Monday, July 4, 2016

Nonviolent communication with development team

Nonviolent communication (NVC) has been a really important topic for me during the past three years. I have told many people how the book Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Life (Marshall B. Rosenberg) has changed my life. In the beginning of this year I read the book for the second time, which has even more increased the meaning of it to me.

About a month ago I was lucky to take part of Agile Finland's coaching camp (#accfi). It was a truly magnificent weekend with amazing people and interesting open space sessions. My main input during the weekend was to share NVC with the other participants. I was really happy to see how many got interested in it and said that they want to learn more about it when they go home. Also quite many of them said that NVC was the most important thing they got from the open space sessions.

Agile Finland Coaching Camp was held in amazing place called Herrankukkaro

When I got back to the work after the coaching camp, I wanted to continue sharing thoughts about nonviolent communication. I suggested my team that we could have a 2-3 hours session where we would talk about the topic. Again, I was happy to hear that everyone in the team were interested.

The session was really successful in my opinion and I wanted to write this blog post about it. This is for those who are interested in NVC and maybe even wonder if it is something to talk with your colleagues.

Briefly about NVC

Nonviolent communication (sometimes called compassionate communication) is based on the four basic elements. While we can apply it also on positive situations, NVC matters most when we face something negative. This can happen anywhere in our lives, at home, at work, in public places, or for example when reading internet forums.

The basic idea is that when something negative happens, we would not rush into judgments and conclusions too fast but instead proceed with the following steps. The first step is to make observations, to think and clarify what really happened. The second step is to focus on the feelings that are present or existed during the situation. After that comes the crucial third step. Instead of concluding that the feeling was caused by the thing that happened, Rosenberg suggests that all of our feelings are caused by the needs that are either met (positive) or not met (negative). So the third step is to try to understand what met or unmet needs caused the feelings. The fourth step is then to make a request that would help us to meet the needs and that way enrich our lives.

The basic elements of nonviolent communication

You can apply the four steps in two ways. Especially if you are having strong feelings yourself, you can focus on your own feelings, needs, and requests. The other option is to focus on the other people's feelings, needs, and requests. These two approaches differ greatly from what we too often tend to do, judge either other people or ourselves.

To me there is one thing in NVC that has helped the most. While I may have not always remembered the four steps, I have tried to remember one thing. The core of NVC, in my opinion, is empathy. When I have empathy present in my daily life, I can get so much more good things out of it and help others to have good things too.

Introducing NVC for the team

I started our session by going through the four basic elements of NVC. In order to have some more concreteness I asked if anyone of my team members (*) had recently faced any negative situations in their lives. One of them told us how in the morning she had felt bad when meeting a colleague in the cafeteria but not wanting to chat with her because of the hurry to do some important work. This was a nice example to start with.

First we talked about what had happened in that situation. In this case it was rather easy to make the observation. Two people meet each other in the morning, the other one doesn't want to have a chat, other than saying good morning.

The next thing was to name the feeling my team member had. This isn't always so easy thing to do. There are so many different names for different feelings but remembering them and finding the correct one can be truly challenging. I don't remember exactly what feelings we identified for this case but probably we talked about being distressed and in a hurry.

List of negative feelings by Center for Nonviolent Communication

As a third step we tried to name what needs of my colleague were not met and that way caused the aforementioned feelings. This again can be sometimes really difficult phase. Even though the needs affect to everything we do, we are not always very informed about them. What comes to the example case, we concluded that my colleague both had a need of connection and at the same time need of effectiveness in her work. The contradiction between these two caused the negative feelings.

The last step in NVC is to make a request that would help us to meet our needs. When taking account the need to do the work, the request could have been for example asking if they can have a chat the next time they meet because of the work that my team member wanted to do.

While this was a very simple example, it was a good start for the session. From here we proceeded towards more difficult cases. What was important to me was that we would use as much our work related cases as possible.

"Henri had a really good way of leading the session; softer start and then to more difficult real life cases."

Feelings created by customer feedback

A week earlier there had been a customer survey on our website. The customers had been asked how successful they had been in doing whatever they wanted to do on the site and then give a free comment related to it. This gave good material for our session.

First we went through some negative feedback and feelings that it caused. To my surprise none of the feedback created such feelings that I had expected, or due to such reasons that I had assumed. Intuitively I would expect that when someone harshly criticises the system you have built yourself, you feel for example annoyed or disappointed. At least that was how I typically used to feel before I read about NVC. I either used to judge the user (incompetent user) or myself (bad at building web sites).

However, in our team the feelings were maybe disappointed but for different reasons. Our team members felt sorry for the users because the users were not able to accomplish what they had wanted. The team members were disappointed also because they were aware of those issues but couldn't do much about them. In other words, they knew the problems users have, they knew possible solutions, but they didn't have management support to implement those solutions. This led our discussion into two things. First we talked what kind of requests we could make for the management to enable us solving the customer needs and feel accomplishment in our own work. The second thing was to change the point of view.

Like I wrote above, we can focus either on our own feelings and needs or other people's feelings and needs. In this case the other people were not only the users of the system but also the management. We talked what kind of needs the management had and what kind of reasoning had been behind certain prioritisation decisions. I think this was a really valuable aspect, to have empathy towards the management. What I observed during this discussion that first there was a bit higher stress level when our colleagues told about their disappointment towards the missing management support. Then when some empathy was added to the discussion, the stress level lowered. This is something that I have witnessed happening many times in myself when applying NVC.

"When you honestly try to understand other person's point of view and needs behind that, it takes you closer to the 'from human to human' attitude and problem solving. It's not actually anything special, it's just not that easy when you are in a hurry in your daily work."

Positive feedback and NVC

Like I mentioned above, you can apply NVC also in positive situations. The customer feedback was again a great case for that. While there were plenty of negative feedback, there was also a lot of positive feedback.

I did the same thing as with the negative feedback, I read aloud some of the users' comments and asked how our team felt about it. Obviously our team members were happy that they had been able to create such a system that makes (at least) some people satisfied. But more interesting was what different kind of positive feedback gave for us.

Some of the feedback was very short like "works really well" or just simply a smiley. While this surely felt nice, that kind of feedback didn't really help us to understand how we had been able to help the customer. Instead, when there was feedback like "the service was very easy and fast to use", it helped us to better see in what way we had succeeded. This led to the discussion how we ourselves can give feedback for other people. Do we in a way judge them by saying that they are good or they do good work? Or do we tell them how their work has helped us to meet our needs? Everyone agreed how the latter way is clearly more valuable for the feedback receiver.

List of positive feelings by Center of Nonviolent Communication

More challenging cases

We further continued to more challenging cases. One of our team members had had quite a lot of negative feelings related to co-operation (or lack of it) with another team in the same organisation. Her reactions and conclusions had been mainly how the actions of the others had created the negative feelings for her. So this clearly was a great opportunity to take a different point of view.

First we went through some of the situations there had been, without jumping into the conclusions and judgments. Then we tried to identify the feelings there were. Like in many other cases during the session, this wasn't as easy as it sounds. Many times during the session I asked someone about his or her feelings but the reply went very quickly to what the other person had done in the situation. I think that this is probably the most challenging part of NVC. Naming feelings is really difficult, identifying needs maybe even more. But especially difficult is to listen ourselves and our feelings and needs, instead of focusing on the other people's actions.

"I really started to think my behaviour and reactions related to certain persons / topics (even though unfortunately I note that it requires plenty of effort in my busy daily life)."

When we had talked enough about the feelings and needs that the team member had regarding to this case, and also practiced in making requests for the other party, we took the other party's point of view. To me it looked like that this helped my colleague even more, to focus on the other person's feelings and needs. I don't think I can overemphasise the value of empathy.

During the session I noticed how difficult it was to name the needs we have. Since I kind of anticipated this, I had printed the list of different needs before the session. We used that list and saw how in so many cases the needs we have in our work are related to the need of connection, the specific needs being like appreciation, cooperaton, and respect. I wonder what would happen in organisations if people would better understand how important needs these are for the employees, for human beings.

List of needs by Center of Nonviolent Communication

NVC inside the team

As the last case we talked about a situation that happened inside our own team. I found this very interesting case since the actions of some people caused positive feelings (like excited) for some team members and negative feelings (like worried) for others. This demonstrates very well why we need to take responsibility of our own feelings. When our needs are met, we may feel excited. When our needs are not met, we may feel worried. It's the needs that cause feelings, not the actions of other people.

"To me it was really an eye-opener when you reminded how the same action can create different reactions for different people, depending on their motives and needs. I think this helps to understand the other person's point of view."

Again we talked about the feelings and needs related to this case. What I observed this time was how there was a rush to jump into the solutions without first clearly understanding the needs. This is yet another challenge with NVC in my experience.

I felt really proud that our team was able to talk about difficult cases like this. I also believe that this increased the trust inside of the team and made our team stronger than before. For this particular case it gave us tools how to behave differently next time if there is a similar situation.

"I believe that NVC adds trust in the work community and respect towards the other people's thinking and behaviour."

There are no wrong feelings

One major thing during the session was to see how sometimes people felt ashamed of their feelings. Like in the first case our colleague felt that she wouldn't have had the right to feel as she did. Same happened a couple of other times during the session as well. What I wanted to emphasise was that we have a right to have the feelings we have; there are no wrong kind of feelings. When we understand the needs that cause the feelings, it is much easier for us to accept ourselves.

After the session

I think we had a really good and valuable session about nonviolent communication. During the weeks after it we haven't talked much about NVC but I have seen a couple of cases where the session clearly had a positive effect. In one case one of the team members said to me what negative feelings he had had during the daily standup, and why, when I had judged his idea very quickly. I apologised my action but also happily thanked him for saying his feelings aloud since it helped me to see how I had acted in a non-constructive way.

Another team member has also told me how she has even more went through the case regarding the other team in the organisation. She has also talked about NVC with her family members in order to give them some ideas how to handle certain difficult situations.

"Interesting how NVC can be useful with people in all areas of my life: work (workmates and bosses), boyfriend, family members, friends, and all the people I meet in my life."


NVC has enriched my life a lot and that way created me a need to share it with people near me. Since I spend a lot of time for almost every day with my workmates, I find it very valuable that they have at least the basic idea of nonviolent communication. The session we had created a valuable basis for that and further improved our high-performing team into the next level. Even though this was just a beginning, I'm confident that there is a lot more waiting ahead of us.

"I hope that I find time & energy to learn more / read the book. Maybe during my summer holiday."
"NVC - this model is really worth of getting known. The session gave me good basics to use the model already now but also left an exciting feeling to learn more."

(*) I use the word team member a lot in this blog post. A team member can here mean a programmer, Product Owner, Project Manager or something else. I have chosen to use the more generic term since I kind of think that setting roles for the people can be violent and unnecessary categorises people. Since we are a software development team, I rather think that we are all developers with different special skills.


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