A key part of a difficult conversation is about how we feel. We might be angry, frustrated or let down. The range of feelings can be wide and in any situation we may experience more than one feeling. In his book 'Nonviolent Communication – A language for Life', Marshall Rosenberg lists over 100 feelings that we might experience.

A core aspect, if not the key aspect, of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is that feelings arise when our needs are met, or not met. When our needs are met we experience comfortable feelings, such as happiness and contentment, and when they are not, we experience uncomfortable feelings, such as frustration and anger.

It's important that feelings are acknowledged and discussed as part of a dialogue. This sometimes requires insight and second guessing to prompt for the feelings underlying what is being said. For many people it can be unusual and uncomfortable to talk about their feelings. Expressing feelings is something that many people do rarely, so it can be difficult to recognise our feelings and find the words to describe them. However, we need to persevere to uncover our feelings, and those of others, along with the needs behind those feelings.

This difficulty of people not knowing their feelings and not having the vocabulary to describe them led Marshal Rosenberg to develop an approach of second guessing what people are feeling from what he observed. He found this approach to be more successful than asking people how they feel. The purpose of second guessing is to probe for what a person is feeling with the expectation that the initial guesses will not be right, but will produce responses that help uncover the true feelings. For example, instead of asking “how are you feeling?”, this approach would make a guess such as, “I can see that you are angry”, which might produce the response “No, I'm not angry exactly, I'm more frustrated than angry”. It may take more than one guess to uncover the precise feeling.

Rosenburg also combines second guessing feelings with guesses at the possible needs behind the feelings. For example, the guess might be “I can see that you are frustrated because you are being ignored”, and the response might be, “I'm not frustrated because I'm being ignored, it's that many people are not being heard and that's not fair”.

The ability to second guess feelings and needs is a skill that can be developed and is linked to self awareness. If we are more aware of our own feelings and needs, we are better able to recognise those of others.

Second guessing requires us to be detached from our guesses being right, being aware that our intention is to probe to gain greater insight. This is the intent of making the guess. If we don't keep this in mind, we could be in danger of wanting to be right or see making a wrong guess as a dent to our status, particularly if we are in a position where we are expected to be knowledgeable.

Vocabulary of feelings and emotions

It helps if we have good vocabulary to express our feelings. The NVC website has an inventory of feelings, divided into those experienced when needs and met and not met. The inventory also groups feelings into a number of headings;

Feelings when our needs are satisfied

  • Affectionate
  • Engaged
  • Hopeful
  • Confident
  • Excited
  • Grateful
  • Inspired
  • Joyful
  • Exhilarated
  • Peaceful
  • Refreshed

Feelings when our needs are NOT satisfied

  • Afraid
  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Aversion
  • Confused
  • Disconnected
  • Disquiet
  • Embarrassed
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Sad
  • Tense
  • Vulnerable
  • Yearning

These are only the headings. Each heading has a number of other words to describe similar feelings depending on the level of intensity. For example, under the heading of annoyed the intensity ranges from irked to aggravated and exasperated.

There are other lists of feelings and emotions. They are all similar but are not identical. Robert Plutchik's theory of emotion lists eight basic emotions;

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Joy
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Trust
  • Anticipation

Plutchik's theory includes his 10 postulates, including the idea that combining pairs of basic emotions produces many of the words we would commonly use to describe feelings and emotions. He classifies three types of pairings, primary, secondary and tertiary. For example;

  • Primary: Joy + Trust = Love
  • Secondary: Joy + Fear = Guilt
  • Tertiary: Joy + Surprise = Delight

The changingminds.org website includes a table of lists of basic feelings and emotions, along with their respective authors.

What are our needs?

There are various theories on human needs. NVC offers an inventory of needs, in a similar way to the inventory of feelings, under the following headings;

  • Connection
  • Physical wellbeing
  • Honesty
  • Play
  • Peace
  • Autonomy
  • Meaning

Probably the best known theory of needs is Maslow's hierarchy of needs which organises human needs into a pyramid starting with our most fundamental (physiological) needs at the bottom and our higher needs towards the top;

  • Self-actualisation - realisation of potential
  • Esteem - concern with getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others
  • Social belonging - friendships, intimacy, family
  • Safety - personal security, financial security, health and well-being
  • Physiological - air, water, food, clothing and shelter

Maslow's theory suggests that the lower levels of needs must be met before an individual will focus motivation on the higher level needs.

Manfred Max-Neef and others propose a list of fundamental human needs;

  • Subsistence
  • Protection
  • Affection
  • Understanding
  • Participation
  • Leisure
  • Creation
  • Identity
  • Freedom

In the publication, Human Scale Development, Max-Neef describes the ways in which each fundamental need relates to qualities, things, actions and settings. These are laid out in a table in this wikipedia page.

The SCARF model focuses on our social needs, which it groups as;

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

David Rock, the creator or the SCARF model, suggests that our needs might not be as hierarchical as suggested by Maslow. For example, we might experience feelings and emotions related to our need for status even though our more basic need for security has not been met.