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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 6, Number 1, Nov 2005

Nonviolent Communication
and Ombuds Work

Perhaps the most important function of discerning feelings in NVC is to help us identify the universal human needs [3] that are not being met in the situation. Connecting with needs is the third component of Nonviolent Communication and where the deep work of the system occurs. The type of needs that we are talking about here are those that most everyone agrees are basic to all humans including physical nurturance, safety, understanding, acceptance, respect, warmth, celebration, mourning and autonomy. When these needs are not met, unpleasant emotions are provoked, and our tendency often is to blame others. "Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our needs," writes Marshall Rosenberg [4]. Usually others do not enjoy hearing our criticism and as a result our indirect attempts to meet our needs backfire, making matters worse.

Again, our language can complicate our identification of true needs. We often hear people say things like "I need you to turn in your papers by 5 p.m." In fact, this instructor is expressing a preference or maybe even a requirement but not a universal need. Identifying needs is akin to discovering interests in interest-based negotiations, but I find the use of needs both more flexible and more precise. If someone finds the use of word "need" uncomfortable, then I substitute "want" or "belief" or "value" but I am still talking about the values shared by all humans.

Identification of needs is crucial because they can lead to specific remedies. For example, students who complain about a grade in a course may have very different unmet needs. One might have a need for fairness and justice, while another has a need for mourning their lack of commitment to the course. The remedy for the first might involve clarifying the instructor's rubric for grading while the second student might just need to talk out her frustration about her choices.

The final component of NVC is requests: clear, positive, do-able requests that would meet our needs. It is important that we are making pure requests and not demands, since most of us do not enjoy having others demand things of us. It is also important that we ask for something in the positive rather the negative. Therefore, "I want the instructor to stop ignoring me," could be rephrased "I want the instructor to call on me when I raise my hand at least once a week." That leads to the next point: the request should be "do-able," reasonably possible to execute. In a classroom of 30 students, being called on once a week might be very reasonable, but in a class of 300 students it might be extremely difficult. This example highlights a critical role for the ombudsperson: helping to advise people what actions are possible or not. It is also useful for them to consider that their requests might be denied because they conflict with the needs of other people. A student may request a make-up exam but the instructor may consider that request a violation of her own value of fairness to other students.

A core principle of NVC is that when everyone's needs are clearly identified, an environment is created where all needs can be met. But that does not mean that everyone gets what they originally asked for. In a scenario where a student's request to turn in assignments late conflict with an instructor's need for integrity and consistency in grading, the student may end up with some other concession from the instructor that satisfies both of them. Or the faculty member might make no concessions at all, but when negotiations are handled with compassion, the student eventually may feel satisfied because other needs of theirs are being met: recognition, understanding and respect.

The goal of the four components of NVC is that we connect with each other compassionately. When we do, we create less violence for ourselves and others and enmeshed conflicts are less likely to arise. When I can connect with people who come to me, they are more likely to feel heard and satisfied, even if I can not change the system for them.

I have introduced Nonviolent Communication to departments and student groups wanting communication tools. Most people do not know how to talk candidly with others, especially if there is a disagreement or a chance of one. If students have a complaint they want to make to the president of the university, Nonviolent Communication offers an approach where they will be more likely to be heard: they would focus on non-judgmental observations, express clear needs, identify their values and needs and finally make a request that the President might be able to meet.

I have also successfully added NVC instruction to the Communication Protocol process outlined by Larry Hoover [5] (Conflict Management in Higher Education Report, Vol. 4, No. 1, October 2003). Larry points out that people usually want anyone who has a problem with them to handle it by talking to them directly. I agree and I think the reason that often does not happen is that we do not know how to approach other people when we have a complaint or problem. Nonviolent Communication can help. Beginning with the observation, then identifying feelings and needs, and ending with a do-able request is a clear and simple process.

I have found Nonviolent Communication to be a rich resource in my ombuds work as well as in my personal life. An added benefit is that when I am able to connect with people compassionately at a deep level, I seem to suffer less from burn-out or overwhelm. Nonviolent Communication meets many of my needs for connection, service and education. For an example of what this kind of communication might look like in action, see the linked sidebar transcript.

Margaret Thomas Kelso is Associate Professor of Theatre, Film and Dance and serves as Ombudsperson at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. Her email address is

[1] Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., Puddle Dancer Press, 2003. Also see Center for Nonviolent Communication website:

[2] The CNVC website offers a compact list of feelings:

[3] For a partial list of needs, see the CNVC website:

[4] Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., Puddle Dancer Press, 2003, p.52.

[5] “Communication Protocol” by Larry Hoover, Conflict Management in Higher Education Report, Vol. 4, No. 1, October 2003;

[6] For additional resources, check out the Puddle Dancer Press website:

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