I’m on the phone with one of my relatives, and I’m thinking, “She talks too much about herself.” In the past, that might have been the end point of my self-awareness, but about ten years ago, a colleague introduced me to Nonviolent Communication (NVC for short) and I started researching. I came across a couple of videos by the founder of NVC, Marshal Rosenberg, and was impressed by his persuasive yet non-invasive style. Soon, I was taking courses at the Center for Nonviolent Communication, some with author and educator Thom Bond, who studied with Rosenberg. As a result, now, I can transition from judging my relative for talking too much into a broader perspective. I allow my judging thoughts to run through my mind without suppressing them, thinking, She’s selfish and inconsiderate. I know these are a starting point for empathy. Then, internally, I ask one of Rosenberg’s favorite questions: What’s alive in me right now? What am I feeling and needing? In Rosenberg’s view, feelings are the path to becoming aware of one’s own needs. 

What I notice first are physical sensations. I’m holding my breath, and my chest is tight. What feelings do these sensations represent? Boredom and listlessness. Does this say anything about my unmet needs in the moment? Right now, in this conversation, I need care, mutuality, presence, and to experience a shared reality with my family member. I also don’t want to be rude, so I’ve let her continue talking without interjecting even though I’m getting irked. I ask myself, What are my unmet needs right now? My internal reply is connection, space, and choice. I realize that I need to interrupt her and make a request. I’m doing what Dr. Rosenberg suggests we do regularly in our interpersonal relationships: take a two directional approach, considering both her needs and mine.

“I know I’m interrupting,” I say, “but I’d like to share some things with you as well.”

She pauses, then responds, “Of course! I’d like to hear from you, too.” 

Rosenberg developed his NVC method by combining Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with Carl Rogers’s client-focused methods prioritizing empathy. His process begins with noticing judgmental thoughts, or “enemy images,” as he called them. From there, you move towards observing events and feelings. Once you have a sense of those, you bring awareness to your needs. After identifying needs, you can make clear requests that will increase the likelihood of getting those needs met. 

Another important concept in NVC relates to discerning between needs and strategies. It’s easier to come up with strategies once you’ve first identified your underlying needs. For example, if I want to meet my need for rest and renewal, I can lie down, look after my plants, chat with family members, or take a walk on the beach.

Personally, I find it liberating to allow my judgmental thoughts to surface. From there, I move to a deeper exploration that allows for acceptance of others as well as self-acceptance. My relationships with others in my life have improved significantly over time with the help of NVC. I’m no longer as defensive, and I’m more willing to slow down. I can hear beyond the words people use and the behaviors they exhibit to sense into their feelings and needs. I’m also able to recognize the aggressive language people use in conversations and reframe it as a tragic, reflexive way of expressing pain. 

As a mental health professional, NVC helps me nurture my alliance with clients. Above all, I can focus on my own met and unmet needs without considering myself selfish. Because I grew up in a family where I was encouraged to prioritize helping other people, focusing on my own needs has been a process. 

The more I apply NVC principles to my interactions and communications, the more aware I become of my own deeply ingrained avoidance patterns. This supports my work with clients looking to reduce resentment, set boundaries, and communicate kindly—but directly—with coworkers, family, friends, and significant others in their lives. It helps to recognize that I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. By remembering Marshall’s two directional approach, I take into account my own needs for respect and consideration without losing sight of the reality that these are often people’s needs as well. Doing so makes it easier to stay connected without getting drained. Recognizing and honoring needs is a lynchpin of self-care, and NVC shows us a reliable path to take care of ourselves within our relationships.

Magdalini Agrafioti, MA, AMMFT, holds a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from the Adler University, Chicago. She is an AMMFT member, Clinical Fellow and a Certified NVC Group Facilitator who practices psychotherapy and family therapy part time in Greece and is a cofounder of the mental health unit. Visit  www.oselotos.org. Also, connect with Magdalini on LinkedIn.


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