Giraffe Talk for Parents

Simple Ideas to Transform Coercive Communication Into Compassionate Connection

By Lyssa Clayton and Eva Schonveld

One of the biggest issues for me as a parent is how I communicate, or not, with my children. With the best of intentions I’ve found myself saying things in ways which seem to actually make things worse and sometimes find it near impossible not to head down the slope of blaming, judging and criticizing.

How many of us end up saying, “You always ____,” “Why can’t you just do/don’t do x, y, z” in a tone of voice which has even more unpleasant ‘you’re bad’ connotations. Or find we’ve forced our child do something we wanted them to, but felt really unhappy about how we’ve achieved the desired result.

For many of us, much of how we relate to our children is, at it’s root, based on coercion: the “you will get/not get something if you don’t cooperate.” The sub-text in a lot of our everyday wrangles with our children is “I’m bigger and stronger than you, so you’re going to have to do what I say” (i.e. ‘might is right’). We teach our children values more deeply through how we interact with them than what we preach at them.

So, are there ways to go about changing the way we communicate at a deep level? Are there tools available to help? Is there help and support to do this — to even begin it?

Faced daily with a sense of exasperation and feeling of powerlessness in my home, I was intrigued and excited to hear about the idea of Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (NVC). The word ‘violent’ in this context refers to the way we can hurt or damage people through the use of words which do not respect another as worthy of our compassion and understanding, rather than necessarily actually coming to blows.

When Marshall Rosenberg developed NVC, he found himself exploring two major questions:

  1. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave in a violently and exploitatively way?
  2. What allows some people to remain connected to compassionate nature in the most under even the most trying circumstances?

Marshall was struck by the crucial role of words and language, and has identified and developed a process of compassionate communication which can enable us to make and keep a heartfelt connection with another person — whether they’re using the same process or not.

“Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions,” says Rosenberg, “our words become conscious responses based firmly on awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling or wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others.”

The NVC Process in Brief

The central aim of NVC is to stay in conscious relationship with another person. The fundamental process has four stages: (1) observation, (2) feelings, (3) needs, and (3) request.

You may not need to use every stage in each communication, but again, for clarity when you’re learning it’s good to be aware of them all. At each stage you can be in one of three ‘modes’:

  1. Checking out with yourself internally what your observation, feeling, need or request might be;
  2. Expressing to another what your observation, feeling, need or request might be; or
  3. Receiving from another person what their observation, feeling, need or request might be.

NVC is also helpful in expanding the vocabulary we use to describe what we’re feeling, or needing.

Feelings you may be experiencing could be — happy, ecstatic, overjoyed, sad, despairing, miserable concerned, apprehensive, or worried.

Core needs might include — quiet, sleep, food, autonomy, support, harmony, clarity, understanding, appreciation, choice about our environment, contribution, or play.

Looking More Closely at the 4-Steps

1. Observation

What do you actually see, hear or remember – ‘the concrete action’ – rather than your interpretation. Think about what a video camera would record. For example, a camera doesn’t show ‘teasing,’ it shows one child taking a toy out of another’s hand. It doesn’t show ‘laziness’, it shows wet towels on the bathroom floor.

Here’s an example, “When I see dishes on the living room floor…” “When I hear you say that to your sister…” “I see you took the truck out of Annie’s hand.”

2. Feelings

This step is where you describe how you feel in relation to what you observe. For example, “I feel ____ because ____;” rather than, “you make me feel _____.” This stage means that you take responsibility for your own feelings (in the knowledge that the same behavior in a different situation might bring out a very different response in you).

For example, “I feel cross and confused as I remember we had an agreement about clearing up after meals.” “Are you frustrated seeing her using your tape player when you asked her not to?” “Are you feeling impatient because someone else is having a turn first?”

3. Needs

In NVC, the more fundamental the need we can express or pick up on, the deeper the communication can be. Your need for ‘that toy’ might be somewhat fleeting, but your need to be included in playing is deep, and can be understood by anyone.

Much of the skill in NVC is translating our own and other people’s expressed feelings and needs into their deeper more core aspects. What is the need/value/desire I have, or that you have and are trying to meet?

For example, “It is important to me that our home is a comfortable place to be and that we share taking care of it together.” “Would you like some understanding and respect of your need for privacy?” “Does that look like an interesting toy that you would love to play with?”

4. Request

Concrete, do-able, positive actions you request in order to enrich your life. One NVC expression is: “I can’t do a don’t,” so it’s important that your requests are stated in the positive.

For example, instead of, “Don’t leave your toys all over the floor,” how about “Lets put your toys in the boxes so we have a big clear space to start playing in the morning.”

Or, another example could be, “Would you be willing to discuss with me how we can work together in sharing these domestic jobs? Shall we do that now or arrange a time to do that later today?” “Would you be willing to discuss and decide between you about borrowing each others things?” “Maybe we could talk with Annie and agree how long it will be until it is your turn, would that help?”

That’s a brief description of the NVC process. Of course we can use the same components to describe very positive interactions such as, “When I see the smile on your face I feel happy, I enjoy seeing you have fun with your friends.” You can also use it without uttering a word by the quality of attention and empathy you give to yourself and to others.

The importance of empathic listening and receiving of another person, a child, a baby, seems more and more profound to me as the days and weeks go by. Aside from its aims and ideals for much-improved relationships, NVC is also cannily pragmatic for parents.

Shouting, “This is how it’s going to be whether you like it or not,” may release some anger in the moment, but is it more likely to get you what you want — whether short term, with your child readily going along with your plans — or long term creating a happy, trusting family environment? Finding out what your child’s deeper need and collaborating with them can result in finding a way for both of you to get what you need.

As parents, it is important to take time to listen to our own internal dialogue. If your fundamental needs are not met and nourished, how can you continue to give to and care for your children? When the last thing I feel capable of is listening empathically to my child, what do I need to be able to listen? Is it support? A few minutes of privacy and quiet? To get the tea into the oven first so I can listen fully?

If you don’t value your own needs and desires, others may not either. And your ability to care for your children is made all the harder.

While NVC is basically a very simple, straightforward process, it can take quite a while to learn to use it in stressful situations. If you’re interested, find an NVC community or practice group in your area to continue learning in a supportive environment. There are also practice groups you can join, which can be supportive and helpful in the long-term work of shifting from habitual to compassionate communication. The Center for Nonviolent Communicationalso moderates a parenting listserv where parents can explore everyday issues, concerns, and ideas for integrating NVC into their daily parenting life. Learn more about the listserv at

You may contact Lyssa Clayton and Eva Schonveld at the Birth Resource Centre Edinburgh, where they provide prenatal and postnatal classes, groups, support and information for all women, partners and families. Phone: 0-131-229-3667; Website: