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InfoQ Homepage Articles Conversation Patterns for Software Professionals - Part 5

Conversation Patterns for Software Professionals - Part 5


All the techniques for conducting conversations with clients presented to date (Part1, Part2, Part3, Part4) can be called the mechanics of conversation. Using them will have a clear effect. But if there is no chemistry between the interlocutors during the conversation, these mechanics will not operate. The interlocutor will simply have no desire to cooperate.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg to assist in caring for this chemistry during conversations. From a technical point of view, NVC is a method of conducting dialogues. However, apart from specific techniques, it advocates a set of assumptions and beliefs that might motivate you to think of NVC as a philosophy of treating another human being – and a philosophy where verbal communication is the exact medium.

Learn to observe

- You're pissing me off!

What is your first reaction to the above message? Surprise? Anger? Annoyance? NVC specifies some more precise and flexible tools to establish contact with the interlocutor who produces such a message.

At the beginning, think about what made the other person shout: You’re pissing me off! If you come up with some answers like: I did something that angered or irritated him or I was late, stop. You speak with larger generalizations and you took the words of your interlocutor to heart J.

Imagine that you are looking at a conversation with the interlocutor from the point of view of an observer – you are like a scientist observing a swarm of ants in a terrarium. Behold what the real path was that lead your interlocutor to shout: You’re pissing me off!

The NVC communication model defines that at the beginning there is an Observation. Observation is a sentence starting with:

  • I see…, I saw…,
  • I hear…, I heard…,
  • I say…, I said…,
  • I am doing (physically)…, I did (physically)….

Well, what could your interlocutor do/hear/say see that made him scream: You’re pissing me off!?
He could, for example:

  • See that you entered the meeting room five minutes after the beginning of the meeting,
  • Hear when you said that his idea was without sense.

From the point of view of NVC, the interlocutor was certainly not able to:

  • See that you are late for a meeting,
  • Hear that you criticize his ideas.

“Be late” and “criticize” are not observations, but evaluations. “Coming five minutes after the appointed time” is often called “being late” as “saying that the idea is without sense” is sometimes called “criticism”. But these shorthand labels in no way describe what has actually (and in most cases, physically) happened. Therefore, the NVC model goes for observations rather than evaluations.

Recognize the human need

- You're pissing me off!

You already know that before the interlocutor shouted these words, he:

  • Saw that you came to the meeting five minutes after the appointed time,
  • Or heard that you called his idea pointless.

Let's continue our investigation. What happened immediately after the interlocutor observed these situations?

Here we come to the crux of NVC, i.e. the needs. Needs, as perceived in NVC, are universal, that is, common to all people. Look at the needs listed in Table 1. These needs are close to every person in the world. Marshall Rosenberg writes that the needs are what is alive in us. Because of the universality of these needs, and the necessity to distinguish them from the business needs that I referred to earlier, I will call them human needs.

  • Freedom of choice of dreams, goals and values
  • Freedom of choice of plans
  • Celebrating development
  • Mourning losses
  • Authenticity
  • Creativity
  • Meaning
  • Feeling of personal worth
  • Acceptance
  • Recognition
  • Closeness
  • Community
  • Significance
  • Empathy
  • Honesty
  • Love
  • Joy
  • Support
  • Respect
  • Trust
  • Understanding
  • Having fun
  • Laughter
  • Beauty
  • Harmony
  • Inspiration
  • Order
  • Peace
  • Rest
  • Shelter
  • Food

Table 1. People's needs as perceived in Rosenberg’s NVC

NVC sees ineffective communication, conflict, negative feelings and behaviors as a direct result of these human needs being unmet. The essence of NVC is the ability to recognize, name and talk about the needs of us and others, because then, instead of pointing out each other’s mistakes, we are in a conversation about what we value most – our human needs.


  • I need peace of mind, I am tired.
  • I need support in the near future.
  • I need to understand the meaning of this project.

is explicitly talking about the needs. On the other hand, when we say:

  • I need you to leave.
  • I need to finish this project.
  • I need to change job.
  • Leave me alone!
  • This project does not make sense!

we not talking about needs. The statements quoted refer to specific solutions: “to leave”, “to finish this project”, “to change jobthat are intended to meet some needs. Nevertheless, the actual needs have not yet been named.

Learn to name feelings

- You're pissing me off!

You already know that before the interlocutor shouted these words, he:

  • Saw that you came to the meeting five minutes after the appointed time,
  • Or heard that you called his idea pointless.

which meant that one of the human needs important for him – let's assume that it was the need for order – has not been satisfied.

At this point your interlocutor experienced something that really worried him – an uncomfortable feeling. Feelings come from met or unmet human needs. Certainly, you guess that meeting the needs leads to pleasant feelings, whereas not meeting them leads to uncomfortable ones.

Feelings run very fast and trigger reactions that people do not control consciously. Technically speaking, first there is an emotion, which is a mental process that causes certain physiological reactions in the body such as a burst of hormones or a muscle spasm. From the point of view of evolution, the part of brain responsible for transmitting commands to react in response to an emotional stimulus, is a very old part of brain. It is responsible for basic reactions associated with survival: fight or flight. It must, therefore, act very quickly.

There is, however, quite a (conceptually) simple method for gaining some time between the appearance of the stimulus and the (emotional) response. Generally, it boils down to realizing your emotions. What does it mean? It only means that to gain some time you have to “pass” the information about the emotional stimulus, which travels from your brain to the rest of the body, through a slightly longer path. The easiest way to do it is to engage the abstract thinking area and the speech area. Both of these areas are located in the cerebral cortex, which developed later in our evolution and which is acting slower than the part responsible for emotions.

So what do you have to do? Name what you are going through (abstract thinking area), saying it out loud (speech area). To help you prepare for this fateful task, in Table 2 we present a list of names of feelings. Check it out now to have more names than “good” or “not good” at hand.

• Bliss
• Pleasure
• Relaxation
• Movement
• Amusement
• Tenderness
• Exhilaration
• Focus
• Fulfillment
• Freedom
• Elevation
• Captivation
• Sensitivity
• Delight
• Surprise

• Wonder
• Relaxation
• Inspiration
• Being intrigued
• Curiosity
• Excitement
• Pride
• Passivity
• Pain
• Reluctance
• Anxiety
• Discomfort
• Fury
• Uncertainty
• Distrust

• Depression
• Anger
• Irritation
• Concern
• Indifference
• Heaviness
• Powerlessness
• Sleepiness
• Frustration
• Tension
• Being overwhelmed
• Feeling down

• Indecision
• Regret
• Astonishment

Table 2. Feelings in NVC after Rosenberg

Perhaps you came to a conclusion that our interlocutor shouting: You’re pissing me off! did exactly what we talk about – he named the feeling of “anger”. Nothing could be further from the truth! There is a huge difference between:

- You're pissing me off!


- I feel pissed off!

In the first statement the interlocutor makes you responsible for his own feelings. But this specific feeling is created in him because of his unmet needs. You're pissing me off! is not naming feelings, but throwing accusations. Only the following statements would truly describe feelings:

  • I feel anger!
  • I feel happiness!
  • I feel frustration!
  • I feel moved!

The interlocutor could also say:

  • I feel that you don’t understand me!
  • I feel trapped!
  • I feel I am going mad!

These are statements taken from ordinary language – people “talk this way”. At the same time they do not describe feelings, as these are evaluations in disguise. They evaluate, respectively, the interlocutor (YOU do not understand me), the situation (... trapped), and the description of future action (... going mad). NVC calls such expressions a sense. They are not emotional states named, but emotionally colored utterances, in which someone simply used the verb “feel”.

The Communication Model in NVC

- You're pissing me off!

You already know that before the interlocutor exclaimed the words above:

  • He saw that you came to a meeting five minutes after the appointed time,
  • Or heard that you called his idea pointless.

which meant that one of the human needs important for him – let's assume that it was the need for order – has not been satisfied.

Then he felt anger, frustration or grief that made him shout:

- You’re pissing me off!

The NVC model of communication accounts for all the stages of the process described above to make contact with the interlocutor and possibly to ask him/her to change their behavior. The model looks like this:

  1. When I see/you see.../I hear...<OBSERVATION>
  2. I feel/you feel…<FEELING>
  3. Because I need/you need…<NEED>

The pattern above illustrates two versions of the NVC in case:

  • there is a situation when my needs are not met, therefore I feel unpleasant feelings and I want to ask someone to change their behavior,
  • I see signs of unpleasant feelings in my interlocutor, I try to name these feelings and the needs behind them, and then I suggest some action on my part.

Analyze the conversation in Table 3 to capture the effect of this model in practice.





Oh, but why there's no error message?




We wanted to show the idea, during the week we will add some nice screens.


But I can’t show it ... You know what ... Every time you are showing me some shortcomings. You’re really pissing me off!


The client expresses his feelings. He does it in such a way that he calls the results of the work of professionals “shortcomings” and makes them responsible for his own feelings ("you’re pissing me off").


When you say that we are pissing you off, do you feel angry because you need to be certain...?

First, understand the needs of the interlocutor, then express your needs.

Respecting the above guidelines, the specialist starts to use the NVC communication model. He is trying to guess the need. Maybe this is all about "certainty"?

Please note that the specialist is focused on talking about the observation ("You are saying that we’re pissing you off"), and is not confusing the observation with the evaluations such as: ("when you accuse us", "when you are picking on us").

Yes, I am angry!


It appears that the specialist named the client’s feeling in a correct way.

The client does not refer directly to the need. This confirms that there is a positive intention behind the unpleasant feeling ...


...and you would prefer our solutions to be ready for you to be able to show them to the client?

...and that it bridges us to the next step, which is the expression suggesting the interlocutor to change his behavior.

Well, that's my point.


The client acknowledges: yes, he expects such a change in behavior.,


OK, I understand. You know, when you call our screens "shortcomings” I feel sad, because I need recognition. Maybe next time you could simply say that you do not accept this and we will simply correct it?

This is the moment the specialist talks about his needs and feelings, and then asks the client to change his behavior.

I will think about it ...


Because the client’s needs have been recognized, he is also willing to recognize the needs of the specialist.

Table 3. The NVC model in practice

If you're thinking now that NVC is strange or artificial and you are wondering why on earth you should speak this way, before putting this article aside, read the next paragraph. This is necessary!

Do I have to speak in such a strange way?

No, you do not have to. You even should not, because using the NVC model in a literal way is surprising for the majority of our interlocutors, and after some time it makes them angry. Why is this so? This is more or less the same as code retreat and writing code without using the if-statement. This is workout. In your daily work you might not use it, but when you avoid the if-s, you learn to use polymorphism.

The NVC is only a model. You train it to internalize it. This is it! Practice talking with the NVC model to internalize it in your thinking, in your processing and in the way you analyze messages produced by your interlocutors. The model will help you sort out what you hear.

You need to know exactly what your interlocutor produces, what is an observation, what is an evaluation and what is a need. The model is designed to accurately decompose imprecise and emotional messages, and then to react accordingly to establish contact with the interlocutor.

Keep the model in mind, but do not write it out loud.

“If I am not meant to write it out loud, what should I say”, you might ask? According to the NVC model, you analyze what your interlocutor says and does, and in the course of the conversation you precisely refer to feelings, needs and observations using what some people call the street NVC. Analyze the conversation in Table 4.




Oh, but why there's no error message?




We wanted to show the idea, during the week we will add some nice screens.


But I can’t show it... You know what ... Every time you are showing me some shortcomings. You’re really pissing me off!


The client expresses his feelings. He does it in such a way that he calls the results of the work of professionals “shortcomings” and makes them responsible for his own feelings ("you’re pissing me off").


I do not know what to say... you must be really angry...

The specialist heard the message "you are pissing me off". Then he (internally J) examined it according to the NVC model and identified the feeling behind this message – "anger".

Only then did he name it aloud – "I can see that you are really angry"

How should I feel if we still cannot figure out our cooperation!?


The client acknowledges it.

Remember that feelings are not mathematics. The client’s confirmation does not mean “yes, according to the ISO335-11 specification this is <<anger>>”; rather, this is something like “hmm... yes, the word <<anger >> roughly fits to what I am currently experiencing”.


Well, my guess is that you would prefer to work in better conditions. After all, trusting the team is important.

The specialist is trying to name the human need, which in this situation has not been satisfied. The specialist relies on "trust".

Indeed. And I already do not trust you.


That's right. The word "trust" is roughly equivalent to what the client has in his mind.

The client has confirmed it, but he is still saying something about the professionals – "I do not trust you." Please note that the client has consciously or unconsciously named his need: he lacks "trust".


Because you're concerned that you'll get a shortcoming again?

Since the client has named the need, the specialist is trying to name the feeling associated with this need being unmet. He decides on "concern".

Then he wants to identify the event that caused the client to feel concerned. Again, here the specialist links the need ("concern") with the observation ("you will get a shortcoming again").

You're right, the specialist allowed himself to use the word "shortcoming" which is more of an evaluation than an observation. But he did it consciously (after an internal analysis conducted according to NVC model) to simplify the communication. All in all, it was a name "invented" by the client.

That's the point.


Again, the specialist was correct in naming what the client is experiencing. This is “concern”.

But what if you make a mistake in naming the needs or feelings, and you will miss the clients opinion? Nothing, just go on trying J.


I think I see what the problem is. I can suggest something.

The specialist has shown empathy to the client to establish a good rapport with him.

Now he smoothly moves to the point where he will be able to talk about himself and his needs.



It turns out that the client is willing to follow the direction of the conversation set by the specialist.


As far as I understood, it's ultimately about delivering a completely ready-made functionality. It is also very important for us to handle situations when something doesn’t go as you expect.

The first sentence is a familiar paraphrase. This way, the specialist once again makes sure that he understood the situation of the interlocutor.

Only now, in the second sentence, does the specialist begin to report his needs.

What do you mean?


The client is in contact with the specialist.


For example, when you call what we give you “shortcomings”, it's really frustrating. We are committed to maintaining good relations, so maybe you could pop in more often to have a look at these screens on an ongoing basis?

The specialist indicates the behavior, "you are calling it (...) shortcomings" which evokes a specific feeling of "frustration" in him, then communicates their need, i.e. "good relations", and asks for a change of behavior: "you could pop in more often".

That’s a good idea.


As you can see, agreement without violence is possible!

Table 4. Street NVC in practice

As you can see, the street NVC is completely natural and can be used in every conversation.

Let us explain some misunderstandings...

On a number of IT-related conferences, especially when there are topics related to agile software development, many speakers refer to the NVC. Nonetheless, there are several recurrent misunderstandings referred to, which I would like to address now.

The literal application of the NVC model
Yes, speaking in this specific manner sounds awkward. We have discussed this in detail above.

NVC does not work
It is a very frequent objection, expressed in the form of, for example: I tried to use NVC in a conversation with my boss and it did not work, I tried it in the team and it did not work, I tried it with my children and it was not working. Usually, in such situations we ask precision questions: How did you exactly decide that it did not work? It turns out that this person hoped that using NVC he/she would manage to persuade his/her interlocutor to change their mind. My goodness! This way, the method which focuses on respect for humans and open communication, has been turned into a tool to force the interlocutors to change their mind. This is a total perversion of this method. NVC trainers, somewhat perversely as well, call this specific way of thinking VNC – Violent Noncommunication.

The very question: "Does NVC work?" is a bit out of place. The objective of NVC is neither to achieve tangible results, nor to solve problems during a conversation. The objective of NVC is to eliminate violence from communication, to show empathy, and to maintain contact with the needs that you and your interlocutors have.

What is empathy?
The best definition has been provided by Marshall Rosenberg himself who said that the longer we train ourselves in such a reception [according to the NVC model], the more clearly we realize this simple truth that behind all the messages that always sounded scary to us, there are only unmet needs of people who ask us to do something to improve their well-being.

Why would you use NVC?
If the NVC is not about any particular outcome or persuasion, then why should you even bother? Well, the sincere answer that comes to mind is: because it is right. It is right to care and talk about your needs and have the same attitude towards the needs of others. It is right to speak about your experiences and to listen to the feelings of your interlocutors. Just let us be in touch – without guilt or coercion. We are convinced by the vision of a world in which people function this way. Even if this vision does not come true too quickly.

Quotes from Marshall Rosenberg have been taken from the book Nonviolent Communication. A Language of Life (Polish edition).

About the Author

Michał Bartyzel – I have been dealing with the topic of the efficiency of the development teams for ten years so far. I am working on improving both the architecture of the applications and its refactoring, as well as on improving the cooperation between the so-called business and the development teams. So far, I have conducted more than five hundred training and consulting days with the best development teams in Poland. I have come to a conclusion that linguistic skills are the key to Software Craftsamanship. This applies to, both, the ​​cooperation with business and the developer’s job, which I show in the trainings that I design and dedicate to refactoring, working with code and architecture. Many techniques that I have developed so far are presented here. I also share some new techniques that I am currently working on during numerous conferences, on my blog and in the Programista magazine.

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