When someone asks you to give up three hours of your life to watch a video that is not even very well produced about something you think you probably know about already, what do you do?My instinct was, understandably, to refuse.

Three hours is a long time when you have songs to write, videos to film, Russian vocabulary to learn and a cricket themed whodunit novel to finish.

HOWEVER; one of the single most valuable changes of perspective I can remember came in that exact form; a three-hour Youtube video of a man in America using hand puppets to give a seminar to a crowd of people.

I was determined to hate the video and disagree with everything in it. The filming quality was fairly average and the man giving the seminar started off with a slightly awkward song on the guitar that set alarm bells ringing (for me at least). In the age of TED Talks, why should I waste my time on something as haphazard looking as this?

Also, the title sucks. Do not be put off or get any misconceptions from the title ‘non-violent communication’ … just ignore it and focus on the substance of what he says.

Marshall Rosenberg’s philosophy is as breathtakingly simple to frame as it is difficult to put consistently into practice. But the man knows what he is talking about – he worked in conflict resolution for several decades, running reconciliation sessions in seemingly hopeless contexts, where whole communities were torn apart by unimaginable conflict.

His philosophy is also brilliant and, if you can grasp it, it has real, practical applications that can have a profound impact on how you talk to and, more crucially, listen to other people.

How it works – a quick summary

The only thing that anyone is ever saying is either ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.

To be more specific, people are only saying one of:

‘I have a need for X; its non-fulfilment is making me feel Y; you can fulfil that need by doing Z’ (please).

OR

‘By doing Z, you have made me feel Y by fulfilling my need for X’ (thank you).An example of a ‘please’ is this:

I have a need for progress in my music career; its non-fulfilment at the moment is making me feel sad and disillusioned; you can fulfil that need by signing up to my newsletter here.

An example of a ‘thank you’ is this:

By leaving a comment below, you have made me feel happy by fulfilling my need for interaction with other humans.

Rosenberg describes this way of framing your communication as ‘Giraffe’ language (they are the land mammals with the largest hearts), and anything else – blame, criticism, threat, and other such negative expressions of need – as ‘Jackal’ language.

[I should say at this point: the framing of needs (X) – and distinguishing them from feelings (Y) – is a separate science in itself and extremely important in building emotional wellbeing; but it’s a lot to process at once so I’ll tackle it in a later article.]

Anya fulfilled my need for some homemade sushi rolls


The meaning of ‘Please’

I have drawn out some of the main elements in how we should frame our requests (i.e. say ‘please’).

1) There is no such thing as the right way of doing something, or the right amount of something, because no one person can judge that on his or her own.

To use an example, it is wrong to say ‘you talk too much’, or ‘you don’t listen enough’ because there is no correct standard, no correct amount of speaking or listening to measure that person again, only your need for a certain behaviour.

This should also drastically reduce the frequency and length of arguments, because you are both simply arguing about the position of a line that is in two simultaneous places.

2) The please statement should be specific – something definable that the person can do to fulfil your need.

Telling someone to ‘be less of a prick’ doesn’t really work. What does that mean? I’ve never really known – but any suggestions can go into the comments below. But be nice.

This in itself is a really useful exercise – we can sometimes feel a lot of anger towards a particular person, without really taking the trouble to define exactly what it is that they are doing / not doing. When we do, we might find that our anger is disproportionate – I mean, how angry can you really be at someone for leaving socks lying around all the time?

3) This request should constitute something objective, not a value judgment about that person – e.g. ‘you talk too much’ is simply your opinion about the level of talking they do.

I love this idea. The normative judgment – the person is doing something wrong – is dependent on that person actually doing something. If you don’t tell them what it is, and only tell them the ‘wrong judgment’ you are attributing from it, how does that help anyone?

A little exercise: think of someone who annoys you all the time, and try to state in objective terms one of the recurring behavioural habits that annoys you, but without any evaluation. It’s a lot harder than you think!

Can you see the difference between:

‘Ned is always spamming me to listen to his music’

vs

‘Ned writes to me on average once a week to ask if I listened to his new song, without asking me about myself’

In the first statement, ‘always’ and ‘spamming’ are both evaluations of Ned’s behaviour, not objective descriptions of what he’s doing.

4) This request should be a request, not a demand.

To threaten someone (e.g. ‘if you don’t do X then I’ll leave you’) is not a request because you’re not giving them the choice whether to fulfil it. In asking that person to fulfil your need, you have to recognise that it is your need and yours alone.

If someone does something against their wishes – either because they do it under threat or emotional blackmail – then it can only ever lead to bigger problems later down the line. If you can communicate your need to them in the right way, they will not only be willing to fulfil it, they will actually want to, because it will make them feel better too!

5) You cannot frame a need in terms of a specific person who you intend to fulfil that need – you merely have a preference that it be fulfilled by that person.

I mentioned in a previous piece that it takes a village to raise a child – we cannot expect one person to fulfil all of our needs. My partner should not be expected to be my best friend, lover, photographer, language coach, counsellor, travel companion, etc etc. Your needs attach to YOU, not the people around you.

If your need (e.g. a need for adventure and experiencing new things) cannot be fulfilled by a particular person (e.g. because they don’t want to), find another person who can fulfil it.

One of the amazing things about his philosophy is that not only can you translate what YOU SAY into Giraffe, to help people better empathise with your needs and understand why you ask for certain things, but you can also translate what someone SAYS TO YOU in Giraffe. Indeed this can be the most effective lesson from his talk – the ability to translate everything negative – the blame, the criticism, the threat, and so on – into an objective statement of that person’s needs not being fulfilled which is nothing to do with you, except insofar as they request something from you to help fulfil that need.


The meaning of ‘Thank You’

The other element, the ‘Thank You’, he tackles more briefly at the end. We are accustomed to saying ‘Thank You’ to one another without really unpacking what that means. Similarly, when we compliment each other’s work or behaviour, we rarely elaborate on why we’re doing so. According to Marshall, this is the correct way to formulate a ‘Thank You’:

‘When you did [insert specific action or behaviour] you made me feel [insert a feeling] that fulfilled my need for [insert fundamental need].’

This has some really tangible benefits – it’s always heartwarming when someone says they’d enjoyed a particular song or concert – but if someone says why they enjoyed it, it’s much more powerful, for two reasons:

1) I’m more likely to believe that they actually mean it. ‘Great song’ could just as well actually mean: ‘I didn’t listen to your song’; or: ‘I didn’t like your song but am too polite to say so’.

2) I can take something useful from it – e.g. if they liked the concert because they found the stage banter funny and informative (believe it or not, people have actually said that before…) then I can choose to develop that to enhance my concerts for the future.

These are the general principles he pulls together in his ‘Non-Violent Communication’ philosophy. It’s far more fun and interactive when he does it – I’d recommend watching the video and taking notes, it’s honestly life changing! He also wrote a great book about it if that’s your jam (I prefer books too, but love the narrative with the whole Youtube video…)

A final point for now: obviously if we all ONLY spoke in these formulaic terms, the world would be a dull place and we would all be robots. The key is how you listen to people – as I said above, if you can translate someone’s angry/complaining/passive aggressive comments into a statement of their needs, you can not only avoid taking on an unnecessary personal attack, but also empathise with their state of mind. Translating from ‘jackal’ into ‘giraffe’, therefore, benefits both people in the conversation.

Thanks for reading – as ever, please comment or ask questions below!