Language that shapes compassionate communication


Have you ever wondered at times why you said what you said? It happened to me a couple of days back: I said something cheeky to my mother during a normal conversation in the evening and her facial reaction revealed ‘mild hurt’, but she quickly recovered and moved on! ‘Mild’ is my interpretation. I felt a bit remorseful at that moment but could not figure out why I chose those words! On another occasion, one of my colleagues politely made an open request during an office meeting and I reacted within a split second with my opinion on the subject. I expressed why we should not accommodate the request and offered logical alternatives to get the same result. I was one of many in the room and we all have a great working relationship – yet I felt awful for having reacted so sharply! There was a little bit of discussion on my colleague’s request, but the conversation ended quickly, and the meeting moved on.

I have recognized such patterns in my behaviour in the past and the solution in my mind usually was about the need for me to pause before I respond. I really could not decode my choice of language or figure how to express my feelings. I then read the book ‘Nonviolent communication (NVC)’ by Dr Marshall B Rosenberg. I realised I could get more insight into not just my choice of words but also the language of others.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

I have always believed that all souls who come into this world are ‘good by nature’ but somewhere along the way they develop layers that are anti-patterns to that good nature. These anti-patterns lead to people hurting each other emotionally, rift in families, social intolerances, riots, and wars. Root causes for these anti-patterns could be upbringing, social structures, and individual’s worldly experience. Question in my mind: Given the way people (including myself) are, how can I improve my language that will result in better life experience for all?

I believe NVC provides answers that with practice could change my language for the better. Dr Rosenberg’s quest in his own words is: “What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.” He defines Nonviolent Communication (or Compassionate Communication) as a way of communicating that leads us to give from the heart – the way humans were meant to relate to one another.

NVC Components

Any communication has two parts: Expressing and Receiving. According to NVC there are four components to the language whether you are expressing or receiving.

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Requests

Let us try to understand these components based on an example of ‘not so compassionate behaviour of mine’!

Expressing honestly

I was leading a functional unit and I noticed that one of my Technical Leads recently was spending awful amount time (so I believed) on the mobile phone – in meeting rooms, office cafeteria, stairwells, etc.  I let it go for a few days and one day confronted him with a question “Why are you spending so much time on the phone? Not much to do?” in half jest. I could make out from his expression that he was shocked and did not respond immediately. He disconnected the call, apologized, and walked back his desk.

Let us analyse my language in the above interaction through the lens of NYC components. Firstly, my observation was laced with judgment! Dr Rosenberg says, “when observation is combined with evaluation people are apt to hear criticism” and then people are less likely to receive our intended message. I could have simply said, “It appears that you are having long calls on your mobile,” seeking clarification.

Let us analyse my feelings and needs behind the message. I was feeling a little bid mad and let down at the same time – ‘how could my Tech Lead behave this way? He should be setting the right example for the team.’ Tech Lead’s action may have triggered the feelings in me but is not the cause. It is important that I take responsibility for my feelings and identify the unmet need could have triggered such a feeling in me. In this case, need for ‘support’ from my Tech Leads to achieve my goals may have triggered feelings of being mad or let-down. Dr Rosenberg postulates that “Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.” If I had expressed my need for ‘support from Tech Leads’, I would have had a better chance of getting that need met. Let us see how could have done that: “It appears that you are having long calls on your mobile. I am disappointed because I need your support in setting the right example for your team”. All this may not be said in one sentence – it could be the elements of a conversation.

Let us now give some thought to the last component – ‘request’. Dr Rosenberg says, “Making requests in clear, positive, concrete action language reveals what we really want”. You may sometimes want the listeners to reflect it back just to make sure that they got it right. Here is the key to making requests: is the other person hearing a request or a demand? If they hear a demand, they would either submit or rebel. They will know when we are requesting and not demanding, when it is clear to them that compliance to the request is a choice. In my example above, Tech Lead has the choice not to comply with my request for a reason that he/she is convinced about without compromising my need.

Dr Rosenberg articulates the objective of NVC clearly: “it is not to change people and their behaviour in order to get our way; it is to establish relationships based on honesty and empathy that will eventually fulfil everyone’s needs.”

Receiving Empathically

In NVC, no matter what words people use, we listen for the four components: their observations, their feelings, their needs, and their request. Dr Rosenberg defines empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. When we listen to feelings and needs, we see people as people just like us.

If you are unsure, paraphrasing is an effective way to verify your understanding of the four components. If the speaker has received adequate empathy, you can sense it by the release of tension or when the flow of words comes to a stop.

There is a lot more to the role of empathy for others and self in NVC. For example, I learnt that empathy for self is needed for giving empathy to others! I would highly recommend reading the book “Nonviolent Communication’ by Dr Marshall B. Rosenberg.


In conclusion, the four components of NVC are not intended to be a formula. The essence of NVC is in our consciousness of the four components and not in the actual words that are exchanged. Mindfulness practices can really help lift your self-awareness and empathy leading to higher levels of consciousness and in turn result in connection with greater compassion.

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

What to read next