The principles of Non-Violent Communication

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The Power of Empathy

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of Nonviolent Communication, claims that the greatest gift one can give another person is empathy. As practiced by students of Nonviolent Communication, the act of empathy involves listening to a speaker with attention to the latter's feelings and needs. In the service of connecting with the speaker, the listener may even make periodic guesses about the speaker's feelings and needs.

When I started using Nonviolent Communication techniques of empathic listening in my work as a psychiatric nurse, I saw shifts I welcomed in my clients' moods. Specifically, I noticed clients experiencing a sense of relief, as they reported a sense of having been heard and understood, with a consequent reduction in the level of anxiety I initially observed.  As a result, I believe that practicing empathy, as defined by Nonviolent Communication, is a powerful tool for working with psychiatric care clients. As an example of how I have used this tool, I would like to share my experience with a patient at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Hospital, in Toronto to whom I will refer to here as Mary.

When I first met Mary she had just returned from a weekend pass and was in a lot of distress. She said that while spending time outside the hospital she had been getting messages from inanimate objects, such as billboards and street signs. I empathized with her as follows,  "Are you feeling confused and wanting to know what is real and what is not?"  She said, "Yes." When she then spoke about hearing voices telling her to kill herself, I empathized again: "Are you feeling very scared and wanting to know that you are safe?" She acknowledged that my guesses were accurate. Only then did I offer her medication. Later she sought me out to thank me for having understood her at the time of our conversation.

Over a year later Mary returned to the hospital with symptoms of psychosis. One evening she refused to take medication from her regular nurse. When I approached her about taking the same medication, however, she was open to me and agreed to take the pills. She remembered me as someone who had helped her at the time of her earlier admission.

On a third occasion, Mary experienced severe distress from hallucinating. She reported seeing Christian crosses on the ground and stepping on them.  I made the following empathic guess, "Are you feeling upset because you want to show respect for Jesus Christ?" Mary said, "Yes," and then explained that she felt endangered because the devil was telling her, directly, that she was "evil." Once again, I empathized with her experience, guessing which feelings and needs were alive in her at that moment, "Are you feeling upset because you want to be seen for whom you really are, namely, a good person who loves God?" Mary confirmed that my guess was correct.

For another ten minutes she continued sharing her experiences with me and I remained focused on understanding those experiences by guessing which needs of hers were not being met in that moment. "Do you want more hope? . . . Reassurance? . . . Safety? . . . Peace of mind?"

When my words accurately described her experience, Mary said, "This is really helpful. I remember you helped me the last time I got upset.  Thank you!"  I was surprised and touched that even while she was extremely agitated, Mary recalled having had a conversation with me during an earlier hospitalization which had been helpful to her.  I was happy that she had experienced my empathic interactions with her to be contributing to her well-being.

My experiences with Mary showed me the powerfully calming effects of empathic listening, as practiced by students of Nonviolent Communication.  Although, as a psychiatric nurse I cannot always offer clients resolutions to their problems, I believe that I now have a tool for reducing clients' anxiety by showing them that they matter through listening with an intention to understand their experience.

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Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, "You owe me." Look what happens; with a love like that, it lights up the whole sky.



You can practice deep listening in order to relieve the suffering in us, and in the other person. That kind of listening is described as compassionate listening. You listen only for the purpose of relieving suffering in the other person.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Present Moment (audio tape), Part 5.