“Non-Violent Communication, A Language of Life” by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg

Dr Michael Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication is probably not on many must-read support book lists. I’d like to change that.

I first read NVC 5 years ago as I was rearranging my life. It was always one of those books I meant to read, and kept on my Amazon list. There it sat for 10 years until I picked it up at Barnes and Noble late one night. It was devoured before lunch the next day. Having been exposed to Buddhism and the counseling method Dialectical Behavior Training (DBT), this book made sense, though it was more direct. It changed the way I spoke to my loved ones, the neighbors, and especially the not-so-loved ones. Most importantly, it changed the way I spoke to me.

So how does that help me in support?
A year after reading NVC, my friend begged me to apply for a position at Cultures for Health supporting customers making cultured foods. I hadn’t been in the workforce for 14 years, but somehow landed the job. I knew 2 things: how to culture food and how to talk to people. It turns out talking to people was the more critical skill.

In our culture, and especially in support, we hear a statement or complaint, then jump to solving the problem. This brief communication normally goes over just fine. The majority of my customers want a simple answer and are happy with a link and a ‘thanks for your time.’ Those are really important customers, but they aren’t the ones that require the skills we are all reading books to deal with.

The customer interaction that will benefit from NVC often starts something like this:

Customer: Hey! I ordered your product 2 weeks ago and it doesn’t work. It’s trash! You guys shouldn’t even be in business. I demand a refund.

Personal attacks are never fun. NVC doesn’t change that, sorry! But what you do next will make or break the customer relationship. The traditional route assumes this must be fixed, right now. Refund the money, apologize and move on to the next customer. That customer then moves on, taking their money and word-of-mouth with them.

NVC assumes customers experience strong feelings because there is an unmet need. Maybe he hoped this product would fill a need that is more important than we realize. Is his business on the rocks? Does he need this product to ease his fears about something else? Was the money she spent more than the budget really allowed?

Connecting with the customer by listening without judgement may provide some helpful insights. Instead of seeing this person as a pain in my day, I now try to see this as a chance to connect with and understand another human.

The basics
The 4 components of NVC are simple, effective, and take some time to absorb. They are:

  1. Observing without evaluating
  2. Identifying and expressing feelings
  3. Expressing needs
  4. Requesting concrete actions

These steps can be repeated as often as necessary during a conversation until everyone is satisfied. In some cases, the steps may be split up into multiple conversations.

With most communication methods, there is an assumption that both parties are working from the same manual. NVC is perfect for support, since it only requires that one person be familiar with the concepts. Even better, there is no need to memorize formulas. Keeping the philosophy in mind, you can shift your approach, communicating with compassion. Even if that compassion is only for yourself.

Dr Rosenberg breaks down the process into chapters. The examples are clear, with practice scenarios at the end of each section. This is a standard format for a self-help book, but I appreciate that he never takes on the air of perfect expert, instead giving examples of his own mistakes and how he recovered (or sometimes didn’t). As I stated earlier, the process is simple, effective, and takes practice. Thankfully, the short quizzes help.

If you are a book skimmer, I highly recommend reading the first chapter to get an overview of the concept behind NVC.

For support, a few chapters will have the most helpful information.

Chapter 7 describes how to listen empathetically. It includes ways to internally reframe what others are saying, which is necessary when you simply can’t risk looking like a psychoanalyst. It’s also useful for quick meetings or interactions where a long discussion isn’t practical.

Chapter 9 is all about connecting compassionately with ourselves. We are taught to push ourselves unforgivingly hard. Even our language favors criticism and putting aside our needs. Using the strategies in this chapter can be empowering. Feeling empowered leads to more positive interactions with everyone.

Chapter 13 must have been written for people in customer support! I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with closing an email, trying to avoid sounding trite. Dr Rosenberg has some strategies for finding a way to express appreciation that sounds like appreciation.

Even book-skimmers will find valuable information in the remaining chapters. I read small chunks at a time with a highlighter. Frequent re-reads remind me of where I can improve, and there is always room for improvement!

I have learned about life and communication from Nonviolent Communication and recommend it to everyone. The method has been used in the highest-stress talks with success. It works just as well in the difficult situations of day-to-day customer support.

After reading, I approach that tough customer more compassionately

Me: “It sounds like you’ve had a rough time with the product. I know if I’ve spent that much, I expect it to work well. Can I ask what happened?

Customer: I did everything the material said to do, and it never worked.

Me: “I bet that took some late nights! I know I’ve gotten turned around with that product too. I bet it was part X, is that what you found? Here’s what worked for me”

Typically at this point, keeping in mind where I know the pain points are, I can empathize along with the customer. Even if I do wind up refunding their money, they feel heard and remember that someone took the time to care.

An interaction like this takes longer, but not as long as I used to think. All it takes is a few extra minutes for me and the customer to walk away with integrity.

This post was originally shared on June 24, 2015. It was our first book review for the Support Driven Book Review Series, written by the awesome Sarah Betts on how to apply non-violent communication techniques in our support interactions. Sarah is now a Feels Herder at Olark. She loves learning all about communication and how to make it more pleasant for everyone. She has spoken at multiple Support Driven events and is an active member of the SD community.

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