Try the language of the giraffe: nonviolent communication

The atmosphere at work is not always good. Competition, different attitudes or bad manners challenge people’s patience and make them suffer. Conflicts arise. How can we strengthen relationships instead of disconnecting and ignoring the needs of others? How to move from misunderstanding and blame to satisfying relationships? Marshall Rosenberg's process of nonviolent communication shows how to communicate respectfully and helps to find solutions before situations escalate. 

Nonviolent communication – an easy model for conflict-solving

Marshall Rosenberg developed the nonviolent communication (NVC) process in the 1960s. Rosenberg believed that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from unclear communication of their needs. When people use language that provokes fear, shame or guilt in a conflict situation, the other person’s attention is diverted. “Violent” language prevents people from seeing their feelings, needs and requests clearly. The conflict intensifies because that “violent part” causes counter-violence.

Language of the giraffe – language of the jackal

NVC uses two animals as symbols. The giraffe is the land animal with the biggest heart and stands for compassionate communication. The second animal is the jackal, representing competition. Jackal language is about judging, criticising, analysing, moralising and accusing. When we feel unfairly treated, accused or when we want to impose our wishes, we tend to use the language of the jackal. Jackal language is separating. Giraffe language is unifying.

4 steps to successfully applying NVC

1. Observe what is happening and describe the situation without judgement:

I see ... / I hear ... / the situation is ...  

2. Identify / express your feelings:

Then I feel ...

3. Find the need behind your feeling:

My need is ... / because I would like ... / I desire ... / I need ...

4. Formulate a clear, positive, doable request:

Please will you ... / are you willing to do this ...?   

How the process works

Step 1:
Most of our descriptions contain judgements. So you have to separate the observed behaviour from your judgement and reframe the judgement into a pure observation:

Jackal: “He is so rude.”
Giraffe: “When I said “hello”, he looked in another direction.”

Jackal: “Sarah is not at all able to manage her team.”
Giraffe: “Sarah has explained the new strategy and has been interrupted several times by Tom and Laureen.”

Step 2:
According to Rosenberg, feelings show us whether or not our needs have been fulfilled. I feel relaxed telling a colleague that I was able to finish my presentation on time (this is fulfilling my need for safety). If he is listening and shares my joy, he is responding to my need for comprehension. People often think that it is unprofessional to show feelings in business. Especially for managers, such an openness can be seen as weakness or poor leadership. However, when searching for conflict solutions, it is evident that people become much more connected if they dare to explain their real feelings.

Feelings when our needs are met:
Inspired, balanced, free, enthusiastic, relaxed, calm, peaceful, lively, affectionate, etc.

Feelings when our needs are not met:
Frustrated, discouraged, tired, angry, worried, tense, unhappy, depressed, inhibited, insecure, etc.

Step 3:
Rosenberg identifies human needs as safety, understanding, respect, warmth, autonomy, etc. When needs are expressed indirectly through assessments and behavioural diagnoses, people are likely to hear criticism and behave defensively or start talking back.

Manager: Could we meet at 5 p.m. to see how to deal with the complaint made by …?
Employee: I planned to leave at 5 p.m. I have been working late for weeks.
Manager (Giraffe): How are you feeling?
Employee (Giraffe): I still feel OK, but my family also needs me.
Manager (Jackal): We’ve all been working very hard. This is an urgent case and can’t wait.
Employee (Jackal): It’s always urgent. A better schedule would help all of us to be more efficient.

Identification of needs is crucial because it leads to specific remedies. Employees who describe their team leader as dominant may have different unmet needs. One may be looking for appraisal while the other may want autonomy.

Step 4:
Don’t mix a request with a demand. Requests mean that you are open to accepting “no” as a response:

Are you willing to help me out? Could you please prepare the figures for the next sales report?

If you make a request and receive a “no”, you do not have to give up. Instead, you should empathise with what is preventing the other person from saying “yes”. Consider this before deciding how to continue the conversation.

Improve workplace morale with NVC

By practising NVC, managers and employees can gain effective communication skills to resolve conflicts, enhance cooperation and improve the working atmosphere. People learn to clarify what they are observing, what they are feeling and what they want to ask of themselves and others. They will feel the pleasure of improving one another’s well-being.

NVC tips:
- Avoid static language (good/bad, normal/not normal, correct/incorrect).
  Go for dynamic language, be open to changing the situation!
- Don’t compare!
- Avoid subtle judgement words like should, ought and must.
- Avoid judgements, such as he’s dishonest, lazy, arrogant, etc.
- Avoid judgement words which are used to exaggerate, such as always, never, ever, whenever, often, frequently and seldom.
- Always speak kindly, firmly and clearly. 

Krauthammer uses Rosenberg’s insights and NVC principles in their programmes, training courses and facilitation sessions. NVC goes beyond the obvious feedback techniques and supports individuals and teams by helping them to express their needs in a more effective and positive way and avoid victimisation and patronisation.

Rosenberg, M.B. (2007). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 2003

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