4 Questions for Clear and Compassionate Communication


We all want to be heard and understood, especially in a difficult conversation. Ask yourself these four questions beforehand to help your message come across clearly and compassionately to the listener.

These questions, based on Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s well-known Nonviolent Communication, are by no means an exact formula. And although there is nothing new about these concepts, for many of us this is a very different approach to expressing ourselves – especially when tensions are high. Being prepared can go a long way to a productive outcome. Consider using these four questions as a guide for your next difficult conversation.

1. What did I observe?

Begin with the facts. Be clear and nonjudgmental about the actual behavior or situation you witnessed. Avoid speculation about what you think may have happened. Focus on the specifics in that particular time and place. Complete the sentence “When I saw…” or “When I heard…” with the details of the event you are going to discuss.

2. How did I feel?

This question can be more complex than it seems. Carefully pinpoint the feeling or feelings the situation brings up for you. Use feeling words, rather than a sentence that is actually a thought. We often do this in everyday speech. For example saying, “I feel that is the wrong thing to do” is not expressing a feeling but actually an evaluation. Rather, stick to emotion words such as “I feel irritated” or “I felt afraid” when having this conversation. Your willingness to be direct about your feelings helps the other person connect with your experience.

3. What do I need?

If feelings can be difficult to express, our needs are often even more elusive. We’re not typically taught to consider our own needs in this way. More often when our needs are not being met we focus on what others are doing (or not doing) and speak indirectly about what we need. This is far less effective since people are more likely to misinterpret the message and get defensive. Think carefully about what need is being affected by the behavior or situation you observed. For example, is it a need for order? Respect? Appreciation?

The idea here is that at the root of what we’re feeling is something we need. In a real conversation, we can complete the sentence, “I felt … because I’m needing…” with the related emotion and need. Once we’re able to express our need and link that to our emotion, the other person can understand where we’re coming from.

4. What do I want this person to do?

After expressing our observation, feeling and need then we can make a request of the other person to do something to improve the situation. If we’ve clearly expressed the other areas, the person will be more likely to respond with compassion to make things right. Posing the request in the form of a question to the other person will show them respect and reduce the likelihood of defensiveness. For example, begin with, “Would you…” rather than simply stating your request.

Handling difficult conversations this way at work can lead to more kindness and understanding among coworkers and more productive working relationships. Learning to communicate in this way is a skill that takes time and practice to develop, but can be well worth it.

Danielle Metzinger is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Miguel Eduardo Gomez

Thank you. I read Dr. Rosenberg’s Book a few months ago, at the direction of my Licensed Clinical Therapist. It is a skill I need to develop at work, school and home. You have succeeded in reinforcing this timely & critical message. Please write more about this if it is possible.

Danielle Metzinger

Thank you for your kind words, Miguel! It’s certainly a skill each one of us can continually improve on. This topic means a lot to me and I will definitely consider writing additional posts about this.


Great tips that can be used in just about any environment – from situations at work to dealing with my nine year old! Tip # 4 is especially crucial – gives others a specific path forward.

Danielle Metzinger

I agree completely, Sophia! I’m glad you found this helpful. It’s certainly meaningful that the tagline of the book is “A Language of Life” because these skills go beyond just one area of our lives. Thanks for reading!