About six years ago I volunteered with a Restorative Justice group in Boulder, CO. We met once a month to learn Non-Violent Communication (also known as compassionate communication) and mediation skills, and sometimes we would be called in to co-facilitate or act as a community member in restorative justice sessions.

At the time I didn’t exactly understand what “non-violent communication” meant. I liked the mediation skills I was learning in the group. We were taught to use active listening and repeat back what we heard in a descriptive (read: nonjudgmental manner) so people felt truly listened to. In my training at that time I didn’t progress to the next steps in NVC, clarifying needs and requests.

So what is Non-Violent Communication? It’s a method of communication that comes from a place of compassion for all beings and an acknowledgment that our actions are strategies to meet our human needs (which we sometimes do effectively, and sometimes don’t.) The methods of NVC are designed to help people more clearly express what their needs are in a way that can resonate with others. Communicating using NVC methods often uses this model: 1) Observation 2) Feeling 3) Clarifying Needs 4) Making a Request.

To borrow an example from Marshall Rosenberg’s seminal book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, a mom frustrated with her teenage son’s mess could say: “I see that there are clothes on the floor in our living room. I feel frustrated when I see this because I have a need for a clean and tranquil space. Do you think you could pick up your clothes and keep them in your hamper?” To be fair, the teenage son may not respond positively anyways. But there’s probably a much greater chance of empathy and understanding the needs between them then starting off with a screaming match.

One of the most amazing things I have realized as I’ve been engaging with these ideas is what can come out of our mouth after the words “I feel…” We use that phrase to describe all kinds of sensations, thoughts, and judgments, but it’s not often what we’re feeling. How many times have I said something like “I feel like that’s a good movie,” or “I feel like that’s probably a bad choice,” etc. Those aren’t feelings. They are judgments or thoughts. In contexts like these, “I feel” would better be replaced by “I think.”

This is where I realize that I’m very much so learning alongside the kids I work with right now. I have been using NVC methods with the preschoolers, especially as conflicts arise, which is at the very least ten times a day. I asked one of the boys to empathize with me, asking him how I might feel when he ran away and didn’t respond to my calls for him to come back. He looked up to me, and said, “Upset?” He was right, and he chose the word that I have most often been identifying in myself when I try to clarify my feelings when my needs are not met.

Lately when I pause to consider what it is that I am “feeling” in a situation if it is negative, so often the only words that come to my mind are upset, frustrated, irritated. Shouldn’t there be more words? Shouldn’t I know how to describe my feelings more aptly, or do all the negative ones fit under those three? Just like the preschoolers, I am learning to expand my vocabulary, this time in a way that is more direct with what I am feeling in response to my needs not being met. (There is a helpful “feelings” inventory list through the NVC website, and a needs list as well.)

In the heat of conflict or just in general, is it easy for you to actually pinpoint what you’re feeling, and why? Have you come across ideas of compassionate communication/non-violent communication before, and have you used them in your life? What methods of communication work well for you?