As designers become more seniors, there is a common expectation of also becoming better at communication. It’s often unclear what’s it that actually needs to be improved. Nonviolent communication is a powerful tool that helps designers foster empathy, clearer communication, and create better experiences.

High conflict resolution, digital art, generated with DiffusionBee
High conflict resolution, digital art, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Nonviolent communication for designers

When I started to move into more senior roles, and first became a manager, I found that I had to do more and more difficult discussions both within my team and with cross-functional partners. It was around that time that I learned about nonviolent communication (NVC), and it proved to be an enormous help in this. I kept on practicing since, and it’s a framework that every designer could benefit from learning as they get more senior.

There is a reason why communication skills are important to designers. If a designer wants to have any hope of influencing their destiny and more broadly the products they are working on, being a leader is essential. And to be an effective leader, communicating the right way is a must.

While design in a narrower sense is about making decisions while predicting the future, performing the design tasks is just a small part. To create a product, many other people need to collaborate, and that’s where driving other people’s decisions and establishing consensus becomes more critical. This is a major use of communication skills.

Everyone likes to work on important problems with passionate people. I’d even argue, that designers should strive to work on such problems, and enable their partners to be passionate. But passion and just the daily realities of product development make perceived differences between opinions more difficult to reconcile. Passionate people will argue passionately. So we need to make sure to talk to people empathetically while looking out for our own needs too.

This is where NVC can help and elevate our communication game. It can help us to be better communicators and collaborators (and sometimes better persons too), and this also makes us better designers.

I also find it relevant to talk about NVC because of the endemic issue of burnout in our industry. While there are many different reasons for it, designers should be using their empathy skills more on themselves, and be clearer about their needs to have a better fighting chance. Using NVC can lead to fewer situations where designers need to make compromises they are not comfortable with, and NVC provides a good framework for this.

NVC at its core is a quite simple 4-step process, and can be boiled down to a statement that goes like this:

When [observation], I feel [emotion] because I’m needing some [needs]. Would you be able to [request]?

  • Observation is presenting facts without judgment. This is sometimes harder than it seems, personal values need to be separated from how we describe what we perceive.
  • Emotions are our own, and we are responsible for them. We have a choice in how we respond to outside events, and so to observations.
  • Needs are universal, and by connecting our emotions to these fundamental needs we can describe how they are unfulfilled. These can include both physical needs and also emotional ones like respect, meaning, or dignity.
  • Request is a doable and specific action that would help us. It should be always what we would want to happen (not what we don’t want to happen), and a clear request (instead of a forceful demand).

The four-step process is always given, but the formula should be adapted to different contexts. Often asking questions is a good lead-in, as understanding the other side helps us to recognize the needs of others.

While talking about feelings might seem out of place in a professional environment, talking about why there is tension or discomfort, and connecting to our needs as design professionals changes the tone of discussions to be more helpful

The most obvious place to use NVC is when communicating with partners and stakeholders, for example, when presenting design decisions, understanding feedback, and navigating disagreements. Framing feedback around shared objectives helps to find common ground.

The framework is also helpful when giving feedback at design critique or generally receiving feedback. How I like to give critique (focus on an aspect of the design, connect with goals, analyze how well it fulfills the goal, and describe a rationale) is already close to the NVC way. Using specific terminology helps us to better check what is observable and what stories we construct around the work presented.

I found NVC also quite helpful when designing, particularly when working with user needs and user research. Disconnecting observations from judgment avoids blaming the user, helps recognize biases, and avoids premature conclusions. When thinking about user needs, sometimes the direct and articulated expectations overshadow the more basic, human needs — which we need to identify to design better experiences.

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🍪 Things to snack on

Targeted more towards managers, Dave Bailey wrote a good summary of nonviolent communication in How to Deliver Constructive Feedback in Difficult Situations, that goes through the basic concepts and has plenty of examples. Besides the basic patterns, there are four key points highlighted: Observations vs. evaluations, Emotions vs. thoughts, Universal needs vs. strategies, and Requests vs. demands.


Nonviolent Communication Training Course is a complete training by Marshall Rosenberg, the original developer for this framework. While 9 hours of training videos might seem long, it’s a great deep dive.


Approaching Nonviolent Communication in Design has some nice guidelines on practicing nonviolent communication, especially when giving feedback by Matthew DeVille. The more useful tip I found here is the “Practice self-empathy”, something that can also help with the endemic burnout in our industry.


Active listening is a key part for designers to practice in design research, as Sanna Rau writes in Design and non-violent communication: how to listen. Along with the tools of asking questions and using silence, these are essential tools to engage with partners. Practicing non-violent communication in the design context helps for example when giving feedback, changes the norms for communication over time.