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The Scientifically Proven, Step-by-Step Guide to Having a Breakthrough Conversation Across Party Lines

Originally published on Quartz

There seems to be no way around it: In the aftermath of a contentious US presidential election, conversations between voters all along the political spectrum either devolve into shouting matches and insults, or irreconcilable platitudes. 

If they occur at all.

But we’ve been here before, according to the late psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. As a communications coach and mediator for civil rights and student activists during the US civil rights era, Rosenberg developed a practical strategy for peaceful conflict resolution called non-violent communication. By focusing on language and process, the theory goes, injured parties can shift the tone of their communication and spur collaboration.

Rosenberg’s method, now used by companies, conflict negotiators, and personal therapists, is rooted in the belief that all humans share the same universal needs, including the sense that they’re being heard, understood, valued, and respected. Conflicts arise when words are perceived as threats, which devolve into power struggles. The goal of Rosenberg’s four-step approach to meaningful conversations is to connect about everyone’s needs, not to “win.”

Dian Killian, a certified trainer in Rosenberg’s method and collaborative communications consultant, breaks down the four steps:

1. Observe and recap

The NVC process begins with neutral observation. In conversations, this is most easily done by recapping what someone has said, without emotional input. That means not attaching any judgment or “story” to your response, Killian tells Quartz. Comments that begin in the first person, i.e. “I hear you say…” work better than “You just said…”.


Person 1: “We have to do something about the illegal immigrant problem, because they’re taking away our jobs, and people like you don’t care.”

Person 2: “I’m hearing you say that you’re worried about your job security and that other people in this country are ignoring that concern.”

This tool slows the pace of conversation, and forces both sides to reflect and clarify. But it’s easier said than done, Killian warns: “It’s a muscle to develop, because what we usually do when we’re disturbed by something is start disagreeing right away.”

2. Describe emotions, not positions

Talk feelings, not issues. If you’re trying to make yourself heard, clearly describe your own emotions, rather than your policy positions.

In the immigration example above, for instance, the second person might ask: “Are you feeling frightened and disrespected?” rather than stating that immigrants are entitled to the certain rights.

The hard part in nailing this step is expressing only your own emotional turmoil, rather than translating your emotions into blame. Describing feelings of concern, fear, heartbreak, rage, dismay, or confusion are useful. More examples of productive emotional expressions can be found here (pdf).

By contrast, “I feel like…” is typically used to express opinions, not feelings, says Killian. Even “I feel misunderstood,” expresses “You misunderstood me,” and lays subtle blame. “I feel hurt” is also a trap; it implies that the other person has done something wrong.

3. Identify needs

According to NVC teachings, all of the emotions we experience when we’re upset are connected to an unmet need, which is a requirement for contentment. Rosenberg found that human needs universally fall into one of a handful of categories, including connection, honesty, peace, play, physical well-being, a sense of meaning, and autonomy.

In step #3, one participant pairs their or the other party’s expressed feelings with either side’s unmet needs. A person concerned with an immigration crackdown might say, “I want to be confident that I and my family have some stability.” The other party might ask, “Are you looking for awareness for the situation you’re in?”

In a heated conversation, returning to identifying needs (a longer list of those needs can be found here) can remove roadblocks. “Eighty percent of the time when both people are triggered, you want to focus on a ‘connection request’ before moving on,” says Killian. This might sound like, “I’m wondering if I understand correctly how you’re feeling concerned,” or “I’m wondering what you’ve heard me say.”

4. Make a request

At a certain point in the conversation, it’s time to ask for concrete actions that would help satisfy a need. Typically, these requests will arise organically when both sides are openly connecting, says Killian. “People come up with ideas they never would have thought of when they felt angry and unheard,” she says.

An immigration-related request might be, “Would you be willing to read this article I found interesting about immigrants and the economy?” Tapping into your curiosity can be fruitful. You might say, “Hold on, I’m really curious. Why do you think that?” and take the conversation even deeper.

Killian stresses that the ask has to be in a moment of understanding between the parties, or else it risks falling flat. A useful analogy, Killian says, is two glasses of water being poured into each other and overflowing. “That’s what happens when two people speak without acknowledging what’s driving the other person,” she explains. “We’re talking to people, and we’re trying to fill them up with our ideas, and they don’t have space.”

In Rosenberg’s words, “I wouldn’t expect someone who’s been injured to hear my side until they felt that I had fully understood the depth of their pain.”

Use the four steps to manage yourself, too

The four steps can also be used to manage one’s own needs and inner conflict. This involves noticing what is triggering you; naming your judgment and feelings about that trigger; recognizing the need connected to that judgment; and finding a strategy to help you cope with that need. For instance, in the middle of a heated conversation, you may choose to excuse yourself and find a quiet space, like a bathroom, to run through these steps.

“If you’re telling yourself ‘they’re ignorant,’ you’re probably looking for awareness and shared reality,” Killian explains. Likewise, if you believe someone is ‘difficult,’ you’re actually wanting a sense of connection.

Killian advises patience to become “fluent” in the practice. “It’s like learning a second language,” she says, with all the requisite books and practice groups to boot. Beginners might want to limit their practice to step #1 (the recap) and identifying their intention in conversations. In the wake of Election Day, that intention might simply be to find harmony, which may mean returning to a topic on a different day, when your emotions are more in check.

When someone’s needs are not being met, she warns, “the more violent, in language or action, they become.”


Lila MacLellan

Lila MacLellan is a reporter for Quartz in New York. She has a special interest in unusual things people do with their bodies and money. She is also obsessed with social psychology, and Japan, where she lived for three years before becoming a journalist. Lila has worked as an editor… MORE >

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