"Nonviolent Communication" (NVC)
by Mona Pereth
- NVC: Brief outlines and reference material
- NVC: More how-to, from various sources
- Pitfalls of inappropriate use of NVC
- NVC for autistic people
- More about alexithymia
I'm inclined to recommend NVC more to trusted close NT friends or family members of autistic people (for those of us lucky enough to have such people in our lives) than to autistic people ourselves. Most autistic people are probably better off learning other styles of assertiveness and active listening that don't emphasize feelings.
There are nevertheless some important lessons (such as the distinction between "needs" and "strategies") that autistic people can learn from the NVC paradigm, even if we don't practice the full NVC methodology.
NVC has some big pitfalls when used inappropriately, and it has key aspects that are difficult or impossible for many (though not all) autistic people. Some sources of difficulty for autistic people are:
NVC emphasizes feelings and universal human needs, both one's own and the other person's. The emphasis on feelings makes NVC hard for many autistic people, many of whom have alexithymia (difficulty naming feelings) to one degree or another.
However, at least some alexithymic people can learn to name their feelings if they are fortunate enough to have a trusted non-alexithymic friend or family member willing to talk to them in detail about both one's own and the other person's feelings. To that end, it might be helpful for the friend or family member to use an enhanced variant of NVC -- involving not just "feelings words" but detailed descriptions of what the feelings feel like -- as discussed further down on this page in the section on More about alexithymia. Perhaps this might be especially useful for NT's who feel frustrated by a lack of emotional awareness on the part of an autistic spouse or romantic partner.
Another problem with NVC, for many autistic people, is the assumption that human needs are "universal," i.e. that all people have the same needs. A big part of NVC is distinguishing between our needs themselves and our "strategies" toward the satisfaction of our needs. And it is generally assumed that human needs (e.g. the needs listed here) are universal, whereas strategies can be individual. But most autistic people -- due to sensory issues, attention issues, etc. -- have some highly individual, idiosyncratic needs that most other people don't have.
Many of our sensory issues can be described as special cases of a more "universal" need for physical comfort. Likewise, a need to work around our attention issues can be described in terms of a more "universal" need for effectiveness. So NVC, if practiced in its pure form either by an autistic person or by a neurotypical person communicating with an autistic person, would have to include the extra step of relating the autistic person's unique individual needs to the corresponding "universal" needs.
But it must still be recognized that our unique individual needs are indeed needs, not mere "strategies."
It must also be recognized that an autistic person may experience various "universal" needs either more or less intensely than, or otherwise differently from, the way they are typically experienced by most NT's. (For example, many autistic people have a greater need for order and stability than most NT's do.)
If an autistic person's individual neurological issues are recognized as needs, and if there is a mutual understanding, by both parties, of any differences in how the relevant "universal" needs are experienced, then a mutually-agreed-upon distinction between needs and strategies could indeed be very helpful in conflict resolution, as detailed in the video listed here, even without the rest of the NVC methodology.
NVC, if done wrong or in an inappropriate context, can all too easily come across as condescending and/or invasive, or like a bad psychotherapist wannabe. So, for those of us who already have a tendency to say inadvertantly annoying or offensive things, attempting to learn NVC would likely be just another way to be inadvertantly annoying or offensive.
Because of these issues, most autistic people, especially those with alexithymia, are probably better off practicing other forms of assertiveness and active listening that don't emphasize feelings as much as NVC does.
But I nevertheless think that NVC -- with the autistic-friendly enhancements of (a) recognizing our individual neurological issues as first-class needs and (b) recognizing any differences in how we experience the "universal" needs -- can be valuable for trusted NT family members, close friends, and especially spouses and romantic partners of autistic people, as a way to improve communication and mutual empathy with their autistic loved ones. Additionally, for those of us whose alexithymia consists of simple ignorance of what various feelings are called, it seems to me that a trusted friend or family member, using an enhanced variant of NVC, can help them acquire an emotional vocabulary.
Learning and practicing NVC can also be helpful for some autistic people themselves -- those of us whose social impairments do not include alexythymia and who have developed enough social awareness to know when it is and is not appropriate to talk about feelings and needs.
As for the rest of us, it behooves us to learn at least enough about NVC so we can recognize it and respond appropriately when other people are using it with us, and so we can recommend the methodology to any trusted NT (or at least non-alexythymic) family members, friends, and/or spouses/partners whom we may be fortunate enough to have.
NVC: Brief outlines and reference material
Below are some pages on the website of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication:
- What is Nonviolent Communication (NVC)?
- Nonviolent Communication Quick Reference Guide by Inbal Kashtan and Miki Kashtan
- Basics of Nonviolent Communication by Inbal Kashtan and Miki Kashtan
- Key Assumptions and Intentions of NVC by Inbal Kashtan and Miki Kashtan
- Lists of feelings and needs words (universal human needs only).
Below are some pages on the website of the main Center for Nonviolent Communication:
- The 2 Parts and 4 Components of NVC
- The 4-Part Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Process
- Feelings and Needs We All Have
- Lists of feelings and needs words (universal human needs only).
- NVC Instruction Self-Guide
- The Heart of Nonviolent Communication
Below are some pages on the website of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication:
NVC: More how-to, from various sources
Video: How to resolve a conflict in 3 minutes with NVC (try this!), Cup of Empathy (main website here), Jun 13, 2017.
Note: The specific technique described in the above video, featuring a mutually agreed-upon distinction between needs and strategies, can be done apart from the rest of the NVC methodology, and looks very useful if done by mutual prior agreement. One would just need to (1) supplement the NVC "Needs" list with a list of the autistic person's specific neurological issues and (2) have a mutual understanding of any differences in how the "universal" needs are experienced by the autistic person vs. how they are experienced by most NT's.
How to Practice Nonviolent Communication, WikiHow.
We Need to Talk (about Nonviolent Communication) by Rezzan Hussey, Art of Wellbeing, November 24, 2017.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Good Therapy.
Pitfalls of inappropriate use of NVC
Articles about NVC pitfalls, by NVC practitioners and/or trainers:
Basic Pitfalls of Using NVC: If you have the language down, but not the spirit behind it, beware .... by Miki Kashtan Ph.D., Psychology Today, June 14, 2012. (Another copy on the author's own blog, The Fearless Heart.)
The Three Most Common Pitfalls in Nonviolent Communication by Oren Jay Sofer, June 30, 2017.
helpful & fun critique on the practice/s of nonviolent communication :) by Milla, June 20, 2011.
Is Nonviolent Communication Practical? Here are some tips for doing it productively, by Miki Kashtan Ph.D., Psychology Today, May 21, 2012.
Video: Top 3 Ways of Annoying People With Your NVC (+ How to Prevent Them), Cup of Empathy, Oct 24, 2017.
Articles about NVC pitfalls, by non-practitioners:
Short version of the problem with Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Real Social Skills, July 18, 2014. See also, on the Real Social Skills blog:
- Nonviolent Communication can hurt people, July 13, 2014.
- Nonviolent Communication can be emotionally violent, July 17, 2014.
Nonviolent Communication is for the Privileged by Raffi Marhaba, Collectively Free, January 2, 2020
Note that most (though not all) of the pitfalls mentioned by the non-practitioners are also addressed by the practitioners/trainers, as mistakes likely to be made by novice practitioners.
NVC for autistic people
Autism friendly Nonviolent Communication by Bob Yamtich, January 22, 2021. See also:
- Nonviolent Communication (NVC) for Autism and Asperger's - post by BobY (apparently Bob Yamtich, judging by his reference to his own website here?) on Wrong Planet, 06 Jun 2011.
- Autism Interview #28: Bob Yamtich on Making Connections, Learn from Autistics, February 7, 2017.
- Podcast: TWAP002: Nonviolent Communication for Aspergers/Autism, Thrive With Aspergers, 2015.
- Intro to NVC for Asperger's Teens and Adults (about a workshop by Bob Yamtich) by Debi Taylor, Spirit of Autism, June 10, 2012
Note: Bob Yamtich now believes that his own adult Asperger's syndrome diagnosis was a mis-diagnosis. Be that as it may, his autistic-friendly, alexithymic-friendly variant of NVC involves identifying needs before feelings, rather than vice versa, and also easing up on the distinction between feelings and thoughts.
More about alexithymia
Back in 1992, Jim Sinclair, one of the main founders of the autistic rights movement, wrote1:
... I had a friend who, with no formal background in psychology or special education, figured out for herself some guidelines for relating to me. She told me what they were: never to assume without asking that I thought, felt, or understood anything merely because she would have such thoughts, feelings, or understanding in connection with my circumstances or behavior; and never to assume without asking that I didn't think, feel, or understand anything merely because I was not acting the way she would act in connection with such thoughts, feelings, or understanding. In other words, she learned to ask instead of trying to guess.
I finally started learning to talk about feelings when I was twenty-five. I knew someone then who taught me a vocabulary. She didn't know that was what she was doing. She didn't do it because she wanted to help an autistic person learn to "deal with" feelings. She just happened to be someone who talked a lot about her own feelings. She identified what each feeling was called, and where she felt it, and how it felt, and what her face and body were doing about it. When I asked questions about what the words meant, she explained. When she asked questions about my feelings, and I asked for clearer definitions of what she was asking, she clarified the questions until I could answer them. That's all it took to get started; once I realized that words could be used for subjective experiences too, I took off again the way I did with idea-words when I was twelve.
Jim Sinclair's friend was probably not practicing the NVC methodology per se, but did practice at least one of the key aspects of NVC. She also described feelings in much more detail than the NVC methodology calls for. Such detail may be needed when practicing NVC with an alexithymic person -- or at least with one whose alexithymia is rooted in ignorance of the names of one's feelings.
I should point out that simple ignorance of the names of feelings isn't the only reason why a person, autistic or otherwise, might have alexithymia. Another possible reason might be attention focus issues. Some autistic people might be so intently focused on the thing they are having feelings about that they just don't notice their own feelings about it, beyond a simple categorization of good, bad, or neutral. Such people might be able to identify their feelings in more detail in retrospect, though not in the moment. I'm often like this.
Another possible reason for alexithymia might be repression of one's feelings. This is especially likely in autistic people who do a lot of heavy-duty masking, or in people (autistic or otherwise) who have experienced childhood trauma. Traditionally, many psychotherapists have assumed that repression is the only cause of alexithymia, which is not true.
For more about alexithymia, see the SnakeDancing Tumblr blog post #Aspergers & Emotion: Alexythemia, January 7, 2013. (See also #Aspergers & Emotion: The Great Stone Face, March 2, 2012, on the same blog.)
Psychotherapists often try to help their clients identify feelings. If you have alexithymia but are fortunate enough to have a non-alexithymic close friend or family member whom you trust, that person, practicing an enhanced version of NVC or some similar methodology, might be able to help you identify feelings better than a therapist can. Why? (1) You can spend more time with the friend or family member than you can with your therapist. (2) Friends or family members can talk to you about their own feelings as well as yours, whereas therapists are supposed to maintain a professional demeanor and (for the most part, at least) keep their own feelings out of the picture.
Bridging the Gaps: An Inside-Out View of Autism (Or, Do You Know What I Don't Know?) by Jim Sinclair. Ooriginally published in High-Functioning Individuals with Autism, edited by Eric Schopler and Gary B. Mesibov. Plenum Press, New York, 1992)
(For some historical context, see Historicizing Jim Sinclair's "Don't Mourn for Us": A Cultural and Intellectual History of Neurodiversity's First Manifesto by Sarah Pripas-Kapit, Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement , 08 November 2019.)
Queens discussion group: Autistic adult peer support and self-help group that currently meets in online chat (text-based) and will eventually meet in-person again after the COVID crisis.
Where to get an ASD evaluation as an adult: This page will be expanded and updated sometime after the COVID crisis is over with.