NVC Therapy: Encouraging Empathetic Reflection

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenberg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is NVC therapy? How does it differ from the clinical, diagnosis-oriented approach?

NVC therapy is a process that encourages empathetic reflection on the part of the practitioner. In contrast, the diagnostic approach is premised on clinical detachment from the patient’s emotional realm.

Keep reading for more about NVC therapy and how it differs from the clinical approach.

Using NVC in Therapy Settings

Many people seek out therapy to help tame their inner critic. Today, most therapists are trained in methods that are compatible with NVC, but that wasn’t always the case. Until the mid-20th century, clinical detachment was the cardinal rule of psychotherapy. Therapists were trained to keep their feet firmly planted in the realm of analysis, not empathy, and to think of themselves as a mirror—an inanimate object that reflects clients’ feelings back to them in an organized way.

This practice continued until prominent psychologists began to question whether clinical detachment was really the best way to help someone deal with emotional difficulties. They worried that the hierarchical patient/therapist relationship prevented therapists from being authentically present with their clients, which in turn prevented clients from feeling fully seen and heard. When clients expressed vulnerability, they were met with cool detachment, which often discouraged clients from sharing more. 

Psychology has evolved since that time, and modern graduate programs now train aspiring therapists to respond to their clients with empathy and to focus on feelings instead of analyzing and diagnosing. This isn’t universal—in medical contexts where a particular diagnosis determines treatment options or insurance coverage, psychiatrists and psychologists often spend more time debating diagnoses than empathizing with a person’s feelings. 

There is a big difference between the diagnostic mindset and the Nonviolent Communication mindset. A psychologist who is focused on diagnosing someone will think in terms of “What’s wrong with this person?” In the same situation, a psychologist practicing NVC therapy would think, “What is this person feeling? What do they need? And which of my feelings and needs are being triggered by this situation?” Showing up authentically like this requires the therapist to be vulnerable, which evens out the balance of power in the relationship. Obviously, therapists still need to be careful not to overshare or to take up clients’ time with their own issues, but overall, using NVC in a therapeutic relationship is helpful. Making a genuine human connection with a client in pain can be more powerful than years of detached analysis.

NVC Therapy: Encouraging Empathetic Reflection

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  • How nonviolent communication lets you have more compassion for yourself
  • Why nonviolent communication is the key to fostering authentic connections with others
  • The 4 steps to expressing yourself with empathy towards others

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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