Non-Violent Communication: One of the most common topics partners are challenged with is communication. If you have found yourselves in arguments that revolve around the same issues and end up the same way every time, then you probably know how frustrating and upsetting it can be to never reach a resolution. Arguing and fighting can be scary for a variety of reasons. For some people, a fight poses a threat to the livelihood and well-being of the relationship. For folks that experienced emotional tension in their families or households growing up, fighting can trigger a stress response (fight, fly, or freeze) that is emotionally distressing. Often, people mistake fighting for “the problem” in the relationship and end up avoiding arguments, de-escalating situations in advance, or even walking away from conflicts. The truth is, however, that fights are not the problem themselves; in fact, they are an essential part of relationships and allow them to get a relief from the daily stressors. The way partners handle the fights, however, has the potential to become dysfunctional because communicating under emotional pressure is nerve-racking. Fortunately, there is a communication formula that can make your arguments and fights more productive and relieving as opposed to stressful and distressing.  

Before we explain the logistics of this non-violent communication formula, let’s take a minute to answer this simple question: why do we fight in the first place? Why can’t we just be calm, peaceful, caring, loving, and sweet to each other at all times? Like every other mammal on the planet, humans have needs that go beyond their physical needs for food, water, warmth, urination, and sex. We have a long list of emotional and psychological needs that are justified by our evolutionary development as a social species. In simple terms, we need other humans to give us a hand in order to meet those needs. From protection, safety, and freedom, to affection, understanding, identity, and meaning, those needs require that other humans be involved in our lives and provide help. Easy, right? And everything would have been perfectly fine if people around us could understand those needs without us having to communicate them. Since we do not have any biological structure or group of brain cells trained to read other people’s needs, we need to express them ourselves. This is where things get complicated and this is the reason why we fight: we feel distressed for not having met our needs, but we lack the skills to ask for help.

Unmet needs lead to distress and emotional reactivity, which, according to our brain biology, shuts down the rational part of our brains. Thus, we react instead of responding. In the schema of our reactivity, evaluative and blaming words masquerade as feelings. For example:

Behind “I feel ignored” hides the blaming statement “You are ignoring me” while the real emotion experienced might be lonely, scared, hurt, sad, or embarrassed and the needs that are not being met are those of connection, community, and belonging.

Behind “I feel neglected” hides the aggressive statement “You are neglecting me” while the real emotion experienced might be lonely or scared and the needs that are not being met are those of participation, care, mattering, and consideration.

Other evaluative terms and interpretations masquerading as emotions are Abandoned, Criticized, Disliked, Distrusted, Insulted, Interrupted, Invisible, Isolated, Misunderstood, Rejected, etc. All those terms cover up emotions that are experienced due to needs that have not been met.

A Helpful Non-Violent Communication Formula

In order to avoid those dysfunctional patterns of fighting, you can try being more transparent and direct about your needs. This process has four steps:

1.      Describe an Observation/Situation that brings up emotional tension for you in the relationship – focus on something you hear, smell, see, or remember, or something your partner says to you or to other people about you that trigger a visceral reaction in you. Start your phrase with:

“When I see/hear/observe/remember/imagine ……………………………………………

2.      Describe your Feelings about this observation. What do you feel when this happens? Remember to avoid using evaluative or blaming words as mentioned earlier. Identifying, expressing, or even naming your feelings is no easy task. If you need help, you can consult the Wheel of Feelings to find the words that best describe your emotional experience at the moment. Continue your phrase with:

“… I feel ………………………………………………………………………………….

3.      Express your Need. Why do you feel this way? What need is not being met and contributes to you experiencing this emotion? Continue your sentence with:

“… “because I need ………………………………………………………………………

Here is a list of needs you may find helpful:

Protection / Security: Agreements to Matter, Confidence, Fairness, Honesty, Hope, *Justice, Nurture, *Openness, Order, Safety, Stability, Trust,

Creation: Creativity, Expression, Inspiration

Identity / Meaning: Acceptance, Acknowledgment, Appreciation, Authenticity, Balance, Challenge, Clarity, Effectiveness, Integrity, Learning, Privacy, Self-Development, Shared Reality, Self-Acceptance, To Be Seen for One’s Striving, To Be Seen for One’s Intentions, To Make Sense of One’s World

Freedom: Autonomy, Choices, Direction Forward

Affection: Companionship, Intimacy, Kindness, To Matter

Participation: Accomplishment, Action, Belonging / Inclusion, Capacity, Community, Competence, Connection, Contribution, Dependability, Encouragement, Harmony, Involvement, Mutuality / Reciprocity, Power Within One’s World, Recognition, Respect, Support, To Serve/Enrich Life

Leisure: Celebration, Ease, Play, Simplicity

Understanding: Accord, Consideration, Empathy, Peace of Mind, To Be Heard

Transcendence: Beauty, Love, Peace

4.      State your Request. What would you like your partner to do in order to help you get your need(s) met? When expressing your request, try to be as specific and descriptive as possible. If you ask someone to just not do what they are doing, this is not a specific request. If you ask the to do it differently, then it is. Finish your sentence with:

“Would you be willing to ………………………………………………………………?”

This Non-violence Communication formula provides a solid foundation for partners to negotiate their needs and requests without blaming or accusing their spouse. The four components of this formula, as analyzed above, are:

  1. Observation/Situation: “When I see/hear/observe/remember/imagine...,
  2. Feeling(s): “... I feel………………..
  3. Need(s): “... because I need ……………..
  4. Request(s): “Would you be willing to …………………..”

Let’s see how this formula plays out by using an example: Imagine that you and your partner are fighting over not spending enough time together. You start the argument like this:

“You always work so late! I know you are busy and there is work to be done, but you are never at home on time and we never go out anymore. I even forget when the last time was that we went to the movies or even had dinner together. When you come back, we always stay home because you are exhausted and you just need to relax, but you never even ask me if I want to go out and you never suggest any fun things to do.”

Now, if we applied the formula on it, the argument would be reshaped like this:

“When you come back late from work (Observation/Situation), I feel irritated and resentful (Feelings) because I need connection, safety, and a shared reality with you (Needs). Would you be willing to go out with me for a dinner-date this Saturday night? (Request)

If Saturday does not work, you can come up with a day that does. Being in touch with your feelings and taking the time to express them to your partner can be liberating and relieving. Getting your needs met with the help of your significant other can be instrumental to your emotional and relational well-being, as those needs are the reason why we get involved in relationships in the first place.

If you experience difficulties with arguments and fights in your relationship, and want to learn a non-violent communication style call 215-922-5683 x 100 to schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Center for Growth.