Roles of the Four Components of NVC

NVC suggests that we be aware of, and focus our communication on, four components: Observation, Feeling, Need, and Request (or OFNR). Likely you know that. But do you know why these are the four components, what the function of each component is and why they are used together? I’d like to offer my understanding of the answer to this question.

An “observation” is information about what our senses have perceived, as free as possible from interpretation , especially one that carries an emotional charge or is likely to be disputed. When expressing ourselves, offering an observation offers a point of reference as to what the conversation is about. It offers a context for the conversation in a way that minimizes the chances of triggering an argument, spoken or unspoken, which would distract attention from what is important.

A “feeling” is an emotion, or perhaps a body sensation, named in a way that is free of stories about the meaning of what has happened. Naming a feeling in a way that is free of stories about meaning minimizes the chances of triggering a distracting argument. Sharing a feeling is a step towards creating connection. It invites connection to our shared humanity, and also implicitly invites us to connect to our whole selves, rather than limiting our focus to thoughts disconnected from our embodied experience. Also, naming a feeling offers information about how we are relating to our needs — whether we are experiencing them as met or unmet.

A “need,” in NVC, is a quality, built into our humanity to be attracted to, that connects us to the depths of our vitality and wholeness. Needs are what is ultimately important to us, what all human activities are organized around. Paradoxically, in English there is no word for these qualities of ultimate importance. In NVC, we redefine the word “need” away from its common usage, in order to have a way of referring to these qualities. Sharing our “need” is a way to tell someone what is important to us, what matters to us in the situation, in a way that they are likely to be able to understand and identify with. Sharing our need creates connection. It also focuses our thoughts about the meaning of a situation in a way that is likely to lead to us to address what is important.

A “request” is a clear, doable invitation to act in a way we guess might support a need or needs, often a need around being connected in the current conversation. This invitation is characterized by an intention that both people’s needs be honored. This implies a willingness to hear “no” as simply feedback that you haven’t yet fully understood or taken into account the other person’s needs. Offering a request suggests a concrete way that the other person might act so as to honor needs that are “up.”

The various components work together. An observation can sometimes be omitted if the context for the conversation is clear. A feeling can be omitted if there is sufficient connection already, or if the context is one where naming a feeling isn’t likely to contribute to connection. However, if a feeling is named, it is important to also offer a need. Otherwise, in our culture it is easy for people to jump to the conclusion that you are holding them responsible for your emotions, and that assumption to lead people to act in ways that aren’t life serving. Offering a need diverts people’s thoughts away from this unhelpful path, and focuses attention on what is most important. Similarly, when one offers a need, it is important to couple this with a request. Otherwise, people are likely to jump to the conclusion that there is an implied responsibility for them to meet your need. If they think they are being made responsible, they’re much less likely to want to hear your needs. Offering a request diverts them from vague and potentially unpleasant speculations about what you might expect of them, and instead tells them what you actually do want. When you offer a request and people are used to hearing demands, it will often be helpful to say something to further clarify that you are offering a request, not making a demand, again to avoid unhelpful inferences about your intentions.

To summarize, an observation sets the context, feelings support connection and getting out of our heads, needs support connection and identify what is important, and a request clarifies what sort of response you might enjoy. Using these components together minimizes the chances of people getting lost in potentially disconnecting speculation about what you want from them and why.

(I welcome your feedback on this essay.)