Healthy, productive communication is crucial to keep any relationship strong. Dr. John Gottman, the renowned psychologist and relationship researcher, determined that there are four kinds of communication habits that are the most destructive and biggest predictors of relationship demise. Dr. Gottman referred to those four traits as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and they are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Based on the “Four Horsemen,” Dr. Gottman and his research team can predict the probability of a divorce with over 90% accuracy within 15 minutes of observing the communications patterns of a couple during conflicts.

Conflicts, in any kind of relationship, are inevitable, normal, and even necessary. Having conflict is not the problem, but rather dealing with those conflicts is the key to defining the quality of the relationship. Each disagreement can be seen as an opportunity for couples to either achieve deeper connections or the possibility to tear their relationship apart. When conflicts happen, please ask yourself, do you want to argue for a win or want to connect and be heard? If you choose to connect, then we need to practice expressing our thoughts and needs with healthier communications skills. 

One of my favourite models of communication for solving personal conflicts is Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). The objective of NVC is to have a sincere and frank conversation while paying attention with empathy and handling potential disputes with respect and thoughtfulness. The basis of Nonviolent Communication is being ready to recognize and proceed towards matters in a non-judgemental way.

Following four fundamental steps can help us to master the art of NVC. The steps are Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests, from the book, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Let’s examine each one individually. 

Observations: Making observations is the act of describing factual information about what happened without judgments or interpretations. For example, instead of saying “He is a bad player,” you can say, “He did not make any goals in the past two games.” Or instead of saying, “You are so sloppy,” a person can say, “You did not change your clothes for three days.” Without emotional or judgmental words, the listener will most likely understand the detail being illustrated.

Feelings: Express your emotions not your thoughts. For example, instead of saying, “I feel misunderstood,” which includes an interpretation of behaviour, one could simply say, “I feel frustrated.” The key is to focus on words that describe our inner emotions. Sentences starting with, “I feel like,” or “I feel that,” usually end with describing our thoughts or interpretations of another person’s feelings or actions.

Needs: Negative feelings are caused by unfulfilled needs. State your needs rather than the other person’s actions as the cause. The key is to connect our inner values and focus on words that describe shared human experiences. For example, one can say, “I feel annoyed because I need more support,” rather than, “I feel annoyed because you don’t do the laundry.” 

Requests: Ask clearly in positive action language. The request must be doable and specific. The key is to focus on what we want instead of what we don’t want. For example, instead of saying, “Please don’t invade my privacy,” one could say, “Would you knock on my door before coming in?”

Here is another example of a wife using NVC to express her concerns. 

“This is the third weekend in a row that you worked during the weekend (OBSERVATION). I feel sad because we don’t have the chance to spend some time together (FEELINGS). It is important for me to feel connected with you (NEEDS). Would you please come home earlier and we can have dinner together (REQUESTS)?”

Nonviolent Communication is a process for us to understand and take responsibility for our own feelings, needs, and inner experiences before communicating with others. It begins with observing the situation, recognizing our feelings, followed by connecting with our needs, and finally proposing the request specifically. Hopefully, the listener will empathize with us, fostering understanding and creating a connection that leads to meeting everyone’s needs. Learning NVC is similar to learning a new language. With practice, a person can speak fluently in Nonviolent Communication in no time. 

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

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