NonViolent Communication: processes of conflictualisation

(From here on I will replace NonViolent Communication by NVC)

The School of Empathy
5 min readApr 16, 2021

I have never experienced more conflict than since I started learning NVC.

It’s not that there are more conflicts in my life. It’s that I deal with conflicts that occur. I do not stand beside them or avoid them. I go into them with my heart and soul and lots of fear. I was always afraid of conflict and still am. I am afraid of losing someone, I am afraid of not being heard, I am afraid of not being able to make myself clear, I am afraid of consequences, I am afraid that nothing will change anyway, I am afraid that something will change, I am afraid of being judged by others and myself,….

NonViolent Communication is not necessarily comfortable

A persistent misconception around NVC is the idea that if you master it, conflict will no longer be a part of life. I have to disappoint people who think that: conflict is part of our existence. Conflict is part of life. If there is movement there is friction, that is our condition as we evolve through time and space.

Dominic Barter in an interview talks about installing “fight rooms” or “dedicated rooms for conflict”: spaces made for living through conflicts. Not by fighting each other, but by going through a process that transforms conflict. Dominic Barter continues: “You don’t install a kitchen every time you want to eat something. You don’t install a bathroom every time you want to wash. You don’t install a bedroom every time you want to sleep. But a space to discuss our differences, we don’t have that”. Dominic Barter has come up with restorative circles for this purpose and uses NVC in these spaces.

Learning Non Violent Communication is a process

Phase 1

As with all processes, we go through different phases. Everyone explores in her own way. One phase may be that people suddenly stop standing up for themselves. Why does that happen? Chances are that the enthousiasme of the promise of another world carries us away in thinking that we “must’’ listen empathically. That when we want peace in the world we do not feel anger, and certainly not rage, anymore. Or we may think: if I listen empathically, at some point the other person will see that she’s wrong. Or we assume that by listening empathically, the other person will also make space for us.

Or we are afraid to change the dynamics of the relationship. For example: I no longer want to play the role that I have played in the relationship up to now, which can be enormously frightening for the other person and for yourself at the same time. Everything starts to move and you don’t know where this will end, perhaps in a breakup. You are entering unknown territory, so to speak, and that can make one anxious. Then you might accept that knot in your stomach and the lump in your throat when you go on vacation again where your partner wants to go and you don´t or your friend pours her heart out for hours without asking how you are doing.

We react from the dominance space: we assume that the other is wrong or right or already have an idea about the outcome of the conversation and stick to what should be or give up from the beginning.

Phase 2

Another phase is that suddenly you stand up for yourself and lose sight of the other person. You’ve learned that you don’t necessarily have to fulfill the needs of others, that your needs are just as important as those of others and that everyone “must’’ take ownership for her feelings and needs. You learn to say “no”, forgetting that even if you say the “no” in NVC language, the other person may fall into a black hole. I heard people say “that’s her problem considering everyone is responsible for their own feelings.” Then we forget to care for the whole. Even though in NVC we take ownership for our feelings and needs, thoughts and actions, it does not mean that we are outside the constant back and forth that goes on between everything that is alive. Our existence is interdependent from the system as a whole. We are not isolated entities. We are connected.

Another persistent misunderstanding around Non Violent Communication is that if you speak that language, the other person will immediately go along with whatever you say and certainly won’t be disappointed or sad or angry, since it was expressed so beautifully in a connecting and non-violent way. Non Violent Communication is no guarantee that everyone will like you. We learn to accept the other person’s disappointment. But after a “no,” we don’t let the other person tumble into a black hole. In NVC, we stand up for our needs AND are interested in the other person’s needs. For that we have connection requests: “how is that for you to hear?”.

The other person might be pissed. When we come from the NVC space, we can listen to that empathically as well. We are present. We are alert to what is happening each moment. We know that the next thing I put in the WE space will shape this space. We are aware that we can make choices: do I listen from the dominance space or the Non Violent Communication space?

The process of conflicting

Phase 3

I am equally interested in your needs as in mine. Systemic Awareness.

In our society we are taught that conflict is an individual problem.

Either it is the other person who has a problem and we think: ”really, he should attend some more mindfulness courses and therapy” in order to be less unbearable.

Or we turn on ourselves and think that we should be different ourselves and better do a few more years of meditation or a dozen more Non Violent Communication workshops before we tell anyone what’s going on inside of us.

Or we go to war and try to change the other person… preferably in a “peaceful” way, that’s what we took all those NVC classes for, right? We forget that trying to change the other is on its own a form of violence.

We are still in the dominance space. In the dominance space, we don’t see that everything is connected and we try to solve systemic problems individually.

In the NVC space, we see our interdependence. I sometimes ask in an introduction, “who do you think is most important between you and me?”. The answer is the AND, WE, that which exists between us. That place we create together.

That’s what we do in NVC: we very consciously put something in that space between us with the intention of connection.

We are persistent about our needs and flexible with the strategies. We make choices based on awareness of our needs. We travel a path together to nurture and define our relationship. We move thoughtfully. Last but not least, we stick our necks out. And that’s not always comfortable.



The School of Empathy

Annick Nölle is an artist and gives workshops in Non Violent Communication.