Non-Violent Communication and its Relevance for Codependents
Reviewed by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
Codependent Interpersonal Functioning versus Healthy Interpersonal Functioning:
Even though I had heard about non-violent communication (NVC) for a long time, it
was only recently that I actually picked up Dr. Marshall Rosenberg's book. I thought I was fairly
knowledgeable about clear communication but he showed me a whole new world. Besides its obvious
value for anybody in relationships (that's all of us, whether in a primary relationship or not),
while I was reading I kept thinking about the particular challenges codependents face when
As codependents we often have difficulty identifying feelings and, even if we can, knowing the
needs behind our feelings. And, we have learned to cope with interpersonal stress by excessively
focusing on the people around us. Non-violent communication addresses all these areas: 1.
observe what's happening (outside of ourselves), 2. notice our feelings (inside of
ourselves), 3. discover the need behind the feelings (inside), and 4. make a request
(inside to outside). Dr. Rosenberg explains each of these areas in depth in several separate
Evaluations, Whether Good or Bad, Have No Place in Non-Violent Communication:
In the chapter on observation he emphasizes that observing does not equal evaluating. Each
time we evaluate someone's behavior we also judge it. By determining in our minds that the
behavior is bad, we put that person in a box. He is absolutely rigorous on this point. Even
though it is natural to want to condemn a war criminal, a murderer or a rapist, Dr. Rosenberg's
point is that we cannot fight evil with another evil. When he is talking about non-violent
communication, he makes it absolute.
He gives many examples of milder and therefore very common evaluations we each make daily. Here is
one of his many helpful examples: a mother observes her son studying only the night before an exam
(that's the observation, the fact). She thinks of her son as procrastinating (that's the
evaluation or judgment). The challenge of NVC is to just stick to the facts we see without
interpreting them even when we have seen a behavior a thousand times and we think we are right in
our evaluation of it.
The surprise for me was that Dr. Rosenberg even includes positive evaluations as potentially
destructive. His point here, I think, is that when we evaluate in one direction we automatically
evaluate in the other direction also. The goal is to love or respect another simply for being
human without any strings attached.
Feelings are Sensations Arising From Our Needs Being Met or Not:
The next chapter is on feelings and how to appropriately express them. He not only includes in
this chapter examples of the more obvious mistakes we all make at times, such as "I feel that
you......", "I feel I am always the one......", or "I feel she is......" (which are all statements
about our thinking), but also passive feeling words that we use in phrases such as "I feel
abandoned" or "I feel betrayed". These latter ones still interpret what others are doing to us
rather than how we feel about what we observe.
Luckily Dr. Rosenberg includes two and a half pages of pure feeling words. One page contains
feelings we have when our needs are being met, the other page and a half feelings we have
when our needs are not being met.
Moving From Reactivity to Responsibility:
In the next chapter, Dr. Rosenberg focuses on the fact that we are all responsible for our own
feelings. Someone else's negative actions can only be a stimulus, never the cause, for our
feelings. This is an important difference. When someone acts negatively, one person might feel
frightened, the next angry, another sad, and yet another might feel indifferent. Therefore, the
negative action had either no effect or was a different stimulus for each person. Acknowledging
the difference between stimulus and cause, let's us take full responsibility for our particular
He describes four basic ways of responding to someone's negative action: 1. blaming ourselves ("I
should or shouldn't have......"), 2. blaming the other ("You should or shouldn't have......"), 3.
discovering our feelings and our needs in relation to the negative action, and 4. finding out the
other person's feelings and needs behind their negative action. Again Dr. Rosenberg helps us with
many helpful examples. His point is that it is far easier for us to respond to someone
compassionately when we are able to discover our own feelings and underlying needs. And,
conversely, it is easier for others to have compassion with us when they simply hear our feelings
and needs without us blaming ourselves and blaming them. He writes: "..., from the moment people
begin talking about what they need rather than what's wrong with one another, the possibility of
finding ways to meet everybody's needs is greatly increased".
In this same chapter on taking responsibility for our feelings, he also writes about "emotional
slavery", a term that is dear to every codependent's heart. "Emotional slavery" is the sense of
being responsible for other people's feelings and needs, and feeling fear or guilt about paying
attention to our own feelings and needs. He identifies stages of liberation from this kind of
slavery; however, he basically states that the only way we will gain our freedom is by being
willing to be honest with ourselves.
How To Make Requests:
Once we have taking responsibility for our unique internal response and have figured out what we
actually need, we often face the task of making a request, which is covered in the next chapter.
Dr. Rosenberg emphasizes here that it is very important to couch our request in positive language.
Rather than telling someone what we don't want them to do, we ask them to do something. Next, it
is very important to be as precise as possible about what we are actually requesting. When we ask
our partner to be more loving toward us, they might scratch their heads and wonder what to do. We
have to describe concrete actions that others can do. Thus, we might say to our partner "would you
please stroke my face gently" and even demonstrate what we mean by this.
Important here, according to Dr. Rosenberg, is that when we make a request without first
telling the other how we feel and what our need is, they might hear it as a demand and are less
likely to follow through. Similarly important may also be that we make sure the other has actually
understood what we are asking for. Dr. Rosenberg here spends time on teaching the skill of active
listening, a very important tool in effective communication.
Lastly, in this chapter, he deals with non-compliance. He states that it is very important not to
take someone's refusal to give us what we ask for as rejection. Instead, he writes: "If we are
prepared to show an empathic understanding of what prevents someone from doing as we asked, then
by my definition, we have made a request, not a demand." And further down he writes: "When others
trust that our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship, and that we expect
this process to fulfill everyone's needs, then they can trust that our requests are true
requests and not camouflaged demands."
Progress Not Perfection:
The remainder of the book deals with how we can be more empathic with others, how to be
compassionate with ourselves, how to express anger effectively, the protective use of force (yes,
he does allow for it in order to protect life and justice), self-care and the importance of
appreciating others (and how to do it).
Each chapter has a series of sample communications at the end in which to test one's understanding
and his responses to those samples. Overall, NVC seems on first encounter a highly stylized way
of talking, but the principles behind it are very, very valuable. Also, to step completely into
this type of communication is just about impossible. Dr. Rosenberg himself gives ample examples
of failing to follow through with what he knows. However, the objective is to aim in the direction
of being as self-aware, as non-judgmental and as clear about what we want as possible. As they say
in 12-Step programs: progress not perfection!