NVC and Social Work

I know, I know. Social work is broad. It encompasses everything from one-on-one talk therapy to assisting hospital patients in navigating medical bureaucracy to advocating for marginalized communities in various ways. Social work is everywhere and a part of almost every system, whether explicitly labeled as so or not.

Yet despite it’s seemingly ubiquitous nature, I still think nonviolent communication (NVC) and social work go hand-in-hand. Let me explain.

The Foundational Overlaps

I myself am a social worker. I wear many hats in the social work world, and in all of those roles, I am working atop a foundation of NVC. It is embedded in everything I do, because I work with people. Social workers work with and for human beings. We are helpers. And because human interaction and care for these humans is central to my work, so is NVC. Even in my graduate program, I saw NVC everywhere. It was never called NVC, but the principles were there: active listening, identifying the core of the issue (aka, the need), reflecting what you hear someone say, and coming up with solutions that consider all parties involved (needs-based requests). I was so grateful to have a strong practice of NVC going into my MSW program; I think it helped me to quickly grasp a lot of the concepts within social work because I was already familiar with them through my study of NVC. Equally, I often notice how my social work background illuminates new aspects of my NVC practice. The two studies have really strengthened each other, in my experience.

I’ll give you some more specific examples of similarities. In the National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics, there are 6 core values. Two of those are directly applicable to the purpose of, intention behind, and practice of NVC.

The first is dignity and worth of the person, meaning social workers inherently believe that each human being has worth and deserves dignity and respect. Within this is the practice of honoring a client’s self-determination. This means assuming that the client is the expert of their own life, and never assuming that we, as professionals, know more about someone than they do themselves. It also means allowing them to make their own decisions about their life and how to get their needs met.

In nonviolent communication, we also never assume that we know what is going on for another person. In fact, that is a very common impetus for conflict. Instead, we take guesses of another’s needs based off of information that we gather with our senses, and then inquire to see if our guesses were correct. There is always and air of curiosity in the process, and never an assumption.

Additionally, and maybe even more poignantly, nonviolent communication is based in the ides of compassion and connection with oneself and others. Within this compassion, there is an inherent respect and value of another person’s needs. In NVC, we understand that each person has needs, and that all conflict stems from a need that isn’t being met. So to address conflict, we must address needs. Since these needs are universal to all human beings, we are able to empathize with each other when we extract the need, because we all can understand fundamental human needs. This empathy, I think, can translate quite seamlessly to believing in the dignity and worth of a person. Because we are all people just trying to get our needs met. If one person has worth, then we all do.

The second social work value that goes hand-in-hand with NVC is the importance of human relationships. This one is more self-explanatory. Basically, social workers know that interpersonal relationships are key to a person’s well-being in a variety of ways, so we purposely seek to strengthen relationships among people.

If this isn’t NVC, then I don’t know what is. Nonviolent communication is all about finding connection with self and others. It also seeks to strengthen human relationships through empathy, compassion, understanding, and connection so that we can live lives filled less with conflict and more with the inevitable well-being that comes when we have our needs met and can help the people around us to meet their needs as well.

Advantages of NVC in Social Work

Beyond the matching values of social work and NVC, there are certainly many advantages to incorporating NVC within a social work practice, regardless of the type of social work one finds themselves in.

Every social worker knows the importance of self-care. Whether it was drilled into them by their professors, or they’ve experienced first-hand some level of burnout – self-care quickly becomes a necessity in any social worker’s career. The realities of the daily work that we do can take a heavy emotional and/or mental toll, and having strategies to process daily events and replenish our own cups is essential in being able to simply function as a person.

Nonviolent communication has been a crucial part of my self-care. It is not necessarily something that I set aside time to do, but rather it is a part of who I am. I am constantly thinking in NVC, meaning I see the world in terms of strategies and needs. When I experience emotions that are difficult to handle, I use self-empathy immediately. When I am triggered by something, I reach out to my NVC community and get empathy. While getting empathy and having clarity around my own feelings and needs may not solve the problems I’m faced with daily, it sure does help my mental health. Because having that clarity allows me to let go of blame, judgment, and stories in my head – all things that I believe are literally toxic to my brain and body (referring to stress hormones and their affect on a person – maybe a blog topic for another day).

In any form of social work, it can be very easy to let the stress of our work overwhelm us. Sometimes we feel helpless. Sometimes we think that the world is so f*cked that there is no way any single person can really make a difference (maybe not everyone has been down this super fun thought path yet, but I sure have). Sometimes we simply cannot hear about one more person’s struggles because it is too much to hold that space, yet again. These are all signs of burnout, and self-care is the best-known solution we have. While I incorporate other strategies into my self-care, NVC certainly plays an integral role. Because it is present in my day-to-day, I love that I don’t have to schedule it in as a part of an intentional self-care routine. It just exists within my brain all the time, and with enough training and practice, I believe this could be true for any social worker (or really any person).

Beyond relationship with self, NVC is obviously advantageous in building and maintaining relationships with clients. Like I mentioned before, NVC asks us to lean in with curiosity and a desire to understand and connect rather than an assumption that we know how to fix a problem. This energy of openness is palpable to clients, and it allows for trust and rapport building. Any social worker knows how important trust and rapport are in a client relationship. It is the basis of any work moving forward. When a client has needs met for trust and emotional safety, they are going to be more willing to share important information, become vulnerable, and listen to and consider any guidance or advice their social worker might offer. Additionally, in order to provide guidance and advice that will actually meet the needs of a client, one must know how to listen deeply to understand what those needs even are.

In fact, as I’m writing this, I am convincing myself that NVC should be explicitly taught in social work programs within universities – at least an introductory course with the option to dive deeper for those going into clinical practice. (Pssst! If any of you reading this have agency or know someone with agency to get NVC into social work education, please reach out to us). NVC has been a real game-changer for me and I think it would benefit any professional in any helping profession, but definitely in social work.

If you’ve stumbled across this blog and you’ve never done any training in NVC but might be interested, check out our Intro to Nonviolent Communication course here. I believe at least half of our current facilitators are Masters of Social Work (myself included) and the rest have done a fair share of helping work in their communities on some level. That’s just to say, if you are in a helping profession, you’ll be in good company. You are also welcome to email us with any thoughts or questions at support@thebigbiemethod.com .