How to Give Non-Violent Feedback

Non-violent communication is a process which enables us to communicate with great compassion. From sharing our feelings and needs, receiving/giving feedback, re-imagining perceived criticism to clearly articulating our requests, it is a communication tool which reminds us stay connected to ourselves so we are connected to others.

This blog post articulates how to give feedback in a non-violent way.

In a recent workshop I led on the practice of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) or Life-Serving Communication, at our monthly AWiB session, one of the participants expressed her surprise at my declaration that usage of words like “good”, “great”, “excellent”, “brilliant” and such, can actually be violent ways of communicating our feedback, in the same manner that words “stupid”, “bad”, “idiot”, “foolish” can equally be violent.

A raised eyebrow? A quizzical look? No problem, both are welcome. I experienced much the same reaction when I first encountered the practice of NVC. As expressed during the workshop, the purpose of NVC is to connect us moment to moment with what is alive in us and enhance our ability to articulate this aliveness to other individuals so that they can understand and empathize with our feelings and needs and vice versa.

With this basic notion of what NVC is about, were a colleague, friend or supervisor to give me feedback that a “work done was good”, I can definitely walk away knowing that he/she was satisfied. But have they left me with a nuanced understanding of where that satisfaction was derived from as it relates to the work done? No. Have they provided me with a comprehension of what aspects of the work done generated such a feeling so that I can do the same or better next time? No? Do I even have a sense of their values system or where their personal definition of “good” resides as opposed to mine? Not at all!

As humans, in our universal need for recognition and acknowledgement, we thrive on positive feedback as much feedback perceived as negative may leave us feeling deflated. However, how often do we unpack the content of positive feedback received, as recipients? How much thought do we put into articulating positive feedback, as givers? Can we really assume that the recipient of our feedback really understands the message we are trying to convey?

Compare the following exchanges and decide for yourself how much is being communicated that unravels what is alive in the speaker. In both scenarios, Person B has completed work that meets the expectations and needs of Person A.

Scenario 1:

Feedback by A: “I think you did an excellent job! Really fascinating work I tell you. Thank you”

Analysis: Is it clear what A means by excellent or fascinating? Or does B leave with his/her interpretation of what excellent and fascinating are? To find out what A actually means, the following is a possible response by B.

Possible response by B: “I’m glad that you found it to be that way. Can you please tell me more about what aspects you found excellent and why?”

Scenario 2:

Feedback by A: “You did an excellent job! And by this I mean that you were able to highlight the gaps and challenges we face as an organization and provide measurable solutions to address the issues you have raised”. I would like to see more of this recommendation approach to your work, even when it is not solicited expressly.”

Possible response by B: B can repeat back or paraphrase what he/she heard A saying, to confirm understanding – “So you are saying that what you find excellent in the work I just completed is that I have provided solutions to some of the problems we are raising?”

In my opinion, A’s response in Scenario 1 only gives beautiful words that can easily be heard in different way by different ears. I have my own measuring stick for “excellent” and “fascinating” as do millions of people around, for whom such definitions are shaped by personal experience and value systems. Rather, the response by A in Scenario 2 provides much more content and explanation of how A defines excellent, and therefore, what A is trying to communicate in that moment.

Non-violent communication encourages us to shine the light of consciousness on our conversations and speak with purpose; that the messages we convey carry clearly the content we want to leave the other person with and that we are connected with that person, moment to moment.

What are your experiences of giving and receiving feedback?