive look at Attachment Theory is beyond the scope of this article, and there are many books which go into it deeply.
Attachment theory attempts to explain emotional bonds between people. It posits that, in human psychology, there is an “attachment system” that forms in very early childhood between a baby and its caregivers, and later in life primarily in intimate relationships.
Often someone’s “attachment style” is based on what those very early childhood experiences were like in relation to primary caregivers.
Here is an overview of the 4 basic attachment styles, which ones are associated with early childhood trauma, and how they show up in behaviors that adults exhibit.
“Secure attachment” is considered the goal. This is what it’s called when someone experiences safety and trust, and is more likely to be able to speak openly about what is troubling them or what they need.
Your attachment style may have evolved this way if your primary caregivers were present, loving, and treated you with care and respect. As people heal trauma and re-set their nervous system, secure attachment is what they are moving towards.
“Avoidant attachment” (sometimes referred to as dismissive) is characterized by avoiding or resisting conversations or connection. Sometimes this shows up as self-isolating or withdrawing behavior.
Your attachment style may have evolved this way if your caregivers were aloof, distant, or themselves avoidant of conversations involving feelings or challenging topics.
“Anxious attachment” (sometimes referred to as preoccupied) is characterized by someone worrying that the other person is angry with them or will leave them.
Your attachment style may have evolved this way if your caregivers were inconsistent in their care, and you didn’t know when they might or might not be there for you.
“Disorganized attachment” (sometimes referred to as fearful-avoidant or anxious-avoidant) is, as these names imply, a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
Your attachment style may have evolved this way if your primary caregiver — the person responsible for providing safety, stability, and trust — is also someone who was hurtful or abusive. This is considered the least common but also the most problematic of attachment styles. If this is you, please avail yourself of professional support, as needed.
If you are using only an NVC lens, then people exhibit certain behaviors in service of one or more needs, even if there appears to be a big disconnect between the needs and the strategy!
Attachment Theory gives us an additional lens — or layer — from which to create meaning out of behaviors that otherwise might be confusing or triggering for us.
You can still use NVC to express your care, and to talk and connect about what is happening as well as what to do about it. You can use NVC to help the other person feel heard and safe, and it can provide a vehicle for together arriving at next steps.
Polyvagal Theory also helps to explain some of what happens in people’s bodies, at the level of the nervous system, that relates to and interacts with trauma and NVC.
Polyvagal Theory is still relatively new as far as scientific theories go — and though some researchers emphasize that it is still a theory, many people find it has useful explanatory value.
Consider these two definitions from different online sources:
“Polyvagal theory is a collection of proposed evolutionary, neuroscientific, and psychological constructs pertaining to the role of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation, social connection and fear response. PVT was introduced in 1994 by Stephen Porges.”
“The polyvagal theory proposes that the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system provides the neurophysiological substrates for adaptive behavioral strategies. It further proposes that physiological state limits the range of behavior and psychological experience.”
By using Nonviolent Communication in conjunction with somatic practices that help bring the nervous system into balance, people can discharge uncomfortable emotions and shift the activation of the nervous system from dis-regulated to regulated.
How does understanding trauma inform NVC?
One common understanding among people who have been practicing NVC for some time is that speed can get you in trouble.
Slowing down is usually your ally in creating mutual understanding, especially with topics that feel heavy or charged.
One valuable contribution to NVC practice coming from our growing understanding of trauma is that you cannot move the conversation at a speed faster than the ability of everyone’s nervous system to digest, assimilate, or integrate the conversation — if your goal is to have a successful, connecting interaction.
Slowing down to the speed of the nervous system’s ability to assimilate information is more likely when we are tuned in to ourselves and each other.
Sometimes the cues are subtle: someone closes their eyes, or is shaking, or their eyes and body language lead us to question whether they are present.
In these moments, it can be helpful to Gove the person a little time, and then check in:
“Are you ok?”
“Do you need a little time right now?”
“Would you like to continue, or take a break?”
And after you ask the question, pause. Slow down. Give the person some time to breathe, take in your question, check in with themselves, and respond.
It can be incredibly helpful in situations like this if the person who needs things to be slower can speak up and ask for what they want. However, trauma can sometimes show upon as a freeze response, and access to language can be challenging. Or at times there may be a deep fear, at the level of the nervous system, if in the past speaking up or asking for what you want has been dangerous.
Trauma-informed NVC often looks like slowing down, being keenly tuned in to the subtleties of body language, and asking empathically if it would help to slow down or take a break. We have additional resources for you at the end of this article.
How understanding trauma can help you use NVC to better support someone experiencing trauma.
Understanding trauma will support you in applying NVC wisely and skillfully so that you can more effectively support someone experiencing trauma.
Here is another useful framework for how to think about supporting someone going through an extremely challenging situation, sometimes known as The Ring Theory of Kvetching (or of Venting and Support).
The Ring Theory of Venting and Support
When someone goes through trauma or a high-needs situation — momentary, chronic, or terminal — it is not only difficult for the person going through it. A situation like this can put strain on everyone trying to support and give care.
In fact, “caregiver burnout” is a cliché in some circles.
The Ring Theory of Venting and Support, also known simply as The Ring Theory, is not NVC — and yet it offers sound guidance consistent with NVC for what to do if you find yourself supporting someone going through very difficult times.
The person or people with the illness, trauma, or extremely challenging situation — they may complain outwardly to, and receive support from, their first circle of support.
The first circle of support may be experiencing an extreme challenge supporting this person or people. The challenges could be about loss of sleep, the emotional toll, the cost in time, or any number of reasons.
However, this first circle of support does NOT vent to the person or people at the center of the trauma.
To vent, complain, or try to get empathy from those in trauma will only compound the trauma!
All of this said, the first circle of support does get to vent outwardly.
Again, the first circle of support is spared from the venting or empathy needs of the second circle, who, again, only vents outwardly.
Support, caring, comfort flows inwardly.
Kvetching, venting, complaining, requests for empathy, all of this only flows outwardly.
Understanding these principles may be helpful as a reminder to consider how you want to show up with whom.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC, trauma, and taking empathic understanding to another level
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg sometimes defined empathy as a “respectful understanding” or a “compassionate understanding.”
However, some NVC practitioners might forget that he emphasized being present with your whole being — rather than allowing it to be merely an intellectual understanding.
This translates into feeling — as a manner of speaking — what the other person is going through. It goes beyond hearing them or listening intellectually.
When you are present with your whole being this is a somatic experience.
And after all, being heard, received, felt, understood — being deeply gotten — is a valuable part of the healing experience!
Additional Resources for you on NVC and Trauma
(NOTE: The resources below do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of PuddleDancer Press, and we have not vetted them for their professional integrity or efficacy of application.
We share these resources here with the intent to contribute to you, AND we are counting on you to conduct your own due diligence and use your own discernment should you access or use the resources below.)
Trauma-informed NVC Trainer who teaches at the intersection of NVC and Neuroscience
Teacher who teaches Trauma-informed NVC
A Guide to Building Trauma-Informed Practices and Organizations:
Nonviolent Communication Practices that Embody Person-Centered and Trauma-Informed Care
Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece, by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, about the Ring Theory of Venting and Support.
PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC, Trauma, and Healing
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and healing.
Human beings are inherently resilient, and NVC can help you both speed up and deepen the healing process.
Our books on Compassionate Communication consciousness and skills 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 trauma and healing, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.
Check out our catalog of books and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!