Nonviolent Communication Skills and Mental Health
“NVC gives us tools and understanding to create a more peaceful state of mind.”
NVC contributes to better mental health while at the same time holding an unconventional perspective on the topic of mental illness.
Below, we’ll look at how NVC sees mental illness as well as some of the possible causes of mental illness. We’ll also look at how both NVC and having positive relationships contribute to mental health.
NVC is a set of tools, perspectives, and practices that anybody can apply in their life. NVC has its roots in Clinical Psychology, having been created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a student of famous psychologist Carl Rogers.
Though NVC does not do everything for everyone, it is a powerful complement to existing resources for mental health.
How NVC sees “mental illness”
NVC warns us about the cost of diagnosing others. NVC is not against valid medical diagnoses. However, when we tell ourselves a story about what somebody is or what somebody is experiencing — essentially diagnosing them — that can automatically get in the way of the high quality of connection for which NVC aims.
For example, if you say to someone, “I can see you’re very angry about that,” that person could respond, “I’m not angry, I’m actually just very frustrated.” That would be an example of diagnosing: telling yourself the story that the other person is angry and believing that your story is correct. Some of us will hold on to a story without ever checking it out with the other person! Sometimes we fall in the trap of telling the other person what they are experiencing. This often leads to disconnection because very few people like being told what they’re thinking, feeling, or wanting.
Diagnosing, in the sense we’re talking about, also happens when we assume what’s happening for somebody else at the level of their intentions. For example, if I say to someone: “The other day, when you yelled at me for no reason whatsoever….” The phrase, “for no reason whatsoever” implies that I know what was happening inside the other person: a diagnosis.
NVC cautions us to be very careful about diagnosing others using static labels — because this will usually get in the way of authentic human-to-human connection. NVC aims at mutually satisfying outcomes that are usually attained through a high quality of connection.
Marshall Rosenberg called himself a recovering psychotherapist after developing NVC, even though he had a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. He claimed that the study of psychotherapy had taught him a language of putting people in a box and ‘pigeonholing’ people in a way that took away from being able to see them fully as a dynamic human being.
As soon as you have a label of someone as being a bully, a narcissist, clinically depressed, a Sagittarius, or an egomaniac — these labels can get in the way of authentic human-to-human connection which happens when we are fully present with another human being.
One of the controversies in discussing mental health and illness is the level of professional disagreement surrounding the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Not all mental health professionals see mental illness in the same way. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that what mental illness diagnosis somebody receives depends on which medical school their doctor went to.
One of the strengths Nonviolent Communication brings to the questions of mental illness and mental health is the practice of empathy. Empathy can be defined as a respectful understanding or a compassionate understanding. And it turns out empathy is a key factor for success across psychotherapeutic modalities. Regardless of a therapist’s or counselor’s school or tradition, if empathy is lacking, their practice will most likely be ineffective.
NVC cautions us around the use of static diagnostic language, and instead encourages us to be present with one another as human beings. When we do this, we find that a lot of the things we thought were mental illness before can be explained in other ways, such as a deficit in empathy which we talk about in the next section.
The roots of mental un-health
“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
There is no clear consensus on a single root cause of mental illness.
Mental illness can happen due to a backlog of unprocessed grief and unresolved trauma. Additionally, many of us find ourselves in an “empathy deficit” — a deficit around being heard, understood, and gotten.
Sometimes our mental stability suffers when we tell ourselves painful stories about ourselves, about others, or about the world.
Sometimes we hold ourselves to a very high standard and the way we speak to ourselves when we’re less than perfect can be quite brutal. We judge ourselves and we try to motivate ourselves to learn, with phrases like: “You’re so stupid,” or “You’re never gonna learn.” And unfortunately, very often these approaches backfire because we don’t end up learning the lesson that we’re intending to learn, and instead have only increased our shame, guilt, or depression.
Likewise, when we tell ourselves painful stories about other people — that others are out to get us, or that they don’t have our best interest in mind — that in itself can create a lot of stress, even though our worst fears are rarely confirmed by reality. Similarly, telling ourselves stories about how unsafe and dangerous the world is, also takes its toll on our mental health. This is not to downplay or minimize real dangers and threats in the world; the purpose is noticing how we’re talking to ourselves, and the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, and the world.
One common factor in mental illness is the degree to which many people are alienated from others. There’s been a breakdown of community in the last 50 to 100 years in the United States and around the world through modernization and urbanization. People don’t have the sense of belonging and the social support that we’ve had for a countless number of generations.
Another important factor affecting people’s sense of mental health and balance is modern society’s generalized loss of meaning and purpose. Our culture has some profoundly outdated answers to the questions “Who are we?” and “what is the good life?”
Are we simply consumers? Are we simply citizens who have the right to refuse to vote? Who are we as human beings?
When we look at the promises from the consumer culture, “the good life,” once achieved, appears empty and meaningless. Is “the good life” really consuming more things? Is life on Planet Earth about whoever dies with the most toys wins?
As a culture it’s imperative that we redefine the answers to these questions: “Who are we?” and “What is the good life?” The overall loss of meaning and purpose in society is a contributing factor to people’s mental illness.
At the root of much of mental illness is a concept that is being used increasingly in psychology: “distress tolerance.” When you experience interior distress, how do you handle it? If your tolerance for interior distress is low, you’ll experience forms of anxiety, avoidance, guilt, shame, depression, anger, and/or finding somebody to blame for the distress. But when your interior distress tolerance is high, you’re able to stay more balanced and centered, more emotionally buoyant, and you can buy yourself time for getting back to perspective.
NVC contributes to an increase in our distress tolerance in multiple ways which we discuss in the next section.
How NVC contributes to mental health
NVC contributes to mental health in multiple ways.
For one, it increases our ability to reduce our interior distress by helping us become aware of when we are telling ourselves a story versus what we are actually observing in the real world. For example, an audio recorder and a video camera does not pick up rude or polite or appropriate or inappropriate. These are evaluations that we put on the things that we’re seeing. When we can notice we’re telling ourselves a story and then see what’s actually happening, that usually helps us look at things from a calmer place.
Another way NVC contributes to mental health is it increases our ability to get connected to what’s motivating us at a deeper level in terms of our Universal Human Needs. When you are able to go underneath the interpretation and can get connected to something at the level of a core human motivator or a universal human need, it automatically helps you feel more grounded and connects you to a greater sense of possibilities for how to meet those needs.
It works similarly when we’re connecting with other people. If we can connect with their deeper motivations, even if we don’t agree with their tactic or worldview, we can relate more easily since human needs are universal. When we connect with what’s motivating another person at a deeper level, it helps us have more compassion and helps us engage in a way that’s more likely to lead to a mutually satisfying outcome. This also contributes to our mental ease and stability.
Additionally, NVC helps us clearly separate needs, which are universal, from the strategies by which we go about meeting those needs. (The strategies are not universal.) By separating needs and strategies, NVC helps us to relax around a particular or specific way of addressing something (the strategy) until the needs have been clarified. Once we clarified what’s happening at a deeper level in terms of the core motivators or Universal Human Needs, exploring strategies, solutions, and outcomes makes more sense. Once the needs are identified, a multiplicity of strategies becomes available. When our strategies are formulated around needs, that makes them more durable, which means we have less conflict around them in the future, which means we will have less stress.
Why having positive relationships contributes to good mental health
When relationships are not positive, they can be quite stressful. Interacting with people with whom we’re upset or who we don’t trust have our best interests in mind can be distressing. Positive relationships are based on trust and safety which in turn contribute to relaxation and ease.
There are many, many ways in which positive relationships contribute to good mental health. When relationships are positive, there’s a chance that we’ll have the conversations that surface possibilities. When we bring possibilities to the surface, we can explore which are viable options and we can take action to have win-win, mutually satisfying outcomes.
Human beings are sometimes referred to as social or communal creatures. We thrive in connection with others. NVC helps us have this in the best of ways by honoring both our interconnectedness as well as our autonomy.
NVC is the most powerful set of tools we have found for creating exceptional personal and professional relationships, as well as strengthening your relationship with yourself. Knowing how to give yourself empathy, have kinder self-talk, and create satisfying relationships contributes enormously to better mental health.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Mental Health
Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. called himself a “recovering psychotherapist” because he found that he had learned a diagnostic language that pathologized others and reduced possibilities for authentic connection.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg left us with an exceptional methodology for creating a high quality of connection with ourselves and each other, in both the best and worst of times.
When we develop greater distress tolerance, a healthier relationship with ourselves, and can consistently forge strong personal and professional relationships — we are at at less risk for mental illness.
PuddleDancer Press Books for NVC and Mental Health
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and mental health.
NVC provides powerful tools for inner clarity, positive self-regard, and satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Our books on NVC and mental health 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 NVC & mental health, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess. Check out our catalog of books on how to apply NVC in all areas, including healthcare… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!
Frequently Asked Questions
- How do I attain mental health using NVC?
- How does NVC help me with my mental health?
- What is NVC’s view on mental health?
Topic written by Alan Seid, a Certified Trainer, on behalf of PuddleDancer Press for use on www.nonviolentcommunication.com.
More information on Books about Communication
NVC Mental Health Web Resources
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Mental Health Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Mental Health Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Mental Health Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Mental Health 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