Applying Principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to Fiction Writing

by Sione Aeschliman

About 20 years ago in a galaxy not too far away, my mother told me about nonviolent communication, aka NVC, and my understanding of people changed forever.

NVC was developed as a communication tool for resolving conflict, but it’s much more than that. Its principles provide insight into my own and other people’s behavior. Hence, it has also changed the way I think about fiction—for what is fiction but an imagined study of how people act and interact in given circumstances?

I’m not going to get too deep into NVC in this post, but in order to explain some of the ways in which NVC affects my thinking about fiction, there are a couple of basic principles I need to outline.

The first, perhaps most basic principle is this: Humans all have the same basic needs—needs that go beyond the physical needs for air, food, water, and shelter—and at any given moment, everyone is doing the best they can to get their needs met with the strategies they have at their disposal. There’s a little more to it, of course, but that’s the gist. You, me, anybody: all the time we’re just trying to get our needs met the best way we know how.

The second NVC principle (slightly modified from the original 4-step NVC process) is that we can parse an interpersonal conflict and its resolution like this:

1) Someone says or does something that I Observe; 2) I make a Judgement (aka form an interpretation) about what that thing means; 3) I have Feelings based on my judgement; 4) which are in response to Needs Not Met (if it’s Needs Met, then it’s a warm-and-fuzzy moment, not a conflict); and then, ideally, 5) I make a Request for a particular strategy that I think will meet my hitherto unmet Needs.

To sum up: Observation – Judgement – Feeling – Need – Request

This isn’t to say that people are aware of all these steps or that we experience the steps in this order. For example, I’m aware of my feeling about something before I’m aware of the judgement I’ve made about it, even though I must have made the judgement beforehand in order to have the feeling. And it’s my lack of awareness about the difference between the observation and the judgement (what happened vs. what that means to me) that often creates conflict. Side note: the feelings and needs inventories linked above are just starting places; there exist more comprehensive lists too.