Nonviolent Communication in Our Families

By Kathy Neufeld Dunn, Western District Conference, Associate Conference Minister

Communication—it’s vital, and it’s such a challenge these days! Whether it’s with our children, grandchildren, Sunday school students, or other family members, communication is so important, and it takes practice.

Too often I assume I’m communicating with another person, when what I’m really doing is stating my own point and then, while the other person is talking, preparing my next point in my head. If my conversation partner is doing the same, we aren’t really communicating. Communication takes true listening. We need to become more comfortable with silence and a slower pace.

The next, deeper step in true nonviolent communication is identifying our own feelings and needs. It’s hard enough to listen to another; are we even listening to ourselves? We need to work hard to recognize why we are angry, disappointed, scared, or sad and know how to express these feelings to someone else in a way that will not lead to defensiveness. While challenging to do, it is also important to model this for the children in our life.

We don’t always take time to ask ourselves why we’re feeling the way that we are. What need is going unattended for me? When we take this time to listen to ourselves internally, our feelings and needs can become clear. Then we can ask, nonviolently, for what we want or need. For example, we can say to a child, “When I see your clothes on the floor, I feel jittery because I love order and space. Would you be willing to pick up your clothes by the end of the day today?”

When we are clear about our own feelings and needs, we can be more open to our family members' needs and emotions. That allows us to move into the next level of nonviolent communication, which some call “giving empathy” or being an “empathy buddy.” An empathy buddy offers to sit down with someone who is troubled and listen for a set number of minutes without interrupting. (Three minutes works well with an older child or adult. Longer than that and listeners begin to get overwhelmed by the narrative.) 

The speaker writes down a list of possible feelings that are at the heart of his or her story. The empathy buddy writes a list of needs that she guesses might relate to the feelings of the speaker.

Example: “Are you feeling mad because of your need for transition time in between activities?” The speaker will let you know if you’ve figured out his deeper feelings and needs. If you have, there will probably be a new sense of calm between the two of you. If you haven’t, keep listening and taking guesses at your partner’s needs.

This pattern of communication can also work with a small child. Of course, there would be no writing in that case. For example, your three-year-old is crying and yelling when you’re ready to leave for the babysitter’s. You could ask, “Are you feeling mad because you didn’t have enough time to finish your game? Would it be better if we set a five-minute timer next time?”

If you’ve guessed correctly, your child will usually say yes with enthusiasm. If your guess isn’t quite on the nose, your child will correct you and he or she will still feel understood.

Nonviolent communication has many levels that take practice. It’s worth the energy, though. It can lead to fewer cycles of coercion and resistance and many more cycles of deep listening and empathy in families. Maybe it’s a gift we could give our spouses and children this year.

Berry, Melinda, “Nonviolent Communication Feelings and Needs Cards,” 2005. 
Rose, Marion Badenoch, “The Heart of Parenting:  Nonviolent Communication in Action,” 2003, online article.