Review: Marshall B. Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication”

by Miles Raymer


I’ve had Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication recommended to me more than a few times, both by friends and strangers on the Internet. It never really appealed to me, but now that I’m gearing up to enter a caring profession I decided to give it a whirl. My experience was a mixed bag; some of Rosenberg’s ideas and methods seem useful, but I also found a lot to criticize.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of speaking that focuses on making observations, exploring and expressing feelings, explicitly attaching feelings to unmet needs, and making respectful requests for things that will help meet those needs. In Rosenberg’s own words:

Nonviolent Communication helps us connect with each other and ourselves in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish. It guides us to reframe the way we express ourselves and listen to others by focusing our consciousness in four areas: what we are observing, feeling, and needing, and what we are requesting to enrich our lives. NVC fosters deep listening, respect, and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. Some people use NVC to respond compassionately to themselves, some to create greater depth in their personal relationships, and still others to build effective relationships at work or in the political arena. Worldwide, NVC is used to mediate disputes and conflicts at all levels. (12)

Sounds great, right? And it is, to an extent. As a book, Nonviolent Communication is accessible and straightforward, with lots of dialogic examples that clearly demonstrate Rosenberg’s methods. It also has a helpful summary at the end of each chapter, and many chapters also contain simple exercises so the reader can check their comprehension.

In my view, the strongest element of NVC is how it focuses our attention on the basic needs that make us all human. “No matter what else is going on,” Rosenberg writes, “we all have the same needs. Needs are universal” (178). Rosenberg convincingly claims that many people are deficient when it comes to “needs literacy,” meaning we lack the educational foundation and linguistic toolkit with which to effectively understand, articulate, and ultimately satisfy our basic needs. As a result, we talk rarely and poorly about our needs, seek to meet them through oblique and ineffectual means, and often blame others when we feel dissatisfied. Bringing our needs to the forefront of difficult conversations, Rosenberg tells us, unlocks a new horizon of social possibilities:

When we express our needs indirectly through the use of evaluations, interpretations, and images, others are likely to hear criticism. And when people hear anything that sounds like criticism, they tend to invest their energy in self-defense or counterattack. If we wish for a compassionate response from others, it is self-defeating to express our needs by interpreting or diagnosing their behavior. Instead, the more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately…It has been my experience over and over again that from the moment people begin talking about what they need rather than what’s wrong with another, the possibility of finding ways to meet everybody’s needs is greatly increased. (53-4)

Although I don’t personally resonate with all of Rosenberg’s recommendations regarding how we should express our needs, I absolutely agree that thinking and talking more about needs will benefit most people most of the time. Additionally, NVC’s compassionate and empathy-based approach demonstrates the healing power we can tap into when we embrace and explore universal forms of cognition and shared experience.

This strain of positive humanism, appealing and well-intentioned as it may be, seems to have several notable flaws. Like many other interviewing techniques (including good ones), NVC overemphasizes the role of individuals in creating and controlling their own experience, downplaying the role of external influences and structural constraints. Rosenberg encourages people to take responsibility “for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions” (19). While I think this is a laudable goal, he sometimes takes it too far. For example:

The phrase makes one feel, as in “You make me feel guilty,” is another example of how language facilitates denial of personal responsibility for our own feelings and thoughts. (19, emphasis his)

The implication here is that no one can truly “make” anyone feel anything. But this is only a half-truth. Is it fair to say that we too often blame others for our internal negative experiences? I think so. But isn’t it also fair to say that some conduct makes it impossible for most people to not feel certain emotions? If I am serially abused, for example, is it inappropriate for me to state that my abuser “makes me feel unsafe”? If a coworker harasses me, should I refrain from telling HR that this person “made me feel uncomfortable”?

I think the answer to both of these questions is an obvious no. This is because human emotions are intersubjective phenomena––generated not just within, but between people. Each member of a certain social setting helps to make the experiences of others who share that setting better or worse in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and we need a way of talking about this reality that doesn’t place 100% of the responsibility for any given emotion solely on the person who happens to be feeling it. I wish Rosenberg had handled this subject with a bit more nuance, instead of repeatedly insisting that each individual is entirely responsible for their own feelings.

Another problem is that Rosenberg offers only one form of evidence for NVC’s efficacy: anecdote. The book is full of heartwarming stories about how NVC has helped people over the years, and I have no reason to doubt their veracity. I’m confident that the positive effects Rosenberg describes have been felt by many people over the decades he and others have been practicing NVC. However, the book presents no scholarly research on NVC’s measurable effects or the longevity of those effects, and fails to ask whether other methods might produce the same or better results. Perhaps solid research on this question has been done, but if so Rosenberg declines to share it. I don’t recall him citing a single academic study in the whole book, and the bibliography is merely three pages long. This should leave readers wondering: NVC may be a good practice, but compared to what? 

Rosenberg’s refusal to connect NVC to the wealth of psychological research that’s been done over the past century may have been intentional, but if so it’s hard to see how it makes NVC more and not less legitimate. For example, as mentioned above, Rosenberg spends a lot of time discussing the importance of universal human needs, but not once does he reference Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While we shouldn’t treat Maslow as the ultimate arbiter of what’s important when we think about needs, his ideas played a big role in the development of modern psychology, and for good reason. Rosenberg’s lack of engagement with Maslow situates his work more in the “self help” camp and less in the “serious psychology” camp, at least in my opinion.

Finally, I have doubts that all of the speech patterns recommended in Nonviolent Communication are actually as “nonviolent” as Rosenberg claims. These doubts are entirely theoretical––not based on personal experience or research. In some of the examples, Rosenberg comes off as weirdly domineering, insisting that his interlocutor talk about their feelings and needs in the precise way he thinks they ought to. Here’s an example:

Participant: Marshall, you’re brilliant!
Rosenberg: I’m not able to get as much out of your appreciation as I would like.
ParticipantWhy, what do you mean?
Rosenberg: In my lifetime I’ve been called a multitude of names, yet I can’t recall seriously learning anything by being told what I am. I’d like to learn from your appreciation and enjoy it, but I would need more information.
ParticipantLike what?
Rosenberg: First, I’d like to know what I said or did that made life more wonderful for you.
ParticipantWell, you’re so intelligent.
Rosenberg: I’m afraid you’ve just given me another judgment that still leaves me wondering what I did that made life more wonderful for you.
Participant: (thinks for a while, then points to notes she had taken during the workshop) Look at these two places. It was these two things you said.
Rosenberg: Ah, so it’s my saying those two things that you appreciate.
Participant: Yes.
Rosenberg: Next, I’d like to know how you feel in conjunction to my having said those two things.
Participant: Hopeful and relieved.
Rosenberg: And now I’d like to know what needs of yours were fulfilled by my saying those two things.
Participant: I have this eighteen-year-old son whom I haven’t been able to communicate with. I’d been desperately searching for some direction that might help me to relate with him in a more loving manner, and those two things you said provide the direction I was looking for. (211)

Now, I’d like to state upfront that this is by far the most cringeworthy exchange in the book––a bit of an outlier. I’ll also admit that Rosenberg did help the participant articulate her praise in a way that embellished her original comment, and that also revealed something interesting about how she planed to use NVC moving forward. He says that this allowed him to “celebrate the appreciation with her,” and he also provides an example of how the compliment would have sounded in NVC (212). But, all that aside, I think it would be rather painful to have a conversation with someone who communicated this way. Rosenberg’s failure to accept a simple compliment––coupled with an obnoxious interrogation that reeks of fishing for additional compliments––really rubbed me the wrong way. When used in this fashion, NVC seems more like a way of controlling how people express themselves, rather than a tool for helping them discover their own authentic modes of self-expression. I’m not sure if this represents a common problem in the NVC process, but at the very least I think it reveals a potential pitfall.

Despite my ambivalent assessment, I’m glad to have read Nonviolent Communication. As I explore the world of interviewing techniques and start learning to use them in practice, it’s entirely possible I’ll discover that one or more of my critiques is unfounded.

Rating: 4/10