Non-Violent Communication, parts 3 & 4: Empathy and Asking for What We Want

This is the final part of Ian Peatey’s guest post on non-violent communication. I apologize for the irregular posting, as my cumulative bio final was yesterday and many things got put on hold while I studied. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and will consider applying it to how you communicate. If you missed them, please check out part 1 and part 2 in the series!

Empathy and asking for what we want. Image credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service


Empathy is a fashionable concept at the moment and I celebrate this. Learning to listen with empathy is, I believe, the most important step towards a more peaceful and sustainable world.

Applying the NVC approach to empathy means listening to what someone is expressing beyond the words they use. Most people have been educated to express mainly their judgements and analysis. So being able to hear their unexpressed feelings and needs is a great gift to them – it’s reaching out to what is really alive in them and not only staying in the relatively narrow realm of the mind. If their judgements are directed towards me then empathy is also an essential act of self-protection!

Quick Exercise

Guess the reaction you might get if you did say what you wrote down in part 2 above.

  • What would they say to you
  • What might they be feeling?
  • What needs of theirs might be at play?

The reaction I might get to the litter situation could be, “Who the f*** are you telling me what to do. Mind your own business, asshole!”

My guess, which I might verbalise if I thought it would help: They’re feeling irritated and need freedom and autonomy. They might also be feeling embarrassed as they didn’t meet their need for care and consideration of others when they dropped the trash.

Jennifer: I think my neighbors would be likely to react this way. They would probably be embarrassed and angry to be approached about something like recycling. They might need to be able to finish chores quickly to get back to taking care of their families.

Asking for What we Want

If I view people as basically generous and compassionate and if I’m equally interested in getting my needs and your needs met, then asking for what I want ought to be straightforward.

NVC suggest treating a request as a suggestion about what current action would meet my needs. If my suggestion also works for you and then we’re good to go! If not, it’s the start of a dialogue where we can get clearer about both our needs and come up with a solution together.

Contrast this with some of these common approaches we learned as children:

  • Punishment (“clean your room or no TV for a week”/ “Come home now or I’ll leave you here on your own”)
  • Reward (“Get good grades and I’ll buy you a new ball/iPad/bicycle/keg of beer”)
  • Denial of choice (“You must do your share of the chores … so you have to wash the dishes!”)
  • Exclusion from the rest of society (“Nobody talks to their parents like that”)
  • Emotional blackmail (“If you tell me the truth I won’t get mad”/”If you lie to me I won’t love you as much”)

All these methods rely on fear of some kind to get children to act. And children grow into adults who learn either to use fear themselves or continue to act out of fear.

The NVC way might take a little time, and for me it’s a small price to pay for reducing the amount of fear we bring into our lives.

Quick Exercise

Continuing the example from the previous sections. What do you want to hear or see right now that would meet your needs?

Ideally I would like this person to never throw litter again and join me on a crusade to convince everyone they know to keep trash off the streets. Somehow I guess I might be wanting more than they are ready to commit to right now.

More realistically I might ask: “Would you agree to throw your next piece of trash in one of these bins?” and I’d also go over and pick up the litter they dropped and throw it away.

Going off on a bit of a tangent – I can’t remember actually meeting a litter-dropper, so I tend to do a lot of picking up of other peoples’ trash. It’s not ideal as I would love to have a dialogue with them – human to human – and see where it led, but I’m not prepared to loiter around the park, pouncing on people as they discard their rubbish.

Picking up other peoples’ litter might sound like a dumb thing to do – but I’ve tried complaining, feeling resentful and disgusted or hoping for some wave of awareness to come over the neighbourhood. None of those things made me feel good so cleaning up myself is a the best choice I’ve found.

You know what, I was in the park the other day and I saw someone else doing exactly the same thing, which brought a smile to my face.

Jennifer: I’ll think about asking for what I want the next time I meet a non-recycler at the trash bins. Maybe offering to help them sort their trash or addressing why they don’t recycle could open up a conversation. And until then…sigh, I guess I’ll keep fishing recyclables out of the trash.

About the Author

Ian Peatey is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) living in Romania where he runs and writes for NVC World and does a bit of business training. Together with his wife, he runs the Romanian Association for NVC delivering workshops and training courses aimed at supporting parents and couples as well as organisations involved with children. His main contributions to the environment are refusing to eat meat, walking a lot (and not owning a car) and buying local, natural foods wherever possible. On the other hand he does have 3 kids but he’s not willing to give any of them up.

He can be contacted here.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Great image of the pervy litter-loiterer. I’m sure there’s a pill you can take for that.
    Living in a mountain village in Romania, rubbish and recycling has a very different set of issues than rubbish in the city. It’s so beautiful here, and so unspoilt, that it’s shocking to see discarded grunge. Most people here don’t have much money, so they reuse everything they can to save a bit of cash. But if it doesn’t have value for them, it’s junked. One solution may be to get into the habit of turning junk into saleable stuff or art of some kind. The second Everest of water bottles discarded in the Himalayas is being turned into fleece garments; in the UK there are various artists who specialise in turning junk into art and fashion; and so on. It’s crude to think that money will solve all ills, but if the litter louts could see a benefit to themselves in terms of cash, maybe that would begin to change their outlook.


  2. The other big difference between country and city living (at least in Romania) is the amount of rubbish. I’m often horrified at the amount of packaging I throw away. This is in sharp contrast to when I’m in more rural parts fo the country where food is fresher and packaging hardly needed.


  3. Posted by Dora on 05/27/2014 at 02:31


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  4. Not bad at all fellas and galsla. Thanks.


  5. Fin lyskæde! Jeg gÃ¥r ogsÃ¥ allerede lidt og tænker pÃ¥ ideer til forÃ¥rspynt 🙂 Men dagen i dag er nu virkelig smuk – himlen er sÃ¥ blÃ¥ sÃ¥ blÃ¥!Dit nye enkle logo er i øvrigt rigtig fint synes jeg, og hyggeligt med sneen 🙂


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