When Honest Expression Loses its Way

One of the most empowering aspects of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is discovering that you have needs and learning how to make requests regarding them. Unfortunately, a new found enthusiasm to say what is true for you can sometimes overshadow the purpose of NVC. When the purpose of NVC is lost, your "Honest Expression" can slide into a platform for expressing judgments and reactivity.

The purpose of NVC is to create a quality of connection in which there is a natural giving from the heart. To cultivate this quality of connection both you and the other person are working to be mindful of speech and intention as you express and listen. Much to our benefit the very structure of NVC requires mindfulness. Separating a neutral observation from your own interpretations and possibly reactive thoughts and projections is a very refined skill and is very difficult to do when reactivity has taken over.

This step of articulating a neutral observation gives you a simple way to check in with yourself about whether your honest expression is likely to create connection or not. If you cannot or will not articulate a specific neutral observation and specific doable request along with your feelings and needs, there's a high probability that reactivity has taken over and your expression will not contribute to connection with yourself or others. This is, perhaps, most obvious in the case of giving another person feedback in which the observation and request are essential for making your feedback a contribution rather than simply a complaint or list of judgments.

When you are expressing from reactivity, there is typically a painful impact on others. Your expression is not meeting needs for safety, consideration, and kindness. Expressing an unmet need doesn't require a warm fuzzy tone of voice, but if the intention is to connect, then consideration for the other person is a natural part of that expression.

Thus, if the other person opts not to continue a conversation when you cannot or will not name a neutral observation, this is a call for mindfulness and and a return to the intention to connect. Ideally, the other person can call for a pause in the conversation from a place of caring about the connection. Of course, sometimes reactivity spreads and they may have moved into a protective state, and so their request may sound like NVC policing to you. With any call to return to the structure of NVC there is, hopefully, clear honest expression, perhaps something like: "When I hear you say that, I feel disconnected and I want to connect. It would help me connect if you could offer a neutral observation. Would you be willing?" OR "I want to hear you, but I feel disconnected. I am willing to try again after dinner."

If you cannot find a neutral observation or specific doable request, then it's important to make use of other resources before beginning a dialogue. For example, you might spend time journaling, receive empathy from a friend, or do something fun to help you shift out of reactivity.

Of course, even when you have become centered and can offer a specific neutral observation, a feeling, a need, and specific doable request it doesn't mean the other person won't become reactive. You can't control another's reaction. You can only do your best to speak skillfully with the intention to create a quality of connection that inspires giving from the heart.


In the coming week, watch for a time in which you want to speak in generalities about a situation or another person. Ask yourself to find one moment in that situation or with that person that bothered you or that you are celebrating, as the case may be, and articulate a specific neutral observation.


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