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  • Writer's pictureJuliana

NVC in Therapy

Alright... I'm about to let you all in on a little secret - a trick of the trade, so to speak. For those of you who have been in therapy before, you may already know this secret, or you know it but you don't know you know it. (And for those of you who's knowledge of therapy comes from Hollywood films and TV, I'd love to shamelessly take this opportunity to tell you that that's likely not at all what real therapy is like off camera). Okay is that enough preamble? Are you ready to know the secret?

Here it is: Nonviolent communication is used in therapy all the time. Some practitioners, like myself, are specifically trained in NVC, while others use concepts of it but don't necessarily call it NVC. For example, a clinician might use what they call "active listening", which in NVC, could loosely be translated to "giving empathy". (More on that in a minute.)

This all makes total sense if you look at the history of NVC. It was created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who spent most of his professional adult life as a clinical psychologist. It is probably safe to assume that Dr. Rosenberg was quite familiar with the many different styles of talk therapy and therapeutic interventions out there, and for those who have studied or even use such interventions, it is quite easy to spot the parallels between many of them and NVC.

To be clear, I am not saying that Nonviolent Communication is therapy. While it can certainly be therapeutic, I believe there is much more that goes into therapy than simply using NVC. It can, however, be an incredibly helpful tool, and it is at the basis of my therapeutic practice. Here's how:

  1. Fostering connection: As I mentioned before, most therapists will do something called active listening, which means they will repeat key words or phrases that the client shares to make sure they are really understanding, as well as give the client an experience of being heard. In NVC, this reflection is a key element in giving empathy. And giving empathy is a great way to foster connection. When it comes to a therapeutic relationship between client and practitioner, connection, trust, and emotional safety are paramount to getting anywhere. For me, this means giving empathy is an absolute must.

  2. Focus on needs: There is one main component missing from active listening that does not equate it to empathy a la NVC, and that is a focus on needs. Needs are at the core of all human experience, and they are especially helpful to identify when dealing with conflict. So, I am always listening for the need(s) that are either being met or not being met in my client's lives/situations. Getting down to the need, or the very core of their issue, is incredibly helpful in moving forwards towards finding solutions, because we have something to guide the goal setting.

  3. Shedding the story: In NVC, the word "story" simply means thoughts that aren't necessarily facts. We all have stories about the people, events, and situations we encounter, and often, these stories can dictate our internal realities. So regardless of whether or not that guy on the freeway "cut you off because he is an a**hole who likes racing cars dangerously for fun" (in quotes to indicate that this is a story), belief in that story will have power over your internal experience. In NVC, there is an intentional shedding of blame and judgment, which is then replaced by observations. Re-framing a client's story into observable facts can be a very helpful therapeutic tool.

  4. It promotes self-awareness: This one is a little trickier because it requires some education of NVC, meaning I can't simply employ NVC and then my client becomes self-aware, but rather they would have to learn at least a little bit about the practice and actually use it for this claim to ring true. Like I said, in NVC there is a focus on needs. It takes practice, but I think anyone can learn to connect with themselves to the point in which they can identify their own needs in any given moment. This is a skill that I might teach to a client, because when one has this kind of self-awareness, the clarity alone can bring so much ease to an otherwise overwhelming situation. It is also helpful for me, as a practitioner, to have self-awareness around my own needs within a therapeutic environment. I am human, too, and sometimes counseling someone gets heavy and hard. Knowing what my own needs are is helpful for me to be able to reach out for appropriate supports.

These are just a few ways in which NVC guides my therapeutic practice. I really think there is so much here that probably would take many pages to write, but I'm hoping this aptly encapsulates the use of NVC in therapy, at least for me. To any other therapeutic practitioners out there - psychologists, LCSWs, LMHCs, MFTs, counselors, etc. - does NVC show up in your practice? If so, how? I would really love to know. Or maybe you practice NVC but you've only received therapy instead of provide it for others. Have you noticed your practitioner using any elements of NVC? Feel free to share in the comments.

And as always, if you are interested in some formal education of Nonviolent Communication, please check out The Bigbie Method's Intro to Nonviolent Communication course here. My judgment is that if you're open and curious, the course will prove to be incredibly eye-opening. (It also might help to make a little more sense out of all this stuff you just read.)

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