Some differences between NVC and NbC

Especially if you have studied NVC already, you might be curious about whether the term I use, ‘NbC’, is the same or different.

Firstly a caveat: there is no agreed definition of what counts as NVC and what doesn’t, and the original ideas of Marshall Rosenberg’s are selected and interpreted differently by different CNVC trainers, never mind the independent trainers. Then we all add on extra bits that we like, such as ‘the beauty of needs’ or the ‘dance floors’, or a focus on bodywork or mindfulness, and probably most of the bits that I have added to create what I call NbC are also in use somewhere in the world by other NVC trainers. So what I am comparing with here is basically the contents of Rosenberg’s best-selling book  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, which is the ‘Bible’ of NVCers world-wide, and with a particular focus on the ‘NVC model’ known as the 4 steps.

NbC is based on NVC
NbC is the same as NVC in that it’s founded on the brilliant insights of Marshall Rosenberg in crystallising, simplifying and making manageable something that generations of linguists, semiologists, philosophers and psychologists had failed to do. Seeing human needs as the ultimate drivers of behaviour, feelings as a guide to the needs, and judgmental thinking as the danger zone leading to disconnection is fundamental to both NVC and NbC.

And, early on in my training, I noticed that the NVC practitioners who really impressed me didn’t actually do ‘classical’ NVC at all. I don’t think Marshall Rosenberg did, either. What has been taught as NVC is often an idealized abstraction, like when someone hears a great jazz musician and tries to write down what he has played in terms of notes on the staves, inevitably missing the subtleties of slides and slurs and half-pauses and syncopation and flow which are what made the music great, and are in fact part of the ‘soul’ of the music. And maybe it’s a useful simplification – we have to start somewhere, after all – but then there can be problems unlearning some of the over-simplified structures later. So, as a facilitator of NbC, I try to get a bit closer both in my theoretical descriptions and my practical exercises to what I see actually happening in effective NVC processes.

As well as this, having studied many different systems and teachings around self-connection and self-development, I was familiar with other insights and procedures which I believe complement NVC and which I therefore wanted to introduce into NbC. Examples which are easily accessibly online or in printed form include The Work of Byron Katie, the Internal Family Systems of Richard Schwartz and the Four Agreements of Don Miguel Ruiz.

Connection is bigger than communication
Classical NVC focuses heavily on understanding the processes of dialogue between two people and on improving these in order to better meet everyone’s needs. It is explicitly language-based, as the title of Marshall Rosenberg’s bestselling book indicates, and it’s ideal for conflict resolution, mediation, and similar processes. And, it takes a lot of work to get our NVC to the level where it’s actually a practical tool for such real-life situations. Everybody who has been to a couple of introductory workshops wants to go back home and try this ‘new way of talking’ on their spouse or children or work colleagues, but not always with great results. Part of the problem is that many of us as beginning NVC students are more eager to use our new-found NVC skills to interpret – and if possible to change! –  the behaviour of our friends and acquaintances than we are ready or able to change our own habits (not to mention ‘getting’ that it’s not our job to change anyone else anyway!); another is that reliance on a formulaic approach and the belief that it’s just a matter of using the ‘right’ form of words gets in the way of actual connection with other people. Above all, we can neither express ourselves clearly nor receive others until we have looked closely at what is going on in ourselves. Thus, in my work I like to highlight connection over communication; contact before connection; and self-connection before everything else! Hence, Needs-based Connection (NbC).

Of course, Marshall himself knew all this long before I did, but still it is that verbal model for interpersonal communication which is emphasised by the ‘four components’ approach of OFNR. Because this is easy to teach, and because MR himself talks in ‘A Language of Life’ about ‘two parts’ to NVC without mentioning the role of self-connection, expressing and empathising often takes precedence over self-connection in introductory workshops and trainings. Many good trainers do offer a more tripartite model in their own presentations and hand-outs, and in my workshops and coaching I certainly try to constantly bring the focus back to self-connection at every opportunity. Sometimes this is disappointing for students who want to take some formulaic phrases home which they can try out on someone else the very same day!

Nobody really does OFNR ‘by the book’
Considering how the 4 steps model gets applied, I see that in practice it gets modified by NVC practitioners in each of the three ‘modes’ of NVC. When we express ourselves in NVC, we are essentially explaining ourselves, and the Request for help or support can drop away: “When x happened, I felt y because I needed z (so will you help me by doing w?)”(OFN(R)). In ‘self-empathy‘, we often review our experiences simply in terms of feelings and needs: “(When x happened) I felt y because I needed z” (OFN or just FN). Observations disappear and the ‘Request’ step becomes a ‘request to self’, if it is applied at all. Similarly, when we listen empathically to others, we are usually trying to connect with them and understand them better by using the model to get to their deeper experience below their actual words: “Are you feeling y because you’re needing z?” (F?N?). Observations and Requests are often not necessary or relevant here, either, unless to establish a starting and end point to the process.  Thus, already in practice the model is not so rigidly applied as it looks in the books and trainers’ manuals. In NbC, I simply choose whichever steps (or none) will bring the most connection in the actual situation. That may mean focusing on needs without mentioning feelings at all, or it may mean the opposite. Above all it means remaining curious about other people, rather than trying to put them into any box or category: always asking myself the question, “What is it like to be you?”.

A Request is a special case of an Action step
I have some particular issues with the Request step of the OFNR model. In the self-empathy mode, the idea of making a ‘request to self’ as a general principle seems rather contrived to me, and I notice that students often struggle with this when they first encounter it in a ‘dance floor’ process. It’s also rather common that NVC students who have finally connected with their needs in a given situation, and have proudly formulated a more-or-less doable request, fall into despair – or even rage – when that request is denied.  To me, the real point with the 4th step is to take some action which will move towards meeting the need(s) identified in the 3rd step of the process. That action could certainly include asking someone else for support, in which case a request made of another person is a perfectly appropriate form of action. It could include a ‘request to self’ in the sense of a reminder or intention to do something – but then it is the thing we will do which is important. So, the fourth step is fundamentally about doing something to improve our experience of life. If we are hungry we can ask someone to cook a meal for us, but more likely we will have a look in the fridge and see what we can cook ourselves. Therefore, in NbC self-expression mode I replace the ‘Request’ step with ‘Action’. This wider focus also makes it clear that we are responsible for meeting our own needs and are not dependent on any one person for help.
In the mode of listening empathically, it seems equally contrived to invent a ‘request’ which another person might make of us but has not actually made (unless s/he is another NVCer and speaks the same secret code!). The form of words recommended by Rosenberg and CNVC is “Would you like me to do x?”. This is transparently not actually a request at all, it’s simply a suggestion, an offer! So in this case, the Action step in the standard 4-step process is actually to make an offer of an action: I see that you fell over (O), I guess your knee is hurting (F) and you might like some support (N), so can I fetch you a bandage (A)?

Putting all this together as a spatial map, I offer a revised version of the communication process defined by Bridget Belgrave and Gina Lawrence and known as the “13-step NVC dance floor”: 13 steps in dialogue.

This page is getting long, but if you have energy for more, here are three more differences between NbC and NVC!