muppets, all of us.

Conversations collapse into arguments, accusations and counter-accusations. Insults, personal attack and sometimes even physical violence mar the political argument as 2016 draws to a close. Here we are at the pinnacle of human development, at the most advanced point in our evolution, yet our political institutions seem to be rife with corruption and poor management, and the discourse has cascaded into demagoguery and personality cult.

Marshall Rosenberg was a psychologist during the Civil Rights Era in the United States. He developed a process where, by focusing on language and communication cues, opposing sides could shift their arguments toward mutual collaboration. Rosenberg speculated that all humans share the same basic needs, to be heard and understood, and for their argument to be respected. Conflict arises when the actual wording of the argument is perceived as a threat, leading to conflict. His four steps lead to a resolution of everyone’s needs, and does not focus on the inner drive of the individual to ‘win’. Small changes in the language used demonstrate the value of the other person and their perspectives.

Observation and Analysis

The first step in Rosenberg’s process deals with the analysis of the over-arching argument, without emotional input. In practical terms, this could mean repeating what someone has just said, but without attaching any emotional wright or justification in the response. Simple phonetic change whereby we refocus the commentary to extract necessary and vital information from the encounter is the objective. “I am listening” is a more effective response than “You said”. This helps by slowing the pace of the discourse, and empowers deeper interpretation. By resisting the temptation to disagree immediately the idea is that injured parties can move forward instead of becoming entrapped in the various minutiae of the argument. This is a skill which needs to be learned and exercised, as it may not come naturally.

Emotions above Experience

While they should not be the driving force of the situation, feelings play an important part in the argument. By reflecting the other person’s emotional point of view one displays empathy; by expressing your own emotional conflict, be it fear, anger or disillusion, without converting these into a weapons with which to attack one’s opponent the argument is moved along to a more productive phase.


Rosenberg’s principal was that negative emotions which we experience within a conflict setting are related to unmet needs: He created a framework in which he categorised these desires into categories such as recreation, harmony, sense of well-being, control. In this part of the process the two sides attempt to pair their feelings with the other sides needs. One party might express fear and concern about their government or certain policies, the respondent party could reflect this by asking about their insecurities as regards their financial/moral wellbeing.
Focusing on the identification of needs can remove blocks in the communication process, especially within the environment of a heated debate. These pauses are based on verbal analysis; “I am questioning my understanding of the situation…”; “I am wondering what you’ve heard me say…”


At some stage in discussions there comes as point when one must talk about specific actions that help satisfy needs. These requests and desires come to the fore naturally when both sides establish a connection. By leading the conversation in this way we arrive at new conclusions and new understandings both of ourselves and our position and the requirements of the other party. Offering information considered contrary to the opponents point of view for example, or expressing curiosity to deepen our understanding of the other. It is important that this occurs at the most adequate moment. Otherwise, two people speaking at the same time is counter productive; the opponent has no ‘space’ in which to take on board the opposing argument. As Rosenberg stated, “I wouldn’t expect someone who has been injured to hear my side until they felt that I had fully understood the depth of their pain.”

Manage Yourself

This approach is also useful for dealing with one’s own needs and inner conflict. Find out what it is that is causing turmoil within you, state your opinion and feelings about the situation, recognise the needs involved, and find a solution that helps you manage these necessities. Examples are something simple like withdrawing to a quiet place to reflect, or putting yourself in the shoes of your opponent. Every need can be further exposed and analysed. If you believe your opponent to be stupid in reality you may be looking for understanding and connection, if you believe them to be stubborn your end goal might be acceptance.

With practice you can become fluent in this technique. there are many resources available for those interested in learning more about this approach. You can begin by focusing on the first step, observation. Finding a common thread within the cacophony. If needs aren’t met negative behaviour tends to come to the fore. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) helps people peacefully and effectively resolve conflicts in personal, organisational, and political settings.

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