Nonviolent Communication and Stoicism

This article blends and compares Stoicism with a “Needs pie” discussed by a popular Nonviolent Communication teacher Marianne Van Dijk, who’s YouTube channel is called “Cup of Empathy”. The one pictured is my own rendition, but all the words and lay out are the same.

I find this Pie a useful cognitive exploration of hard to discern feelings. Much thanks, Marianne! 

The theory and goal behind NVC is very similar to Stoicism: They both are medicine to the health and well-being of our minds and those we interact with. Understanding both of these philosophies and approaches can help us be of benefit to our fellow humans. What more could a Prokopton want?

The Stoics and NVC both posit that our emotions are based on some underlying understanding, and that if we can explore that, we’re more apt to work through what ails us, rather than ignore it. 

NVC, like Stoicism, has a built in policy with emotions, where the two things you should never do with them is act harmfully on them, or ignore them. Painful emotions are symptoms looking for a cure, both in ourselves, and those around us. Understanding them is key. 

NVC posits that inner discomforts are about emotional needs, for example, feeling sad because of a need for feeling competent. These NVC needs are especially useful when you are dealing with pain that *seems* to only have one solution, and you can’t get that solution. These needs qualify by NVC standards, if you can still experience them as a hermit in the woods. This means the needs can’t be things arrived at by finger pointing at external sources. You may be needing respect, but not the need to be “respected”, which would depend on external solutions. The “need for competence” can be more broadly fulfilled, than “my boss needs to give me more responsibilities”. The first is within our control, the later, on fortune. Specifics are often inflexible, but the emotional need behind it can be fulfilled with far more flexibility, even by ourselves. Maybe our boss isn’t yet ready to give us more responsibility, but thankfully our need to feel competent can come from our personal choices in other spheres than the choices we were hoping the boss would make. 

Some may point out here that the Stoics aim to “need” only virtue, and assert that all other “needs” are preferred and dispreferred indifferents (even life, health, food, shelter). However I see no reason not to make virtue the goal of your learning NVC. But for the truly ascetic reader, I will remind you that the very strict Epictetus still proposed that we temperently take a humble portion of the plates that pass by close enough to reach without strain, at the table of the gods (reality). Maybe Epictetus would agree, that feeling competent is a natural drive towards virtue, and that NVC helps your emotional contentment never be too far from hand. As he says, “Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”

     I contend that we can benefit from both understandings, and NVC helps those preferred indifferents be even closer at hand, by opening up other ways of viewing them as emotional needs rather than specific requests of life, and of fulfilling them ourselves if need be. 

The Stoics sided with Socrates in many things. 

Socrates, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, posits a proposition we might find useful when contemplating emotional needs in relation to virtue: if you were trapped by enemy forces, who would you rather have come to your rescue? A. Someone who is easily chilled by the wind, overheated by the Sun, famished easily by skipping a meal, in need of a soft bed to sleep, and easily distracted by personal enjoyments, or B. Someone who is resilient and capable of single minded action in the face of such difficulties? The answer is an easy one, but he goes further, asking which of these would you rather employ in work, as a personal servant, even a slave (a frequent teaching tool at the time, as it was the lowest social position). He asks it again, framed at friendship: which of these would make a more dependable friend? Who would you rather trust? Between heroes and slaves, the answer is clear, and all of us are somewhere in between. May we all be pressed to weigh our own emotional needs in this light of usefulness to others. Our emotional needs need not lead us to be tyrants, nor unvirtuous. 

These questions point us to preferring to be someone we ourselves can depend on, but also, and more importantly, dependable to those around us. I think this is a valuable piece of information on a post about a Stoic exploration of personal emotional needs. We don’t wish to lose virtue, but gain it in such exploration. Such exploration can help us understand those places in us where gratitude isn’t flowing freely, and gives us more tools for exploring it. The dichotomy of control and Stoic Justice fit perfectly with NVC’s notion of emotional needs. 

Exploring these emotional needs may help some of you do one of the least popular, but most impactful voluntary discomforts: emotional labor- the excavating of our emotions, and those around us. 

Understanding these emotional needs in ourselves helps build empathy for others. This “Needs pie” is a useful tool in that pursuit. This chart helps us understand the silent needs of those around us when they experience unhappiness. Teaching people actively experiencing pathos, how to dispel it with wisdom, and that their wishes are preferred indifferents to virtue, is generally taboo if they are in pain and not asking for such help! This is not virtue, my friends.

But NVC has a really cool technique for your friend experiencing pathos. I learned this technique from the NVC podcast, Art of NVC, and it’s called “emergency empathy”. It uses this Needs Pie (but hopes you’ve retained it enough to not need it in an emergency!). This emergency empathy should be really interesting for Stoics, as Stoicism takes a cognitive view of emotions, where every emotion has underlying reasons. Emergency Empathy demonstrates this very well!
Imagine a friend is very upset, lashing out, and not communicating what they are wanting. You are patient with this, like a good Stoic, but looking for a solution. You have no idea what is bothering them, but in true emergency empathy style, wager a guess like this:
“are you feeling upset, because *checks Needs Pie*.. Because you are needing a sense of predictability?”
Educated guesses preferred.
Maybe you are right, and if so, the storm on their face breaks immediately, and they say
“yes, I need this to all move slower, as I have so much going on right now”.

Or maybe you don’t guess correctly, and they angrily retort
“No, it’s because you forgot ___ again”
….. which serves to help you find that emotional need of theirs faster, and fulfil it in a way that feels good to both of you. 

 No one is a sage, but I suspect a sage would have a profound understanding of the motivations of people. NVC teaches that the more we have our emotional needs met, the more room we have for other people’s needs. Both seem true to me. 

NVC, just like Stoicism, needs a big warning label, a reminder, to hold ourselves to the highest standards we know, but be lenient on everyone else, or as Marcus Aurelius says, “Tough on yourself, lenient on others”. NVC isn’t a tool for policing other people’s behaviour. 

This “Needs Pie” chart has an X through it. The closest words to the middle are the proposed discomforts we feel when these needs aren’t met. This organization isn’t perfect though, as any of these could cause frustration without them being fulfilled in people not trained to value virtue above all else. The words on the outside line of the circle correspond to the umbrella needs presumed to align most often with those emotions though. 

Everything in between is a menu of specific emotional needs. When I am feeling a lingering discontent, I look at this diagram and assess what’s going on. I find my blood sugar and occasional lack of sleep to be my biggest obstacles to contentment, but this diagram also helps me decipher the unhappiness of those around me. 

There’s a lot of NVC content out there that’s really good. It’s all about making useful requests to helping both sides get their emotional needs met. I tend to side with the Stoics, in assessing that all discontent grows out of ingratitude, but this understanding is only useful for yourself, as it’s unreasonable to tell an angry person “you aren’t appreciating the Logos of this unfolding moment!” or “It is what it is”. I’m sure Marshall Rosenberg would get a kick out of the first one, but drop both in the “jackal language” bin, as they are a judgemental way to tell someone that their emotions are making you uncomfortable!

Finally, this Needs Pie, in conjunction with its use as a way to broaden how those needs are met, increases what is available to us, aka investing in abilities for the Dichotomy of Control. Best wishes, all you modern prokoptons, and remember to use the best of what modernity brings you, and towards your handling of others the best you can.

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