Defuse Conflict and Improve Your Relationships

Defuse Conflict and Improve Your Relationships

My first introduction to nonviolent communication (NVC) was in Mexico City, just after finishing my undergraduate studies in peace and conflict. During my time living in the capital and working on issues of urban peace, I was immediately captivated by the theories and strategies that nonviolent communication provided. During a training I attended, we learned the power of these tools to effectively navigate difficult situations. Since then NVC has been on my radar as a new skillset to develop, and I awaited a new opportunity to attend another training.

That opportunity arrived in February 2020. I attended a Nonviolent Communication Conference in Calgary entitled Heart to Heart Communication. With skilled and experienced facilitators, we learned various strategies and tools to unpack conflict and develop new ways to communicate. One of the most interesting parts of the weekend was what came out of conversations with the large and diverse group in attendance. Reasons for attending ranged from personal and relationship development to professional development and beyond. One individual shared that, as a supervisor, they wished to learn new strategies to handle conflict in a high stress work environment, while also ensuring their employees remain safe on the job. Another sought out new ways to manage the continued escalation of conflict with their superiors. While yet another desired a closer relationship with a family member that had grown distant.

Conflict is inevitable. Conflict impacts us all—every single day.  Learning new ways to manage it effectively is a life skill that can enhance your life and the life of others, increase shared understanding, strengthen community, create stronger relationships, and build bridges of understanding across a vast sea of differences. Even small conflicts can have an impact on our wellbeing and productivity levels, making it more difficult to stay present, focus on our work, and complete necessary tasks. Today, during this pandemic, it is increasingly important to deal with our conflicts quickly and effectively.  As many find themselves navigating a new work-from-home lifestyle, they find stress mounting due to changing levels of independence, more time spent with loved ones in close quarters, and changing working environments.

In a world where difference divides, hope lies in learning new ways of communicating and transforming conflict into opportunities for growth. NVC was crafted by the late Marshall B. Rosenberg, who left behind the legacy of a new way forward in times of conflict. In his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, he outlines practical strategies and tools, along with real life examples, that aid us in our understanding of NVC and how to use it. He also makes a bid for learning to be feelings and needs literate. He makes a strong case for those that wish to practice NVC to also be well versed in the observation, understanding, and communication of feelings and needs, for self and others.

“As we apply a literacy of feelings and needs, we are not thinking about issues, but simply putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, trying to be that person.” (p.179)

If you are interested in what you are reading here and would like to learn more, I encourage you to read his book. It is filled with practical examples and extensive guidance for how to deal with conflict and difficult situations. His book would be an excellent resource for educators, supervisors, parents, and anyone who wants to work on an important relationship. For now, let’s focus on one small aspect of Rosenberg’s book that you can use immediately in your day-to-day life.

Listen for the needs of the other person during conflict

Often when we communicate in the heat of the moment, we are thinking exclusively of ourselves, our own feelings, and the issue that has impacted us. The goal of listening to the needs of the other person is to make sure you understand what they are communicating to you. How another person communicates to you during a conflict can be difficult to decode, which makes this—the skill of listening for the needs of the other—a very valuable asset to resolving conflicts of all kinds. The use of inflammatory language, tone of voice, body language, and bringing up past unresolved issues could all take you out of your role as “active listener” and into self-defence mode. Instead, Rosenberg invites us to observe beneath these more obvious signals and move towards the deeper meaning behind what someone may be trying to communicate. In other words, “Listen to what people are needing rather than what they are thinking.” (p.95)

For example, a friend comes to you and says angrily, “Hey, you said you were going to call yesterday! I was foolish for ever believing you could follow through with your promises. You obviously don’t care about me or our relationship.”

Response A: “Don’t you care to know why I didn’t call? It’s totally unfair for you to think that I did this because I don’t care about you!”

Response B: “Are you feeling hurt because you were expecting my call and you would like to trust that I can follow through with my word?”

What is the difference between these two responses? What do you think the friend would say next to each of the responses given? Notice in Response B the responder is not focused on the self, but solely on the other person and their possible needs and feelings. Rephrasing, and even guessing, what the other person is trying to communicate helps to ensure that you, the receiver of the information, has understood the message correctly. Phrasing the response as a question allows for the other person to either correct or confirm your guess. Once the feelings and needs of the other have been understood, empathy has been established and the conversation can continue forward.

This is only touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of practical knowledge and useful strategies contained within Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. The next time you find yourself in a conflict, try to listen for the feelings and needs of the other person first. It takes patience and practice but, as the old Chinese Proverb chimes, a journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.

Stephanie van Pelt

-Oral Health Literacy Coordinator

Here are some additional resources from NWTLC on conflict and communication listed with links below.

Please see more NWTLC resource recommendations on these topics below:

If you are an educator and you are seeking more support due to violence and disruption in your learning environment, please take a look at our “Violence and Learning Information Sheets.” You can find these on our website here:

To explore more about conflict, its causes, and some practical steps for working with conflict, please see our Dealing with Conflict Workbook here:

When it comes to conflict, effective communication is key. Check out our Communication Skills Manual for more information and tips on how be a more effective communicator:


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