How to improve communication

“Good communication” is the most common answer I get when I ask people what makes for a healthy relationship. Yet I wonder how truly skillful we are about it. Sometimes in a workshop I will throw out an argumentative statement and ask someone to respond back or I will describe a provocative scenario and ask someone to relay the news back to me. Most of the time people in the workshops get tongue-tied. Often they relate that at home and in other situations they bottle things up rather than talk about them openly, repeat themselves or get louder when others don’t “get them” or become frustrated and respond with anger. So we realize the importance of good communication but don’t necessarily know how to practice it.

I wanted to find a technique that was simple and practical yet was applicable to a broad range of experiences (relationships, parenting, career, etc.). Non-violent Communication (NVC), also called Compassionate Communication, best matched my criteria. NVC is a process developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who worked with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and has extensive background in mediation and conflict resolution. It is a way of speaking and listening that makes it most likely that both parties will get their needs met. There are four steps to the process:

Observation – “What is happening?”

Feeling – “What am I feeling?”

Needs – “What needs are being met or not being met in relation to this situation?”

Requests – Stating clearly what you want in a way that is not a demand.

Because speaking is only half of the communication process, you listen non-judgmentally to the other person identifying the same four steps of observation, feelings, needs, and requests.

I have been using these techniques both personally and discussing them in support groups. Some interesting insights have been gained. Observation, stating what is happening, is complicated by judgmental thinking. A very simple task is made needlessly challenging by editorializing or putting “spin” on a situation. This results in the other person feeling under attack and often results in a “fight or flight” response. The intent of communication is to connect and work together, but judgement results in the opposite effect.

I work with a lot of men, so identifying feelings and needs has been a learning curve. Being in touch with our emotions wasn’t really on our radar growing up. Expressing needs didn’t seem very self-sufficient. One guy thought of a pretty good incentive for introspection, though: “How can somebody meet your needs if you don’t even know what they are?”

I have also been impressed with how the NVC process changes our perspective. I role-played an intentionally touchy conversation with a group recently: “I can’t believe you would be so insensitive to show up late for dinner. The whole night is ruined.” Well, some of the guys responded with some words and phrases that can’t be printed in the Times Observer. The discussion that followed expressed that an argument, yelling, or physical violence would follow. I then instructed them to do the scenario again but before responding asked them to think through the NVC process. What followed were compassionate responses: You’re frustrated because you put a lot of time into dinner and I didn’t call to tell you I’d be late…You’re disappointed because you wanted to spend some time together…I apologize for being late and will call you if I’m ever held up at work, etc. I asked them what changed between the two roleplays. A guy put it best when he said, “The first way I was thinking about my girlfriend as an obstacle. The second way got me thinking about her three-dimensionally as a human being.” Isn’t that what we really want out of our communication-to know and be known?

How different our homes, schools, workplaces, and country would be if we really listened to each other with empathy and responded with compassion. We would discover we are a lot more alike than different and a lot more solutions to problems would be found as a result. If you would like to learn more about this process of communication, there are some excellent resources available:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (book) by Marshall Rosenberg.

Living Nonviolent Communication (book) by Marshall Rosenberg.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication (website) at

How to Practice Nonviolent Communication (website)

Ian Eastman, M.A. promotes the wellbeing of our community at Family Services of Warren County. The Kwik Fill Kinzua Classic Bike Race is Aug. 10. Register at and benefit the work of Family Services.