Giving feedback honestly and effectively with Non-Violent Communication

Personal feedback is not easy to deliver. Often it is either felt as an attack or brought too softly and not clear. So how do you deliver feedback honestly and effectively? Non-Violent Communication might be the answer.

I am just done with facilitating a long session. One of the attendants asks: “Can I give you some feedback?”. “Sure” I say. I want to learn, even though I know I might feel uncomfortable hearing what she has to say. “You were not listening to what I was saying”. I get a bit agitated and defensive and think to myself “I was listening”. I ask why she would come to that conclusion. “Well, you did not agree with me and take my side. Next time you should listen better.” She leaves me baffled, and I have not learned what to do differently to meet her needs. That was… well I don’t know what it was, but I do know what it was not. It was not effective feedback.

You might have similar experiences. Not many people know how to deliver feedback well and as a result it does more harm than result in improvement. Time to do something about that.

After being prompted again by fellow agilist Anton Vanhoucke I finally read Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book on Non-Violent Communication. And what a powerful book that is! In it Rosenberg, a psychologist who gained a lot of experience in many conflict situations, lays out a simple but very effective framework to express your needs in a clear and nonjudgmental way. Let’s look at the components of the process and how you can use those in delivering feedback in a nonjudgmental way.

The 4 components

Rosenberg argues that most in conversations people try to communicate a need they have. And it comes to no suprise that different people have different needs. A common trap is communicating that need in an offensive or defensive way. Non-violent communication helps to formulate the need in a way that the receiver does not feel under attack, while at the same time be very clear on the need. If we agree that personal feedback starts from a need we can use the NVC steps to bring across this feedback honestly and effectively.

The four components of NVC are:

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Requests
the 4 components of non-violent communication
The 4 components of NVC


Observations are the actions that have affected our or some else’s well-being. When giving feedback you start with describing these actions, without evaluating them. You are just stating the observed facts before moving on to the next step. Key is that the receiver recognizes these actions.


Now it’s time to involve our feelings in relation to what we have observed. When describing your feeling try to be as specific as possible. Often you will find yourself describing your thoughts and not your feelings. So express what you feel. This will also help you provide feedback from your point of view only, and not involving others. If like me you can use some help finding the right word for your feeling, this list might help.


Next up: sharing what you need. Now that you have expressed your feelings it helps to explain where those feelings come from. Talking about what you need instead of what’s wrong with the other person is a far more effective way to resolve differences. Describing your underlying need gives the receiver of the feedback insights in what causes you to feel that way and might already give a hint to what to change. Basic human needs are things like autonomy, integrity, interdependence, fun and celebration.


Only voicing your needs is often not enough to translate your feedback to concrete action. By clearly and explicitly asking a request you help the receiver of the feedback change in a specific way. Might he or she want to do something with your feedback that is of course. A request is an ask, a question, so be aware not to bring your request as a demand. Also, ask for something you want, not for something you don’t want (e.g. “would you let me finish my say before you pitch in with your thoughts ” instead of “I want you to stop interrupting me”).

Putting it together

The four components of NVC are easily tied together with the following format:

When I see/hear ….
I feel ….
because I need …
Would you be willing to …?

Using the example of being interrupted by someone, the feedback might be formulated as: “When I hear you interrupting me mid-sentence I feel frustrated and worried, because I need the time to explain my thoughts clearly. Would you be willing to let me finish before reacting?”.

In the beginning it might feel a bit forced to use the format, but practice and it will feel more natural. I know I’m still far from perfectly applying NVC, but already had several interactions that went better than they would go typically and resulted in more lasting changed behaviors. Just keep practicing.

If you want to know more about NVC I wholeheartedly recommend you read Rosenberg’s book. It is practical and an easy read, full of tangible examples so you can apply the framework yourself.


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