I find it baffling how difficult it can be to have a productive conversation with another person. It’s one of the most basic and recurring activities in life, but often involves so much friction and misunderstanding.
And yet, in recent years, I’ve noticed marked improvements in my own life when it comes to dialogue, largely thanks to a nurturing relationship and the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
In this piece, I’m trying to distill some of the learnings that have been most useful to me. My approach will be fairly abstract and conceptual as opposed to practical and step-by-step, focusing on the underlying principles and thought processes that can be applied across various situations and challenges. Maybe I’ll come back and add more concrete examples at a later point.
My aim is to present a framework that fosters more productive conversations, where both parties can efficiently and effectively meet their goals and needs related to the relationship itself (like connection and trust) and beyond (such as enjoyment and safety).
Here’s an overview of the framework to enhance orientation and integration before delving into details:
- Three Levels of Conversation:
- Content (Substance): What is being discussed.
- Process (Structure): How the conversation is conducted.
- Attitude (Worldview): Fundamental assumptions that drive communication.
- Four Buckets (Content Management):
- Observations: Factual, objective elements.
- Feelings: Emotional responses and signals.
- Needs: Underlying motivations and interests.
- Requests: Actionable steps or desires.
- Three Activities (Process Management):
- Self-Connection (Break): Understanding and acknowledging your own perspective.
- Expression: Clearly and vulnerably sharing your own perspective.
- Listening: Attentively and empathetically understanding the other’s perspective.
- Two Attitudes:
- Confrontational: Characterized by blame and judgment.
- Compassionate: Characterized by empathy and humility.
1. Three Levels of Conversation
This framework separates a conversation into content, process, and attitude. Content pertains to the topics discussed — the “what.” Process refers to the dynamics and structure of the conversation — the “how.” Attitude reflects your frame of mind or worldview and influences your behaviors in the conversation.
2. Content Level: Four Buckets
At this level, the aim is to understand the situation and guide your actions accordingly. Differentiating various aspects of your current experience is key:
- Observations are factual, objective aspects of the situation observable to all parties — things that a camera would be able to capture. An example would be that it’s raining outside or that you just had a sip of coffee.
- ≠ Thoughts: Observations aren’t interpretations, evaluations, or judgments, which are an additional layer of meaning on top of the observation. To continue the above examples, thinking that it’s unfortunate that it’s raining outside or judging that the coffee is too strong aren’t observations anymore. These thoughts are signals about what the observations mean to you in this moment.
- → Separate factual occurrences from personal interpretations.
- Feelings represent the body’s responses, signaling whether needs are met or unmet. To make sense of your experience at this level, it’s helpful to develop an emotional vocabulary (see Feelings List) and increase the granularity with which you can identify your feelings. Otherwise, you’re “experientially blind” — your sensory input is just meaningless noise.
- ≠ Thoughts: Some things we’d intuitively categorize as feelings are thoughts instead. For example, if you say “I feel manipulated,” what’s actually happening is that you have a judgment that the other person is manipulating you. This is already a more complex mental construction, not a feeling.
- → Distinguish genuine feelings from thoughts or judgments disguised as feelings.
- Needs are core motivations and interests, i.e., what’s important and meaningful to you. Humans are complex evolved creatures that need a wide range of things to survive and thrive (see Needs List). Needs are abstract and shared between people. They tend to foster empathy and compassion.
- ≠ Strategies: A strategy is a particular way to meet a need. For any given need, there are many different strategies to meet it. Strategies tend to be personal and idiosyncratic. They can be divisive and threatening.
- → Focus on the abstract, universal “why” (needs) rather than the concrete, personal “how” (strategies).
- Requests are actionable steps tied to fulfilling needs. In the context of a conversation, they are ways that the other person can help you meet your needs. To inspire compassion and cooperation in the other person, it helps to share the underlying the need behind the request, make it concrete rather than vague, doable, and positive rather than negative (what you’d like them to do rather what you don’t want them to do).
- ≠ Demands: A demand is a “request” to another person where you aren’t open to hear a “no” in return. This creates friction in the relationship.
- → Propose need-connected, concrete, doable, positive language requests while being open to negotiation or refusal.
It’s often helpful to walk through the above categories from top to bottom. Here’s an example:
- Observation: “I’ve noticed that the last three project deadlines were missed.”
- Feelings: “I’m feeling concerned about this pattern.”
- Needs: “It’s important for me to ensure our team meets its goals and maintains a good reputation for reliability.” (Note that this barely scratches the surface of the speaker’s needs. In some situations, you might want to look for further underlying needs.)
- Requests: “Could we discuss how we might address this issue? I would appreciate it if you could share your challenges so we can find a solution together. Would you be open to setting a meeting to discuss this further?”
3. Process Level: Three Activities
The goal at the process level is to monitor and control where the focus of the conversation lies at any given moment in a way that allows the conversation to go deeper and move forward.
From your perspective, you can either focus on yourself — either inwardly by introspecting and gaining clarity about your situation, or outwardly by expressing towards the other person — or you can focus on the other person by listening to them. This leads to the following three activities that you can choose from at any moment in the conversation:
- Self-Connection (Break): Engage in introspection to gain clarity on your purpose and state in the conversation. The more granular your self-understanding, the better equipped you are to navigate the conversation.
- You can do this by mentally separating your experience into the Four Buckets that we discussed earlier. What observations do you have? What feelings do you notice? What needs are alive? What might you want to request or suggest?
- If you’re experiencing strong emotions, it might be best to pause the conversation and give yourself some space to recover before re-engaging in dialogue. Express your desire to take a break by sharing that it’s a way for you to care for the relationship. Agree in advance when you’ll pick up the conversation again to reduce uncertainty and avoid further escalation.
- Expression: Share your reality authentically and vulnerably to help the other person understand your perspective.
- Again, you can do this by sharing from the Four Buckets above. Help them understand what’s at the heart of the matter for you and how you’ve come to your current place.
- In addition to providing clarity and structure, sharing from the Four Buckets also provides a guardrail that helps you stay in your reality and prevents you from stepping into theirs, e.g., by assuming you know what’s true or false, right or wrong about and for them.
- Try to really reveal what’s going on for you. If you don’t, you keep yourself out of the relationship.
- Listening: Attentively and empathically follow the other person and try to understand what’s going on for them while suspending assumptions or judgments.
- Start from a place of ignorance and wonder. Assume that you don’t yet know what’s going on for the other person. Let them help you understand. Put your own stuff aside and make it fully about them.
- Move towards compassion. Imagine what it’s like to experience the situation from their perspective. Find out what’s at the heart of the matter for them in a way that touches you and goes beyond a mere “intellectual” understanding.
- Relax. You don’t have to do anything. Just be emotionally and mentally present with them.
- Periodically communicate your understanding of what they’re sharing and let them correct you. You can make guesses using the Four Buckets for guidance. This creates safety and invites further sharing.
To summarize, at any given moment in the conversation, you’re facing a choice between self-connection, expression, and listening. Your partner faces the same choice. In a productive conversation, both people are aware of their choices and coordinate them in a way that lets the conversation flow. I have two suggestions for that:
- Don’t express at the same time. Both people expressing at the same time creates a mess. It’s easy to get lost and triggered. The conversation speeds up, and suddenly you find yourself in a place that’s difficult to get out of. Instead, hold firm that only one person expresses at each point. Separate your stuff from theirs. Additionally, separate your stuff into the Four Buckets. Then take turns expressing and listening.
- Keep the focus on a single person for longer. To a first approximation, the quality of a conversation depends on how long one person manages to listen to the other. Try to increase the time interval during which you focus on a single person, and then deliberately shift the focus to the other person. Avoid “ping pong” conversations where the focus shifts back and forth within seconds. As a support, set a timer and let one person express until their time runs out, then switch roles.
4. Attitude Level: Confrontational vs. Compassionate
I’ve enjoyed using small numbers to categorize big things in this note, so let’s take it one step further and distinguish between two underlying attitudes in conversation — frames of mind or worldviews — which are often silently driving the conversation:
- Confrontational: Communication based on this attitude is driven by criticism, judgment, or demands, and it leads to defensive or aggressive responses. This attitude isn’t “wrong,” but it tends to hinder mutual understanding and connection. There are a few underlying assumptions worth highlighting (taken from the book Difficult Conversations):
- The truth assumption is the sense that you know (or can know) what’s true or false, right or wrong. It is deeply rooted in how our culture uses language.
- The intention invention is the sense that you know (or can know) the other person’s intentions behind their actions. Furthermore, you tend to assume bad intentions if the other person’s action has a negative impact on you.
- The blame frame is the tendency to look for someone to blame when you’re in a difficult or unpleasant situation — i.e., someone or something has to be “wrong.”
- Compassionate: In contrast, this attitude fosters mutual understanding and connection. It is grounded in a recognition of our shared humanity and the need to co-exist in an empathic and respectful manner. There are a few underlying differences compared to the confrontational attitude:
- Humility: This attitude is based on a recognition of the limits of our understanding, in particular, our ability to know with certainty what’s good and bad, right and wrong. It leads to an embrace and exploration of both people’s experience and stories.
- Separate intent from impact: This attitude recognizes that we don’t have access to other people’s intentions; they’re invisible to us. Therefor, describe the impact on you in terms of feelings and needs and hold the question mark about their intentions.
- Map the contribution system. Figure out how both people contributed to the current situation in a joint and interactive way instead of assigning blame.
Moving from a confrontational to a compassionate attitude involves a paradigm shift. It’s not merely a small modification, but a complete overhaul of the assumptions and practices that were previously accepted as the norm.
I’ve found that this aspect is the most beneficial for improving conversations, but also the most challenging to change. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to fully shift the needle from confrontational to compassionate in my own life. And yet, even small steps in this direction are immensely valuable — and they’re certainly attainable through consistent practice and effort.
- This piece draws primarily from Nonviolent Communication, particularly Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Yoram Mosenzon’s courses, and countless conversations (and accidents) with my partner. I’ve tried to present the key ideas in a way that resonates with me, so I’ve chosen slightly different terminology in some places.
- Additionally, a series of books such as Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Getting to Yes have been helpful to me.
- There’s much more to learn about each of the elements in this piece, so I’d encourage you to check out some of the resources I’ve linked.