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Connect or Control – How to Communicate Non-violently

Image of Connect or Control – How to Communicate Non-violently

I recently met a young couple for a marriage preparation programme. I asked them what they liked about each other. Many nice attributes like caring and understanding were brought up. Interspersed within the conversation, the boyfriend commented about his girlfriend being “lazy” and “stupid”. Though in a joking manner, and his girlfriend had laughed it off, I wonder how she really felt when such “violent” language is used when relating to each other.

We often say critical words to each other with the hope that by telling you the “truth”, you will change and become a “better” person. Somehow, the closer the person is to us, the more critical we become. Being right seems to be highly valued for us to feel important and validated as a worthy person. No one wants to be wrong, right? Being right also makes us feel powerful and gives us the authority to demand and sometimes to control others.

In many of the conflicts I learnt from couples who came for counselling, the husband and wife spent a lot of time and emotional energy to prove one was right and the other was wrong. Inevitably, they ended up in anger and used harsh words that hurt, dismiss and belittle each other.

What do we mean by violent communication? According to Dr Marshall Rosenberg, it is the way we relate to others that judges (“you are so ignorant”) and blames (“it’s your fault”) and oftentimes threatens (“Do it my way or else”) and demands (“why can’t you do it this way?”). It implies that I am better than or I know better than you. The impact on our relationship is emotional withdrawal, misunderstanding, hurt and pain and in extreme cases, family violence.

How do we use non-violent language in our daily interactions, especially when we are angry?

Non-violent language is also known as compassionate communication. It means to be generous to others in giving them the benefit of doubt and not take offence. It also means to connect and celebrate instead of criticising and control. Non-violent communication requires us to examine our own feelings and needs that cause us to make judgemental statements, express our feelings without blaming, and share our needs and value others’ needs equally.

Being angry is not wrong nor negative since emotions are part of our makeup as humans. Being angry tells us that the needs we value are being violated or not met, and we want to protect ourselves. However, being angry does not give us the right to hurt others.  Rather than suppressing your anger or blasting others with your judgment, Dr Rosenberg suggests the use of these 4 steps to communicate with your loved ones:

  1. “When I see or hear …”. Express our observation as if you are a reporter without making an evaluation. For example, instead of saying, “you are so messy”, express your observation factually, “I saw shirts lying on the floor”.

  2. “I feel …” or “I am …”. Express how you feel according to your inner experience rather than your interpretation of the action. For example, instead of “I am so angry that you have made the house like a pigsty”, express your feeling in a non-condemning way, “I am frustrated to see the house untidy”.

  3. “I value …” or “I need …”. Clarify the needs that are important to you in that situation. For example, instead of saying, “I want you to clean this up right away”, express your need in a personal way, “I value having a neat house.”

  4. “I hope …” or “Would you be willing …”. Invite your loved one to enrich your life with concrete action. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t want to see this happening again!”, express your request gently, “Would you be willing to put the shirts into the laundry basket in the future?”.

I taught this approach in many classes. They tried. The first thing they told me was that they find it difficult not to mention the “fault” of the other person. That is because we have gotten so used to speaking with judgment and blame to control the other person that we have forgotten how to connect compassionately and gently. Yes, it isn’t easy. But we need to unlearn and relearn how to connect with our loved ones without feeling like we have to control them to make us happy.

As we end off the year, [OR let’s start well this year and], let’s make a commitment to communicate non-violently with our loved ones.  Remember:

  • When we are angry, instead of responding quickly with harsh words, pause to connect with our feelings and needs before choosing a non-violent response.

  • When we learn to understand our own needs, we can express our inner world to our loved ones, allowing them to know us more deeply.

  • Instead of demanding that the other person change, invite our loved ones to meet our needs and enrich our connection.

If you would like to find out more about our marital support and family counselling, please email us at [email protected] or call 62355229. Our marital support services are offered free. 

Written by Timothy Thong, Counsellor, Fei Yue Community Services



Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships by Marshall B. Rosenberg, 2015, 3rd Edition

Being Genuine by Thomas D’Ansembourg, 2007