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Do Your Words Create Walls Instead of Bridges?

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Do Your Words Create Walls Instead of Bridges?

Non-Violent Communication makes conflict clearer and easier to overcome within teams.

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"Tomorrow is an important customer demo and nobody on the team is working on it."

The nightly build of the software is broken again!

You have an awesome kid who has left his toys scattered across the living room floor for the third time today!!

Have you come across such situations at the workplace or home? What was your likely response?

Every day we are communicating with a number of people: with our loved ones, our colleagues, and so on. Most often, many communications end with irrational conflicts. This article is inspired by Management 3.0's NVC practice and Marshall B. Rosenberg's book, Non-Violent Communication.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of communicating that allows us to connect with others genuinely. The term "nonviolence" is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, also known as Father of the Indian Nation. One of the key strengths of the NVC approach is that it helps us communicate our feelings clearly. NVC encourages us to take a four step approach:

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings,
  3. Needs,
  4. and Requests.
To practice NVC, we must completely abandon the goal of getting other people to do what we want. — Marshall Rosenberg

So, let me take you through the journey of the NVC approach.

1. Observations

This means firstly focusing your energy on being aware of the present moment and listening carefully to what the other person is saying and asking yourself, "How is this affecting my well-being?" Then, engaging your senses – touch, sight, and sound – to connect as much as possible with the situation and avoiding generalizing. NVC discourages static generalizations. Instead, focus on specific time and context is recommended

For example, imagine in a Daily Scrum that one of the developers is late. The rest of the development team could say, "You are always late to meetings" as an evaluation, but, “You do not seem to arrive before 8:30 a.m.” is more exact. Similarly, “You rarely take my feedback,” is an evaluation; a more apt observation would be: “The previous three times I offered feedback, you refused to accept it.” Both observations are specific, which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of disagreement and it is free of criticism, which prevents the receiver of your message from becoming defensive. It is said that, "When we combine observation with evaluation others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying."

Observing without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence. — Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti

2. Feelings

We've seen that clear observation is the first step of NVC. However, we now need to learn how to express our feelings in order to communicate effectively. This can be achieved by articulating our feelings accurately. Using a general expression can be unclear at times; the best way to express ourselves is by being specific.

Imagine in a Sprint Retrospective a development team member who wants to convey sadness. “I feel a bit sad” is vague and fails to communicate the specific emotional state. However, clearly expressing the feeling as, "I feel depressed or disappointed due to ..." might be very helpful in discovering the actionable improvements and making the next sprint more awesome. Instead of bottling up your feelings, use NVC to establish bridges of communication: observe, identify your feelings and needs, and make clear requests.

Feelings are not just emotions that happen to you. Feelings are reactions you choose to have. - Wayne Dyer

3. Needs

Identifying your needs is the most difficult step because people simply don’t have enough practice doing it; instead, they fall into the blame game. The blame game is a classic catch-22 situation because we don’t normally express our needs, and then blame others for not meeting them.

Imagine a Scrum team not having shared understanding of what it means for the work to be complete and during the sprint review, the Product Owner blaming the development team that the increment doesn't meet expectations. This will leave the development team feeling guilty and becoming defensive. Sound like a familiar story? Create a Definition of Done that applies to increments and clearly, explicitly express the product qualities and development standards that the increment needs to adhere to in order to call the work to be complete.

Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need. —Marshall Rosenberg

4. Requests

So far, we’ve explored three elements of NVC: observations, feelings, and needs. Let’s step towards the final stage of NVC: requests. How can we express our requests in a way that will help others respond to us compassionately?

This intends expressing requests in positive language. Positive language is when you request something to be done, while negative language refers to when you ask somebody to stop doing something.

For example; Imagine in a sprint retrospective Product Owner seeking feedback from the Scrum Team, but knowing they are afraid to express it. She could say, “I’d like you to feel free to share your thoughts with me.” Here, she’s communicating that she’d like the team to “feel free” to say what they want. However, she doesn’t say which specific actions they could take in order to "feel free." To help them do so, she might make a request using the principles of positive language: “I’d like you to tell me what I might do to make it easier for you to feel free to share your thoughts with me.”

It is impossible to escape conflicts. However, the principles of NVC offer useful tools for dealing with conflicts.

In another instance, picture a dispute between a Product Owner and development team. The Development team accuses the Product Owner of not expressing PBIs clearly, while the Product Owner says that he does. After observing and identifying their feelings, they both realize that their shared understanding of “expressing PBIs clearly” is mismatching.

The Development team then says, “We need you to clearly define the acceptance criteria for all the PBIs because lack of clarity leaves us with lots of assumptions.” The PO replies, “That’s fine with me. However, it seems fair that you, too, start developing acceptance criteria for the technical PBIs so that I can focus more on optimizing the value of work done by the development team.” They agree to their requests, and both partners end up satisfied.


Nonviolent Communication is a systematic approach to reduce conflict in our interpersonal relationships by including compassion into every word we speak and listening to others' needs.

The next time you feel angry, take a deep breath and question the root of your anger. Ask yourself, “Why am I angry?” rather than, “Who am I angry with?” By addressing the feelings at the source of your anger, you’ll become mindful that it’s your reaction, and not the other person, that's making you angry.

scrum master ,agile leadership ,non violent communication ,agile management ,ghandi ,conflict management

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