Why Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests Are Both Enough and Not

by Miki Kashtan

This post is edited from an original piece I posted on the forum for certified trainers in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which means that a bit of contextualizing is necessary to make sense of what I am saying.

Observations, feelings, needs, and requests, which many of us within the NVC network end up referring to as OFNR, are some of the most basic building blocks of NVC. Within the circles of people who study and practice NVC, a divergence exists about whether these elements are enough or whether NVC would need, in addition, other elements, such as systemic pointers or specific practices for making possible the liberation and collaboration that so many of us turn to NVC for. This is enough to make sense of this post.

One day in 2023, an insight landed in my lap that I then shared on that forum because of believing that it might help in creating some convergence. Thirty-one people “liked” the post and I got several responses which I found very thoughtful. This post is an edit of the original which integrates what contributed to my thinking from the responses I got.

Enough in principle

I believe that OFNR is enough in principle to do everything we need to do as humans to share resources in care for all of our needs with the least amount of unwanted impacts. 

If we all had capacity to see what is happening without introducing any narratives and to share it without charge or assumption of knowing…

If we all had capacity to know what our needs are without attaching any expectation or “should” to it…

If we all had the capacity to experience impacts on us directly and to be able to share them in terms of what we are experiencing without any blaming or shaming…

If we all had the capacity to ask for what we want in a simple way without demanding, deferring, giving up, insisting, expecting, seeing who deserves what…

And if we all had the simple capacity to hear those things when they are expressed by others without reinterpreting it, judging it, distancing from it, reacting to it, or walking away from it…

Then I believe that OFNR would be enough and wouldn’t even be needed, because we would be in flow with each other most of the time. We would have enough trust most of the rest of the time to consciously make decisions to support us in finding the next wave of flow, and would have enough baseline trust in self, other, and life to be able to work out the conflicts that would sometimes arise and all the inevitable losses and impacts that come from being biological creatures who are vulnerable and ultimately die. 

Mourning the obstacles

HOWEVER…

Because of the events that have unfolded in the last several thousand years since the patriarchal turn in West Asia and Europe, more intensively in the last 531 years since 1492, more intensively since the industrial revolution, and even more intensively in the last few decades and years …

There are far too many of us that won’t be able to learn and practice with OFNR without there being ways to attend to those impacts that can support us in recovering sufficiently from the impacts to be able to focus our attention in this way. To some extent, this is true of all of us, because we are all socialized into the mindset of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness. As such, none of us can individually recover from the trauma of such socialization and restore our capacities sufficiently to where our internal landscape is aligned with flow, togetherness, and choice.



Still, the impacts are not evenly spread, and some of us will have more ease than others to know what we want and asking for it, to respond authentically to others’ needs and requests without submission or rebellion, to share with others when their actions have impacts on us, and to hear others across differences.

For some of us, what’s needed is massive support to find a way to speak at all, and no amount of NVC training or even empathy by itself will ever be enough without additional processes that will stitch us back together…

For some of us, what’s needed is massive support to maintain enough of a sense of our essential innocence that we can actually look at our impact on others and remain whole without crumbling in the face of it…

For some of us, what’s needed is enough acknowledgment of, not empathy about what has happened and continues to happen to our communities to be able to put our attention anywhere else… [Because in such situations (and many others, too) we actually need to see the other person’s heart breaking in response to our suffering in order to reweave the togetherness that was broken. Empathy shows understanding and care at its best, and what is needed in order to restore togetherness is actual co-holding, in which both people’s hearts are open, tender, connected, and expressive.]

For some of us, what’s needed is rehumanizing ourselves to ourselves through understanding that there is truly nothing wrong with us or our ancestors for whatever we or they have done, because all of them, all of us, have been overwhelmed by systems and events that train some of us, without our consent, to get our needs met at cost to others and to not even notice it…

And this is so not an exhaustive list…

What, then, do we do?

Because of these gaps that keep us from being able to notice what is happening, what we are feeling about it, how these feelings relate to our needs, and what we want about it all, we need something in addition to OFNR in order to be able to do OFNR.

One of my colleagues said, when responding to my original post: “OFNR alone, particularly when practiced by people like myself who grew up in a culture and in a country and in a paradigm that has embedded within its very fabric the use of power over others, is not going to be enough for me to contribute to an interdependent world.” It is this journey to an interdependent way of living that I am no longer believing can rely only on teaching OFNR to as many people as possible.

Part of what I believe is needed is to be able to distinguish between NVC as a worldview and a set of principles (what Marshall Rosenberg, who created NVC, used to call “NVC consciousness”), NVC as a set of practices, and a particular form of speech (which is what OFNR is) that can be used in practice settings to integrate the principles. The worldview, as I understand it, can be summed up in a simple way: regardless of what any of us ever do or say, all of us are fully human, with the same needs even if anyone’s actions or worldviews frighten us, and this includes us, too.

In those situations in which the capacity needed to learn OFNR cannot be accessed directly because of the reasons I outlined earlier, what I want those of us who are living, applying, and sharing NVC to bring forward is whatever additional tools may be needed to support people in finding liberation, so long as we can do it without losing the fundamental human connection and focus on liberation for all that NVC entails.

For example, the systemic lens, in and of itself, isn’t automatically aligned with the NVC worldview. Many people and groups use particular forms of systemic analysis that contribute to separation and are laden with judgments. I believe this is why so many NVC people are concerned about leaning on a systemic perspective. I also believe that without a systemic lens, there will be consistent impacts, within NVC circles, on people of certain groups whose experience is often made invisible if, for example, they are asked to speak of observations only in the context of what just happened and without the larger frame of the systemic phenomena that the particular observation is so likely an example of. I have ample experience of situations in which looking through a systemic lens that is grounded in the NVC perspective of shared human needs and a commitment to liberation for all has a dramatically different effect.

I have found that when I or others do that, the systemic lens brings more compassion and understanding in terms of precisely how the systemic context of different people’s lives impacts their access to understanding their needs, their capacity to experience agency in their actions, or their capacity to see the impacts of their actions on others. The systemic lens can bring tenderness or harshness; togetherness or separation; understanding or confusion. It all depends on how we use it, which is precisely why I see it as a vital tool that can support all of us in learning and integrating more deeply the NVC approach to living.

One of the highlights of my NVC life was a two-hour session in which I sat with a Black woman minister who was leading a congregation that was mostly white, which was exceedingly difficult for her. One day, she had had it, and she was expressing a tremendous amount of judgment at the white people in the congregation and how they were orienting to her leadership. I decided, on the spot, that I would try finding a way to reflect her experience back to her in a way that would capture the intensity, passion, and anguish in full, without in any way participating in the judgments.

I did not use pure OFNR, because I was completely confident that it would not give her a sense that her experience was actually gotten. I have seen enough situations in which reflecting something in the language of needs left people, sadly, with an experience of flatness. This has also happened to me when others have attempted to respond to me with guessing my feelings and needs. The experience of this flatness can be summarized like this: “Sure, yes, what you are saying makes sense, I definitely have these needs, and yes, if they were met it would be great, and I still think you just don’t get it…” Those memories helped me set my yardstick for my interaction with the minister: I wanted her to actually feel what it’s like to be received in full while also being true to my vision. I leaned heavily on the systemic lens, which includes bits of my limited and anguished knowledge about Black people’s experience in the US as well as tenderness for what needs to happen to white children to prepare them to participate in that system. And it worked. By the end, the experience was meaningful enough to be in silence. She was received, and the very understandable rage was gone. Then we could speak freely about her needs and the needs of others within that community, and she was quite calmly able to assess the capacity within the community and to choose to leave her ministry without bitterness.

I feel similarly about a variety of approaches to healing trauma or leaning on ways of understanding how the brain functions. To the extent that they are integrated into the fundamental way of making sense of human life that is the foundation of NVC, I can see them as pathways to support liberation and creating the collective conditions for engaging that would make leaning on OFNR possible and, as I said initially, less necessary.

In the absence of systemic approaches and a deeper understanding of the obstacles that most of us face in integrating the NVC worldview into our baseline functioning, focusing on OFNR as the only important element of NVC can lead, as I see it, to NVC losing its immense potential to contribute to individual and collective human liberation.

Instead, it can become, sadly, similar to the “Just say no” response to addiction that has been entrenched as part of the “War on Drugs” campaign in the US. No one can do what is beyond capacity, and “just say no” is beyond capacity for the overwhelming majority of people who struggle with addictions and don’t have true support that is oriented to the truth of their existence. In a similar way, I want us to recognize how easily NVC can be used as pressure on people, as an insistence that they be able to do something that isn’t within capacity, at this point, for just about anyone I know without massive liberation. It can also become what unfortunately many criticize it for and lead to inauthenticity and entrenching separation when studied just as a “do this” approach. 

Still, with all this, some few of us do find the capacity to learn and integrate the deep shifts in how we think, how we speak, and how we act that NVC, like all disciplines that are rooted in nonviolence, is pointing to. My longing is for those of us who do find that capacity to accept with humility and awe that in an extremely low-capacity period for our species, we are called to model what we have integrated even when others don’t, to invite everyone around us to walk towards vision, and to supply the extra care and skill that we have in support of everyone, wherever we are. That’s not the same as all of us having capacity, and it may be a baby step in that direction.

Image credits

All images created by used with permission from Gwen Olton 2024

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

14 thoughts on “Why Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests Are Both Enough and Not

  1. Sam

    I think you’re really onto something here. It feels like you’re pointing to a kind of middle way between stubbornly pure OFNR and an approach which insists on framing everything in terms of privilege in a way that increases separation. Reading this piece makes me feel hopeful that multiple approaches can be integrated and ultimately lead to more connection and liberation.

    At the same time, I find myself yearning for some example dialogues to illustrate some of what you’re saying – e.g. “I have ample experience of situations in which looking through a systemic lens that is grounded in the NVC perspective of shared human needs and a commitment to liberation for all has a dramatically different effect” – I would love to hear an example of what that might sound like, or similarly I would love to hear some of the actual words that were spoken with the minister (though I understand that that is probably not possible while respecting confidentiality).
    The short stories that you wrote at the end of “Reweaving…” really helped me as a reader to get a more concrete sense of what you had laid out in a more abstract way earlier in the book – and for me, it would be easier to assimilate your blog writing in a similar way with example dialogues, even if they were fictional.

    This is just one reader’s experience, of course!

    With thanks and love for everything you do,
    Sam, UK

    Reply
    1. Miki Kashtan Post author

      This makes total sense to me, and I don’t think, sadly, that it’s within capacity for me to focus there, as I have so many areas of focus and I am a finite being. I appreciate your comment, truly.

      Reply
  2. Liz O.

    Much appreciation for you, your courage, care and rigor to continue to revisit, re explain, evolve and expand understanding of frames of power distribution systems related to essential interdependence.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Rothman

    I love this post. It clarified my own thinking, pointed me to the gaps I have in my own communication. I’m going to integrate this into how I teach others, inviting them to ask themselves if they’re aware of their own gaps and have addressed them before attempting to connect with the other person.

    Reply
  4. John Abbe

    I am always deeply disappointed when I hear about people who consider themselves well-trained in Nonviolent Communication and think that the four steps observations, feelings, needs, and requests could be enough in practice. It leaves my needs for clarity and hope far less well met than they would be otherwise.

    The founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Marshall Rosenberg, spoke often about its other aspects. His teachings at the 9-10 day international intensive trainings (IITs), which he led countless times, included multiple offerings from him which went beyond the four step model. Some did relate closely to the four steps – for example, how to do mediation using them. But others had a completely different center, such as the session on social change which included his simple model of the self-supporting circular system of how we see people, the social, economic, political, etc. systems we set up as a result, how those systems affect how people act, which in turn influences how we see people, etc. around the circle. He did not see how we could effect change of the sort implied by NVC without having some grasp of this systemic nature of things. (One important takeaway is that there is no one place to start, but that work addressing every point in the cycle is relevant, and that change comes when enough work is being done in enough parts of the cycle to tip things into a new, less violent circle.)

    Also consider the key differentiations, which Marshall always had a session on at these intensives. Marshall described them as underlying all of Nonviolent Communication, but only some of them relate to the four steps. Beth Banning – and while he was still alive, Neill Gibson – developed an entire teaching founded on the key differentiations, which introduces them in an order designed such that learning the first few eases the way to learning the next few, and so on through them all. At some point, Marshall’s sense was that what they were teaching was different enough from Nonviolent Communication that he asked them not to use the term, but this was for clarity’s sake, not because he felt it was out of sync with NVC

    Separately, a new book from last year, The Heart of Nonviolent Communication, lays out each of the key differentiations very clearly, and offers real world stories and a brief exercise at the end of each chapter. The introduction provides multiple quotes from Marshall explaining that if all we do is teach people to practice NVC at and near the personal level, then much of the effect will simply be to help people to cope with a tragic world. And that for NVC to be complete, it must include challenging and changing the systems and structures which guarantee so much violence in the form of wars, exploitative and nature-destroying economics, and other day-to-day inter-group and interpersonal violence in most people’s lives.

    Taken together, what Marshall shared at these intensives comprised the set of understandings which he believed anyone sharing NVC would understand, embody, and pass on to others, if their sharing of NVC were to be complete. I heard him speak to all of this multiple times. (Except for some of the parts about Neill and Beth’s work, which I learned from conversations with them.)

    Reply
  5. John Abbe

    “patriarchal turn in West Asia and Europe”

    This popped out at me when reading the article, and I’m wondering why not include the patriarchal turns of East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, or Africa, or in the Americas?

    Graeber & Wengrow’s excellent book, The Dawn of Everything, does an excellent job of pointing out that societies have not inevitably turned patriarchal when they take up agriculture or find other methods – such as fishing – which provide more than required to meet basic needs. But at least some societies in each of the areas I mention, and likely others, do seem to have taken such a turn. (In my amateur understanding.)

    Reply
    1. Miki Kashtan Post author

      It’s the particular patriarchal turn in Europe and West Asia that brought us the European colonialism down the line. That’s why I am speaking of it.

      And I have not claimed that it’s about agriculture. I used to think it was agriculture, and I no longer think that after reading the work of Heide Goettner Abendroth.

      Reply
      1. John Abbe

        Re agriculture, I was not referring to you but to the many others who have made that argument, and Graeber & Wengrow’s work pushing back on that.

        Thank you for the pointer to Abendroth’s work! And letting me know by other means about her book, Matriarchal Societies — Studies on Indigenous Cultures across the Globe. Also, her appreciative & critical article about The Dawn of Everything: https://www.magoism.net/2023/02/book-review-the-dawn-of-everything-by-heide-goettner-abendroth/

        Related, here is Camilla Power offering her critique, and extension, of what Graeber & Wengrow focus on: https://vimeo.com/260771955

        I am still confused about why you are focusing so exclusively on Western patriarchy. I see a lot of confusion stemming from people believing that the West’s combined patriarchy, imperialism, and colonialism is the only one that matters. Or in extreme cases, the only one that exists! I don’t imagine you suffer from this confusion, but I believe that by focusing so exclusively, you may unintentionally be supporting this confusion in others.

        Reply
  6. Sven

    Dear Miki, I resonate a lot with your perspective of “in principle enough” and yet naming all the obstacles. thank you for giving words to it, also in the talk on reawakening NVCs radical potential. I am both fascinated and inspired by NVC and at the same time I just cannot find my way into the NVC “world” or community because I feel seperated or may be say alienation by the lack of social analysis and how everything happens in the waters we swim in, keeping us apart. And I know many more people who face more discrimination than I do, who cannot find themselves in NVC if its reduced to a method of 4 steps. I have a request to you if that is somewhat within your capacity and aligns with current projects:
    I see a lot of potential in the transformative justice movement, but somehow there is no interaction with NVC it seems. Can you engage with the transformative justice ideas by Mia Mingus, adrienne maree brown and so on, and share how you see connectings with NVC? I have an intuition that there is a lot of potential but I cant quite find the words for it myself yet and you seem to be someone with that capability.
    Best Wishes from Austria
    Sven

    Reply
    1. Miki Kashtan Post author

      Hi Sven,

      I am very touched by what you wrote. I don’t know how much capacity I can have to engage in the ways you want me to engage. For starters, if you can find a specific article for me that is 5-10 pages, that will help, though I make no promises. I have so many things that I can do and that I have capacities for that many others don’t, and I am needing to be very very discerning about it so I don’t spread out beyond capacity. I trust you will understand.

      And I invite you to join us in NGL (http://nglcommunity.org), where systemic analysis is central. I trust you can find more companionship than in many (though not all!) NVC circles.

      Miki

      Reply
      1. sven

        Miki, I am amazed by your direct resonance and how you take my concern and words seriously. I appreciate knowing you are really not willing to stretch beyond your capacity and support that.

        Regarding transformative justice (TJ) here is a brief piece by Mia Mingus that should be within that limit you wished for:

        https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2019/01/09/transformative-justice-a-brief-description/

        I also post a 10 min introductory video here as well because there are more different voices from different TJ practitioners visible and I find it helpful because it gets me more of a sense of the attitude and spirit behind it.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-_BOFz5TXo

        Curious where this leads and best wishes to wherever you are,

        Sven

        Reply
        1. Miki Kashtan Post author

          thanks for this. i generally don’t watch things, only read. and it will happen when it happens (or not…).

          Reply
          1. Miki Kashtan Post author

            hi again sven,

            i read that article, and i am not seeing myself engaging with that framework.

            i am in the midst of a big piece of writing that i anticipate will take weeks or months to complete (assuming i remain well). and that is a framework of liberation for all that i feel more solid within than the TJ framework that leaves me with some concerns. all that is within this piece of writing, which will be a learning packet when i am done with it, which is designed to ultimately live in this link: https://thefearlessheart.org/item/liberation-for-all-part-iii-restoring-togetherness-in-the-context-of-power-differences-packet/

            miki

            Reply
  7. sven

    Hi Miki, thanks for inviting me into the Global Nonviolent Liberation community also because so far I have not realised its something i could join. I will truly consider.

    I would be curious what your concerns ringing from that article are and i get you have other things on your plate. looking forward to read the framework once its out there!

    Sven

    Reply

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