Practicing Nonviolent Communication in Software Development


Matt Erhart and Shane Delamore

Matt Erhart is a Senior Software Engineer and resident empathy expert at GenUI. Shane Delamore, Head of Technology, is our nonviolent communication guru.

Updated May 6, 2020

In a company founded on collaboration like GenUI, relationships with clients, coworkers, and leadership require empathetic listening and honest expression. But we are human, and avoiding hurt, harm or confusion in communication is challenging. 

How do we then communicate more honestly and empathetically? Matt and Shane recently led a discussion on improving communication by surfacing and expressing needs.


NVC's Foundations

Psychologist, conflict negotiator, and author Marshall Rosenberg developed Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in the 1960s as a framework for improving connection. 

In his book "Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life," Rosenberg writes that "If 'violent' means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate could indeed be called 'violent' communication." The ability to observe and understand our needs, along with the needs of others, is essential in "nonviolent" communication. 

NVC's foundations form a theory of mind starting with the questions: "How does my mind work?" and, "How does someone else’s mind work?" 

    1. Needs
      The first step is identifying and acknowledging needs. All needs are related to the goals that we try to achieve to feel satisfied. And our needs are universal.

    2. Emotions
      Feelings make up our automatic feedback system. They are the determiners of our needs being satisfied, or they motivate us to find that satisfaction. In NVC, all emotions are valid.

    3. Actions
      Every action we take is an attempt to meet a need. Conflict is the product of the strategy used to get a need met and not of the emotion or need itself. 

Communication that mitigates conflict lets us work together more efficiently. Business culture author and Microsoft veteran Scott Berkun writes about the impact of emotions on software teams in his book The Art of Project Management”.  He says, "a leader in a crisis situation has better odds of success if she can see emotional patterns and make use of different ways to manage them." 

Being more aware of our own emotions lets us respond constructively to those of others. NVC helps identify and rewrite many of our need-emotion-action patterns. 


Self Awareness

GenUI structures one-on-one sessions based on empathy and that give time to team members to achieve self-awareness. It's a pivotal aspect to build into any company's processes. Some research can lead you to a self-awareness practice that works for you. Practice your adopted approach weekly.

For engineers, self-awareness through NVC can be a win-win because it's analytical, and we like having logical structures. Analysis and logic help because understanding our needs and emotions is difficult, and understanding the needs of others can sometimes seem nearly impossible. 

But that's where empathy comes in. 


The Power of Empathy

Rosenberg defines empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Primarily, it's about quality attention. The goal is to fully understand another person's feelings and needs and to make it clear to them that you understand.

In order to achieve this, we must start by examining our judgments that might block our ability to empathize. Judging another's actions is a quick way to exclude the possibility of understanding. This is because your internal judge dictates that the only way someone's action could've been correct is if it was the specific action you believe should've been taken. 

Self-empathy is also essential here. Giving the same level of empathy to ourselves that we want to provide others asks that you forgive yourself.


Effective Communication

All conversation is ultimately about getting needs met. To do that most effectively, we must try to understand the other person's as well as our own needs. 

We follow three steps for effective communication:

  1. Build Understanding
  2. Form an Effective Strategy 
  3. Take Action

We build understanding by checking in with ourselves to figure out our emotions and needs. Once you have that concrete understanding, you can collaborate on building a strategy that is joyful and where nobody has to sacrifice their needs. Then you take action. The beauty here is that needs are not expensive to fulfill. Yet they can be tricky to figure out.

When entering a hard conversation, listening with empathy is a powerful way to disarm it. Here's how this works: you listen to the other party. Let them talk until they stop talking. Then you ask the best question you can think of to keep them going until you can't get them to talk anymore. 

Finally, you wait until the pause gets awkward before replying, "I'd like to share what's going on with me." 

Now it's your turn. 


The NVC Process 

The traditional four-part NVC process of expression and receiving without blame or criticism works like this:

    1. Observations
      What I observe that affects my well being: "When I see or hear [free from my evaluations ] "
    2. Feelings
      How I feel concerning what I observe: "I feel [an emotion or sensation rather than a thought] ..."
    3. Needs 
      What I need or value that causes my feelings: "... because I need/value [rather than a preference or specific action] "
    4. Requests
      The concrete actions I would like taken (that would enrich my life without demanding them): "Would you be willing to … ?"

The best part about this process is that you also use it to express gratitude in a powerful way. When you want to express heart-felt gratitude, just share the action they did, your emotional response, and, finally,  the specific need that their action fulfilled.

To learn more, read Rosenberg's book or watch videos of NVC practiced online. If you take nothing else from this piece, try to accept that all needs and emotions are valid. There are no "good" or "bad" emotions. They are just there to help us understand ourselves.