It’s important to be open and honest when you communicate your feelings to others, but we also have to be careful not to turn ourselves into “emotional manipulators.”
Too often we believe that merely speaking our feelings (“That makes me angry!” or “That makes me sad!”) should be enough to change people’s behaviors and get what we want out of them.
However, when you communicate your feelings with the expectation that it should automatically change others, this is often a counter-productive approach and you are often setting yourself up for disappointment.
When feelings are used as tools for manipulation, and people believe that you are just expressing an emotion to get a certain response out of them, that can often have a “backfire effect” where the person becomes less willing to do what you want them to do.
In the classic book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg shares his fantastic system for communicating our feelings and needs in a peaceful way that minimizes hostility and aggression.
If you have plans with someone and you cancel it last minute, your friend might tell you, “Oh that’s fine. I’ll just stay home all by myself on a Saturday night!” But while your friend has a right to feel upset, you can tell that they are ultimately guilt-tripping the person for bailing out on them.
Of course we have a right to our feelings. We have a right to feel angry, upset, guilty, or frustrated – but it’s also important that we express these emotions in a constructive way that doesn’t just add more fuel to the emotional fire.
According to Dr. Rosenberg, when we communicate our feelings with the intention to manipulate others, we are engaging in a type of “violence.” We are essentially using our feelings to coerce or punish someone for not acting how we would like them to.
The aim of his system of Nonviolent Communication (or “NVC”) is to learn how to communicate our feelings to others in a less hostile and judgmental way.
Here are the 4 fundamental principles of Nonviolent Communication:
- Observation – To be better communicators, we have to focus on the facts before we begin assigning meaning or judgment to them. If someone doesn’t show up to a date we had planned, that’s the only observable fact I know. But when I start thinking, “This person is very rude!” or “They must hate me!” then I’m assigning meaning to my observations that may not be true. It’s important to stick to the facts if we want to engage in honest communication.
- Feelings – To be better communicators, we have to be honest about our feelings without being judgmental or evaluating others in response to them. When your boss declines to give you a raise and you say, “I feel this isn’t fair!” that’s reflecting a judgment on your boss (“He’s unfair”). Instead, it’s more proper to say, “I feel upset because…” or “I feel angry because…” which focuses on the emotions you’re feeling without turning them into a judgment onto others.
- Needs – To be better communicators, it’s helpful to understand that all feelings are “expressions of needs” that aren’t being fulfilled. It’s important to communicate your needs in a direct way. If a wife tells her husband, “You spend too much time at work” – so the husband takes a day off and plays a round of golf instead – she might be still upset if the true need she wanted to communicate was, “I wish you’d spend more time with me and the family.” If you don’t communicate your needs to others, they won’t know what you’re asking of them.
- Requests – To be better communicators, it’s important that we speak about our feelings and our needs in terms of “requests” rather than “demands.” When we speak about our feelings with the expectation that people should just know what we want and comply to it, we aren’t putting in the necessary effort to make our feelings understood. By making a request for a specific change, we give others a much clearer idea of what it is we are asking of them.
Keeping these principles in mind is a good start to better communicate your feelings, but it’s important to understand that nothing is guaranteed.
When you communicate your feelings in a non-violent and non-aggressive way, remember you are making a request of others, not a demand. Ultimately it’s still in the person’s power to say “no” to your request, and you have to respect their wishes as well.
Remember, feelings are a two way street. Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t entitle you to anything. And if you really want to request someone to make a change, you have to also keep in mind their own feelings and needs as well.
Now that we have the basics of Nonviolent Communication explained, the second half of this article will include more details and advice on how to communicate your feelings in a peaceful way based on these principles.
Nonviolent Communication is a very useful guide on how to communicate your feelings and needs to others in a more peaceful and non-confrontational way. In a world where we often use our feelings as a tool to manipulate others, this book shows how to be open and honest about your feelings while still taking responsibility for them.
How to Communicate Your Feelings in a Peaceful Way
Here are healthy tips to remember if you want to communicate your feelings in a more peaceful and friendly way:
- Be honest about your feelings. – Of course it’s important to be honest and communicate your feelings to others. The point of this article isn’t to tell you to keep your feelings to yourself, this only leads to miscommunication, unmet needs, and unhealthy relationships. When you try to ignore your feelings or keep them bottled up, they often continue to build and eventually explode out in a destructive and unhelpful way. Making it a habit to be honest about your feelings is important if you want to effectively communicate with others.
- Take responsibility for your feelings. – While certain people and situations can definitely influence our feelings, we have to remember that our feelings are ultimately our responsibility. We don’t always choose how we feel, but we do have a choice in how we respond to those feelings, and whether we do so in a constructive or destructive way. Feelings aren’t a “permission pass” to lash out or hurt others. When you refuse to take responsibility for your feelings, they can quickly become an excuse for bad decision-making.
- Communicate what you need without judgment. – When we communicate our feelings, we are often expressing a need that we wish to be fulfilled. When a wife says to her husband, “You spend too much time at work” what she really wants is for her husband to spend more time with her and the kids. By communicating this as a personal need, but without blaming her husband for not fulfilling this need, she can better express her message. For example, she could say, “I know you’re very busy with work, but I’m upset because I wish you would spend more time with the kids.” This expresses her feelings and needs, while not making judgmental statements like “You’re such a bad father!”
- Make a specific request. – When we make a request of others, it’s best we make it specific and concrete. When a boyfriend or girlfriend says, “I need more freedom in the relationship” this is a vague request that a person likely won’t know how to fulfill. What does the person exactly mean by “freedom?” Instead, make your request something concrete like, “I’d like to spend some weekend nights at the bar with just the girls.” By communicating your needs in a more specific way, it clears up any room for confusion and allows the other person to respond to the request more accurately.
- Keep in mind their feelings and needs too. – Whenever you communicate your feelings, it’s important to remember that the other person has their own set of feelings and they may not always match up with yours. Actively listening to other people’s needs is just as important as speaking your own needs. And only when both sides have their needs expressed and understood can you begin to find common ground and be able to resolve conflicts and disagreements. If you believe that your feelings are always more important than someone else’s, it’s going to be very difficult to find peaceful solutions.
- Respect people when they tell you “No.” – The final stage of communicating your feelings is to make a request of the other person. But because this is a request and not a demand, you have to be willing to hear the answer “No” from time to time. And when someone tells you “No” it’s going to hurt, but you can’t make a big deal about it by overreacting or lashing out or throwing insults at the other person for not complying. Usually when we overreact to a “No,” it’s because we weren’t making a request – we were making a demand – which isn’t a healthy approach to communicating our feelings.
Of course most of these things are easier said than done. To communicate your feelings in a peaceful and friendly way takes a lot of practice and patience with both yourself and others. It’s a difficult process, but it’s one that’s worth working on.
If you’d like to discover more about how to communicate peacefully and effectively, I highly recommend checking out the classic book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. It’s a system that has been applied to many different settings including parenting, marriage, work, government, and therapy.
Dealing with feelings can be a messy business, but the guidelines of Nonviolent Communication can help us make the process a little bit easier and cleaner. It’s a must-read, especially if you have trouble expressing yourself in a friendly way.
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