NVC Concepts

People who practice nonviolent communication share a common set of concepts, definitions, processes and mnemonics.


Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need. — Dr. Marshall Rosenberg


I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. — Dr. Brene Brown


Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.

In nonviolent communication, no matter what words others may use to express themselves, we simply listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Then we may wish to reflect back, paraphrasing what we have understood. We stay with empathy, allowing others the opportunity to fully express themselves before we turn our attention to solutions or requests for relief.

— Dr. Marshall Rosenberg


In NVC we try to separate feelings from thoughts. Feelings are what we experience, and thoughts are judgments or evaluations we have about the experience.

If someone says they feel “abandoned”, they might feel lonely, afraid, worried, or similar. I can experience being lonely by myself, but to be abandoned requires blaming another person.

We sometimes confuse thoughts with feelings in our daily language. We say, “I feel like…,” followed by a thought full of judgment but no feelings. In most cases, we can replace “I feel like” with “I think” without changing the intended meaning.

Feeling list



Needs are universal, while strategies for meeting those needs vary from person to person.

We might disagree about what to eat for lunch, but we can agree we all need food. We create conflict when we focus on the strategy and create connection when we focus on the need.

Need list


Observation vs. evaluation

We can avoid or deescalate conflict by remaining observational.

Observations are statements of fact, excluding judgment. Precise observations can create connection, while evaluation can create conflict.

Which would you prefer to hear?

You’re always late!


We agreed to meet at 5 PM, and you arrived at 5:15 PM.

Observations rarely contain the words “always” or “never.”

Requests vs. demands

The main difference between a request and a demand is that the other person is free to say “No” to a request. In contrast, a demand carries some penalty unless they comply.

A request must also be specific, present moment, positive, and doable.

Other conversational responses

When we hear criticism or when someone tells us something uncomfortable to hear, we sometimes respond with what we call “other conversational responses.”

We call them “other” because the goal in NVC is to be in empathy, and we find that these types of responses limit empathy rather than promote it.

The reptile brain: Fight / flight / freeze

The limbic system is the part of the brain that processes emotion and the behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction, and fight / flight / freeze. It is one of the first parts of the brain to evolve as animals developed complex nervous systems, and is found in fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

Limbic system

The hypothalamus triggers a fight or flight response when we perceive a threat. The thalamus sends a signal directly to the amygdala before it gets processed by the cortex. The amygdala processes emotions, and the cortex processes thoughts.

The amygdala processes the stimulus as fear before our cortex even has time to think about why. This is why we experience a sense of fear before we even have time to think about why.

While fear is an uncomfortable feeling, it serves an essential purpose in protecting us because it gives us the chance to take action to eliminate the danger. Fear keeps us safe by moving us into fight, flight or freeze. Our body produces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, preparing us to fight or run.

In addition to harming emotional health, the stress of being chronically in a state of fight / flight / freeze can cause systemic illnesses.

Reacting vs responding

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

— Viktor E. Frankl, a neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor

Through repeated mindful practice with other NVC practitioners, we increase that space between the trigger and the reaction.

Taking feelings and needs guesses

One of the most powerful tools in NVC is the idea of taking guesses about feelings and needs.

Are you feeling [insert feeling] because you need [insert need]?

It’s okay to get it wrong.

Each time we guess we’re giving the other person a chance to check in with themselves and see if it feels right.

If they say, “No, that isn’t it!” we guess again and keep going with the goal of being progressively less-wrong.

Giraffe language vs jackal language

Marshall Rosenberg teaches NVC using the metaphors of “giraffe” and “jackal” language.

The giraffe’s large heart and clear view represent empathy and connect us. The jackal’s competitive nature represents judgment and disconnects us.

The giraffe takes guesses about feelings and needs and makes requests. The jackal uses other conversational responses and makes demands.

Dyad practice

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.

— Archilochus

Empathy dyad practice is a way to improve how we experience and navigate conflict. We develop the ability to stay present in conflict by practicing empathy with others in a controlled format.


Reflection is when we tell someone what we heard them say. Sometimes it might be a summary or rephrasing to ensure we understood them correctly.

But what if we don’t understand or agree with what they said? In this case, we repeat what they said exactly, to the best of our ability.

Is it okay if I tell you what I heard? I want to make sure I understood you correctly.

Reflection ensures the other person feels heard, even if we disagree, and helps build clarity in the conversation.


A method for expressing ourselves that is more likely to get us heard in the way we want.

  1. Observation - describe the situation in factual terms that both parties can agree to.
  2. Feelings - identify the feelings related to the situation.
  3. Needs - identify the needs that are connected to those feelings.
  4. Request - make an action or connecting request


A mnemonic for the core components of giving empathy to another person:

  • Presence - paying direct attention to the person, ignoring distractions, making eye contact if possible.
  • Understanding - using reflection (repeating what they said, possibly paraphrased) to demonstrate that we understand what they are saying.
  • Needs - taking guesses about what needs are or are not being met for the person.


A mnemonic meaning either:

Why Am I Talking?

It’s hard to stay in empathy with another person when we’re triggered. Sometimes it’s best to W.A.I.T. until we’ve had a chance to calm down and process the experience.

What Am I Thinking?

Once we realize that we’re “jackaling-out” or “jackaling-in,” it’s time to examine those thoughts and reframe them into observations, feelings, and needs.

It’s okay to “jackal-out” in private, or with someone we trust, as long as we’re mindful that we’re doing it with the intent to examine what comes up.