From Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:
When someone communicates negatively, we have four options as to how to receive the message: (1) blame ourselves, (2) blame others, (3) sense our own feelings and needs, (4) sense the feelings and needs hidden in the other person’s negative message.
Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our own needs and values. When others hear criticism, they tend to invest their energy in self-defence or counterattack. The more directly we can connect our feelings to our needs (e.g. “I feel X because I need Y”), the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.
Unfortunately, most of us have never been taught to think in terms of needs. We are accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled.
A very important learning embedded in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is how important it is to notice when others are being defensive or attacking us in response to what we’ve said. We can deduce from these reactions that the listener took our words as critical of her/him. Even if that was not our intent, somehow our way of talking was interpreted as an attack, mild or strong.
Likewise if we find ourselves reacting to others’ words with defensiveness or reactive anger, we have some options for understanding what’s happening. Since blaming is non-productive, we want to avoid options (1) and (2). Trying to sense our own feelings and needs, and the feelings and needs of others, is a way to open up communications, and an invitation to respond compassionately.
Because Rosenberg advises us to “sense” feelings and needs rather than “think about” them, we understand that feelings and needs are sometimes not obvious, to ourselves or others. “Sensing” is more akin to mindful observation than intellectual analysis. If we listen with our bodies, with our eyes and our felt sense of other people, we are likely to understand them (and ourselves) better than if we are using our usual mental framework, trying to simplify and categorize what’s happening. We need to use more of our intelligence than our brains alone provide.
As an exercise, we can watch for instances of reactivity, in ourselves and others. What do we observe? Can we start to intuit what needs are not being met? If we can see them, can we articulate them? Either out loud or to ourselves?