When Compassionate Communication ISN'T Compassionate

Most things that you want to learn fully require transformation on multiple levels. Knowledge and understanding the concepts is not enough for true mastery. The same is true of Compassionate Communication (NVC). It can easily be misused by those with only a superficial understanding. Over the years I have read or heard people talk about how NVC is actually violent, manipulative, or otherwise flawed. Unfortunately what's usually happening there, is someone has simply learned enough to do what they have always done, but just with a new vocabulary. This is painful and confusing for everyone involved. You hear someone trying something new, but it isn't creating connection.

The purpose of NVC is to create a quality of connection which naturally inspires compassion. Everything about NVC exists only for this purpose. The hard work of NVC practice is noticing connection at ever more subtle levels. This means noticing what supports connection, what gets in the way, and what is exactly enough connection for a given relationship or context. This practice requires self-awareness and other awareness - mindfulness.

Unfortunately in a moment of pain, your reactive habit shows up quickly and wants you to attack, defend, or do whatever you have typically done to protect yourself. So you grab the vocabulary or structure of NVC, but not the awareness or valuing of connection. Here's a few ways that might look:

  • Sharing a list of four or more unmet needs with someone while looking at them with dagger eyes and refusing to make a request.
  • Sharing an experience using the NVC structure while demanding a certain response back from the other person.
  • Sharing a list of four or more feelings and refusing to hear the other person's feelings.
  • Negotiating needs and requests with reference to a relationship scorecard (tit for tat instead what truly meets needs).
  • Offering empathy guesses, but refusing to share from an equally vulnerable place.
  • Sharing using the NVC vocabulary and structure, but not valuing how your sharing lands for the other person, or sharing whether there is connection or not and whether the other person has agreed to the conversation or not.
  • Slipping interpretations into your speech without owning them as such.
  • Listening resentfully while attempting to offer empathy guesses.

In situations like those listed above, the most unfortunate thing that happens, is the person receiving reacts back. This counter reaction often involves correction, "You're not doing NVC right!" Sometimes the person comes away with a generalized judgment about how awful NVC is or how awful "NVC'ers" are. The only thing that NVC is really interested in is whether or not the experience supported a quality of connection that naturally inspires compassion.

Rather than offering correction or judgment, the hope is that you could say, "Wait, I am not connecting right now and I want to connect. Can we....?" Requests that support connection include:

  • Can we pause here so I can see if I am hearing you right? (say back what you've heard).
  • Can we just stick to this one event, even though there are other similar instances?
  • Would you be willing to tell me what you're wanting out of this conversation?
  • Can we pause, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves if we really want to connect right now?
  • I didn't connect to what you were saying. Would you be willing to say that again another way?
  • I notice I have the impulse to defend and justify. Can we come back to this after lunch when I have calmed down?
  • It sounds to me like you are wanting to prove how wrong and terrible I was and hearing you that way I am shutting down. Can you express a guess at any good intentions you think I might have had?

The common element of all these requests is that they prioritize connection. This means making connection more important than being heard first, problem solving, clarifying the details of the situation, figuring out who's right, who's to blame, or why they behaved in a certain way. While you want your airplane pilot to be focused more on the details of the situation than connection, most of the time prioritizing a particular quality of connection will contribute deeply to a compassionate, authentic, and fulfilling life.


For the coming week, once a day reflect on one interaction that was satisfying, that had just enough connection. Notice what you both did that supported that connection.


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