How to Use NVC for Email

A Brief Step-by-Step Guide

Combining Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and email is my current focus.   What I’ve learned thus far is it’s  astonishingly effective in two areas. First, it reduces my anxiety — giving me more sense of power over the slings and arrows of outrageous emails.  But second — a surprise to me — it seems to be one of the two easiest ways to brush up core NVC skills by yourself (the other being NVC journaling).

How do you do this? Here’s my stripped-down, step-by-step version of the classic “OFNR” (Observation, Feelings, Needs, Request) NVC sequence adapted to email.

Note: to be effective, this will take some time, particularly if you’re new to NVC.  But that’s one of the beauties of it.  Taking your time runs counter to the baked-in rush-rush nature of email — not to mention what Leo Babuta calls our adversarial relationship to time. Instead you give precedence to yourself and your true needs — and, over time, increase both your NVC and email skills.

1. Get a pen and paper.  Writing often helps you go deeper.  Also it’s easier than it is on a mobile or computer to spontaneously draw connecting lines, circle things that suddenly leap out at you, and so on.

2. Think of an email you received that you had a negative reaction to or an email you wrote that you now wish you hadn’t.

3. Pull up that email.  If what’s on your mind is waiting for a reply (one of the most common crazy-making loops I get caught in), then pull up the email you sent.

4. Make an observation about this email. Often NVC “observations” can be challenging to articulate, but this is an area where email shines.  You go through the email you pulled up in step 3,  jotting down the parts that are most evocative for you.  In the case of no reply, you could make an observation such as: “It’s been three days since I sent this email and I haven’t heard back.”  Be as factual as possible.  For example, “three days” is factual; “a long time” would be an assessment or judgment.

5. What are your thoughts or judgments about this email?  Take your time.  Write down all that come to mind.  It’s A-OK to let your jackals howl.

6. What are your feelings about each of these thoughts and judgments? Again, take your time.  Often it’s helpful to tune into your body.  Do you feel tension anywhere in particular?  Write down the feelings and sensations you notice.  If there are more than three, underline the two or three that resonate most.

7. What are your needs (or values) underneath those thoughts and feelings?  “Needs” are at the heart of NVC.  Take your time looking through an NVC needs list (such as BayNVC’s). What needs leap out at you?  Sometimes a need that seems to resonate might not make sense, but write it down nonetheless; often such mystery needs turn out to be the juiciest.  If you list more than three needs, underline two or three that resonate the most.

8.  What might be the other person’s feelings and needs Once again, take your time.  Even though you can only guess, empathizing with others often opens up possibilities.

9. How are you feeling now? Any shift from your feelings in step 6?

10. Optional: Do you have a request? Considering the needs (steps 7 and 8) and your current feelings (step 9), is there something you’d like to ask of yourself or the other person? It’s crucial to resist the temptation to rush into an answer. You might even postpone and come back to this step in a day or so. If you do craft a request, here are four pieces to cover.  (Note: if the request is of yourself, just do 3 and 4.)

  1. Be sure it’s initially a connection request, e.g. “I’m wondering how you feel about this. Would you like to talk about it on the phone?”  Once you’ve connected you can make a solution request.
  2. Be open to the answer being “no” — in which case you can work on other strategies, e.g., making a request of yourself.
  3. Make it positive and doable. Don’t ask yourself or others to refrain from doing something.
  4. State it as a clear, concrete, time-specific action, e.g., in a reply write, “Would you be willing to talk on the phone tomorrow at 10:00 about this email?”

As you wrap up, I’d encourage you to pause and notice what’s currently alive in you.  Often my initial sense of constriction has often diminished.  Even if I don’t feel great, it helps to notice this since it encourages me to continue such practices.  I hope the same is true for you.

If you have suggestions or feedback about combining NVC and email, I would be grateful if you would share them with me.