October 14, 2014
Giving feedback using Nonviolent Communication
One of the topics we return to time and again on the ReQtest blog is how to improve team communication at work and foster a peaceful and collaborative atmosphere in the office.
I believe that even people working in a hi-tech industry like software development and testing can benefit tremendously from learning techniques that make them better communicators and, ultimately, better colleagues to work with.
Why bother learning these techniques?
A lot of people still think that testers’ work is particularly lonely and doesn’t involve a lot of interaction with others. That couldn’t be further from the truth! We often find ourselves bridging the gap between users and programmers, as well as discussing requirements with product owners.
It is for this reason that I decided to write this brief primer on Nonviolent Communication: to help IT professionals who have to navigate the treacherous currents of other people’s characters and attitudes to pass their message across clearly and resolve conflict with hostile co-workers and clients.
Nonviolent Communication (commonly abbreviated to NVC) is a communication process that was developed in the 1960s with the aim of presenting the world with an easy-to-learn technique for defusing tense situations and nurturing a way of communicating with others that is non-confrontational and fact-based.
The creator of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, based his method on three core values: self-empathy (a deep understanding of one’s feelings and needs), empathy (a sense of resonance with other people’s feelings and needs), honest self-expression (expressing the previous two values in an authentic way).
These three values are manifested in the four-level process used in NVC, which consist of: i) observations, ii) feelings, iii) needs, and iv) requests.
Why does NVC work?
NVC is based on the idea that people resort to ‘violent’ modes of communication when they don’t know how to use effective strategies for meeting the needs of all parties. Violence in this case refers to communication induces fear, guilt and shame in the other person, instead of working with them to find a beneficial solution that satisfies everyone.
As such, NVC is focuses on the problem and the means to resolve it, rather than encouraging pointless power-plays (try to say that three times!) between people and thus prolonging conflict. NVC has been successfully applied to different situation, including educational, healthcare and organisational and business settings.
The four components of NVC
I’m going to explain each component of NVC by first defining the rules that govern each component and then providing two examples showing how you can use the technique at work or at home.
RULE: State factual observations about the situation that is affecting you.
Observations are based on empirical facts, things you can identify with your five senses without adding personal judgements or evaluations.
Using the technique at work:
For example, ‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday’ is an observation, whereas ‘Jim you forgot to hand in your work in time’ carries an assumption about the person’s action. The latter statement is open to disagreement and an invitation for troublemongers to stir up conflict.
Using the technique at home:
Here’s the NVC technique in a parent-teenage scenario. We’ll called our hypothetical teenager Sarah; she tends to be a bit careless sometimes… You know how they are at that age.
‘Sarah, I noticed you left the towel on the bathroom floor this morning.’
RULE: State the feeling that the observation is triggering in you OR Guess what the other person is feeling, and ask.
Feelings represent the emotional and physical response to any unmet needs that the observation made previously triggered. Feeling are not moral judgements.
In Jim’s case, you could continue by saying:
‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday. (Observation) I feel disappointed. (Feeling)’
‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday. (Observation) Are you reluctant to discuss this with me? (Feeling)’
Back to Sarah.
‘Sarah, I noticed you left the towel on the bathroom floor this morning. (Observation) That bothers me. (Feeling)‘
RULE: State the need that is the cause of that feeling OR Guess the need that caused the feeling in the other person, and ask.
In the context of NVC, needs refer to common human experiences that are required for a fulfilled life. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously classified human needs in five categories: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and actualisation needs.
To continue with Jim’s scenario:
‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday. (Observation) I feel disappointed (Feeling) because I trusted you to complete it in time. (Need)’
‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday. (Observation) Are you reluctant to discuss this with me (Feeling) because you don’t think I can understand your reasons for being late? (Need)’
In Sarah’s case:
‘Sarah, I noticed you left the towel on the bathroom floor this morning. (Observation) That bothers me (Feeling) because I have to waste precious time picking your stuff. (Need)‘
RULE: Make a concrete request for action to meet the need just identified.
In order to meet our needs, we can make requests for cooperation with others by identifying and expressing a specific action that will serve this purpose, and then check with others involved about their willingness to participate in meeting our needs in this way.
‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday. (Observation) I feel disappointed (Feeling) because I trusted you to complete it in time. (Need) How about you come over to the office and we talk it over? (Request)’
‘Jim, it’s Tuesday and your work was due yesterday. (Observation) Are you reluctant to discuss this with me (Feeling) because you don’t think I can understand your reasons for being late? (Need) How about you come over to the office and we talk it over? (Request)’
‘Sarah, I noticed you left the towel on the bathroom floor this morning. (Observation) That bothers me (Feeling) because I have to waste precious time picking your stuff. (Need) Therefore I would like you to take care of your own towels in the future. (Request).
NVC has many proponents who laud its noble intentions and swear on its effectiveness in resolving conflicts, connecting with others and promoting honest communication. For fairness’ sake, however, I believe I should also point out a couple of arguments from critics.
Every person’s character is different and it is too simplistic to assume that one formula can successfully help you negotiate with everyone. If a person is furious it’s better to listen them out instead of using NVC straight away, which would only upset them further.
NVC can also come across as a bit mechanical to someone unfamiliar with it, especially if you’re not yet fluent in it at a colloquial level. Formal NVC (like that used in our examples) is better used with someone who can better appreciate your efforts at reaching out with them in this way.
Have you ever used NVC at the workplace? Did you find it effective? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.