The Grassroots Journal


by Stuart Watson
and Miki Kashtan

"If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies."

I recently added this quote from Moshe Dayan to my list of inspiring and hopeful sentiments, and simultaneously was reminded of a familiar sense of frustration from wanting more practical tools within the realm of peace work. In other words, where's the How? How do we respond with both compassion and clarity, strength, and honesty to the violent actions and words of governments and other small and large institutions?

Many of us know the why, from intuitive, physical, and intellectual understandings of peace, community, interdependence, love, and humanity . . . yet, the question of how often challenges us. This is a frequent criticism of peacemaking efforts; we've all heard/read comments such as "if not war, what do you propose - you are not giving another solution" (translation: violence is the only way I currently know of to solve a conflict), or the expressed convictions that the lack of a swift, vengeful and violent response to certain stimuli shows weakness, and invites future harmful actions against us.

This question of how also concerns me in regards to the way that we go about social change. For example, some peacemaking efforts and actions that operate within the current paradigms might, in subtle ways, reinforce the culture of violence in which we were indoctrinated.

"Our experience has taught us that real safety and peace can be achieved, despite enormous odds, only when people are able to see the 'humanity' of those who attack them. This requires something far more difficult than turning the other cheek; it requires empathizing with the fears, hurt, rage and unmet human needs that are behind the attacks" says Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication (see Dr. Rosenberg has traveled the world sharing Nonviolent Communication (NVC), contributing to a shift in consciousness from violence, alienation and oppression to a new paradigm of interconnectedness.

Rosenberg shows us how through demonstrating the Gandhi quote, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." The question of how is central to our personal lives; how do we react with compassion to:

  • People in our lives that say and do things that we don't like, or don't understand.
  • Ourselves, when we do something that might indicate we are less than perfect.

The NVC process is the same whether the situation is an international or a domestic dispute, and they are being used in schools, businesses, and institutional as well as therapeutic settings all over the world.

Stuart Watson is the coordinator of the Portland Area Network for Compassionate Communication

Editor's Note: NVC uses the contrasting models of the giraffe (whose heart is the largest of any land animal) and the jackal to vividly demonstrate how communication can move beyond blame and judgement to compassion and connection. Jackal language, although it can get us in touch with our unmet needs, is a habitual language of evaluative blaming, anger, guilt inducing criticism and demands. Fear based, it loses power by separation. On the other hand, giraffe language empathetically hears both our own and the other's feelings and needs and then empowers through requests and respectful connection. NVC uses the four steps of the following basic components in this process:

The Components of the
Nonviolent Communication Process

by Miki Kashtan
  1. Observations. Observations are expressions of what it is in the outside world which serves as stimulus to our reactions. The key skill to learn is how to separate out evaluations and concentrate only on exactly what it is that we are observing. It's as if we have a video camera with us, and we report what it can see. A video camera cannot see "assholes," but it can see someone walking faster than me and getting to the front of the line ahead of me; it cannot see "people acting unfairly," but it can see someone who's hired 20 men and 2 women in the last two years. A video camera cannot even see someone being angry, although it can see someone who is raising their voice when talking, or someone who doesn't respond when talked to.

    We want to stay away from evaluations and focus on observations for at least two reasons. First, because they are easier to hear. To prove this to yourself, imagine yourself hearing the messages above before and after the translation, and check how you feel. Second, because they make concrete what it is that we are trying to get across to another person, and enable them to understand us.

  2. Feelings. Most of us in the industrialized world are often at a loss when we attempt to name our emotions, and we easily confuse them with thoughts, judgments and even observations. We often confuse feelings, more than anything, with perceptions and interpretations. Although many of us have heard about making "I statements," those often don't go far enough in enabling communication. A statement such as "I feel abandoned" sounds like an "I statement," but in effect it contains a disguised statement about someone other than me. When hearing it, the other person is likely to feel defensive, guilty or angry. What we want to convey is what we are actually feeling, the real emotion, which is always completely our own.

    Identifying and articulating feelings is one more step towards achieving the quality of connection the NVC enables. Feelings are that much easier to hear than judgments and hidden accusations. And connecting with what we are actually feeling creates more openness and vulnerability in the dialogue, thereby enabling more connection.

  3. Needs (and values). As inarticulate as we usually are about feelings, we tend to be even more inarticulate about needs. We are trained to not know what our needs are. We are often overwhelmed by them, without even knowing it. In the context of NVC, needs refer to what is most alive in us: our core values, our basic human wants, and our deepest longings. Whether or not our needs are met is the direct cause of our feelings. Understanding and naming our needs helps us, too, to improve our relationship with ourselves and find better ways to get our needs met.

    Often, when we first try to express our needs, we are actually expressing our images of what we imagine will get our needs met. For example, we are likely to say "I need you to pay attention to me", when in fact what we need is to be valued and understood, and we imagine that getting attention from this person right now is what will meet that need. Needs are not about a specific object or person, they are about what's alive in us. Identifying them is a process of connecting with ourselves and others more deeply. Because our needs are strikingly similar, it becomes easier to connect when we get in touch with this level of our experience.

  4. Requests. Once we have identified what it is in the world that stimulates our reactions, and what our feelings and needs are, the last component of NVC is the communication of a request: what is it that we would like to have happen, and who would we like it from. This is where we connect back with taking action in the world outside us. When we learn to separate our requests from our needs, we loosen the tightness in us, and are less likely to express demands instead of requests.

    We are so used to focusing on all the ways that our needs aren't being met, that often it becomes difficult to identify what it is that we really want in the moment of communication. It becomes challenging especially to find something that is really concrete, specific, and doable. Thus, for example, "I want you to understand me" is not a doable request, while "I would like you to tell me what you heard me say" is; "I want you to respect my wishes" is not, while "I would like to hear from you what gets triggered in you when you hear me express my wishes" is. Because practicing NVC entails prioritizing connection above other needs, we learn over time to concentrate on requests that enhance the quality of connection in the moment rather than requests that are about future behavior.

II. The Process of Empathy
The process of empathy as practiced in NVC is quite different from reflecting to the other person the content of what they said to us. Valuable as that is, it is even more valuable when we try to reach for what feelings and needs are giving rise to that content. This can also help us from being caught up in images of attach, accusation, or criticism that may be in the other person's communication to us. If we can guess what the feelings and needs might be for the other person, focus on what they want, and away from what they may not be liking about what we're doing, then we are likely to connect with them more fully, as well as helping them learn about themselves in the process.

The content of what the other person is saying then serves as information, as an entry point into what their needs may be. For example, if someone says to us: "I can't believe you did this after everything we've been through. Why couldn't you check with me first before making plans with Janet?", we can empathize with them by saying: "Are you really frustrated and hurt because it's really important to you to be part of decision-making?"

It is not about getting it right. It is about trying. We can be completely off in our guess and still send across the message of connection. Also, in times of conflict, it is a gift to ourselves to try to empathize with the other person, because we are then going to be more able to re-connect with them. It isn't something we are doing as a favor to the other person. It is rather a way of restoring their humanity in our own perception, and thus a way of giving ourselves back a piece of ourselves. ?

The Components portion of this article was printed in Communities Magazine, Sept 1999.

Miki Kashtan is a certified trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and coordinator for NVC and Social Change. She conducts public workshops and retreats . Contact, or 510-649-7744.

For information about NVC in Oregon, visit the Oregon Network for Compassionate Communication at Or call (503) 450-9909, E-mail:, for Eugene: