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Nonviolent Communication and the Scrum Process

Carolina Lucena

At the start of each sprint, scrum teams must understand what the product owner (PO) wants to achieve, discuss how they’ll execute the delivery, and define a strategy for achieving it. Constructive and objective discussions, characterized by nonviolent communication, are fundamental throughout this process.

Nonviolent communication prevents insensitive comments from derailing your sprint. Such insensitivity can result in lost business opportunities, disengagement, and conflict. In a survey by The Economist, 44% of respondents said that barriers in communication caused a delay or non-completion of projects.

In this article, we will discuss nonviolent communication and how it leads to better business outcomes and partnerships.

What Is Nonviolent Communication?

Nonviolent communication, abbreviated as NVC, is about expressing compassion while articulating wants and needs. It was developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who believed that when we give from the heart, it is possible to experience joy. NVC has four components:

  1. Observation – Without judgment, objectively look at what is happening around us.
  2. Feeling – Take responsibility for how we feel.
  3. Need – Recognize what needs relate to those feelings.
  4. Request – Based on what we observe, feel, and need, request from others what will enrich our lives.

NVC is an approach structured around understanding how we speak and listen. It often involves us being silent and present, hearing each other out. The components of NVC help create a connection between people, preventing breakdowns in communication.

Observe Without Judgment

When we state the facts without judgment, we can better process our current situation. Then, we can more clearly articulate what happened and what needs to improve.

For example, let’s look at the relationship between a software developer and a team’s product owner or “PO.” The developers might point out in a retrospective meeting that “the PO is never there when we need them.” In this case, the developers are not specific about what happened. It will be difficult to address their concerns and come to a satisfying solution.

Instead, the developers could point out that “the last three times we wanted to consult with the PO, they did not respond, and they have not suggested a new time for a conversation.” The developers can specifically express how the PO’s absence hurt their efforts. This will clearly articulate what needs were not met and what expectations should be moving forward.

Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg explains that “expressing our vulnerability can help resolve conflict.” We are taught from childhood not to express our feelings because it is a sign of weakness. However, describing what we feel allows us to connect more deeply with each other, increasing compassion in the relationship and enabling conflict resolution. When we take responsibility for our feelings, we stop blaming others for how we feel.

Young female professional unable to vocalize her frustration.

Let’s look back at our example of the developers and the product owner. The developers can take responsibility for their feelings by saying, “When we couldn’t get in touch with the product owner, we felt distressed. We were worried that we weren’t doing our job correctly.” In this way, the developers can make their feelings clear.

Identifying our emotions is a very difficult task. However, it can help us have a more honest partnership with our peers and better align our expectations. This level of transparency allows a scrum team to continue operating at a high level.

Asking for What Will Meet Our Needs

Too often, when someone is frustrated with a peer, they do not offer a clear and constructive idea of what they want that person to do. This causes confusion and animosity on both sides. Nonviolent communication allows you to translate your feelings into constructive requests that can help fulfill your needs.

Let’s return to our example of the developers and the product owner one more time. Instead of just disregarding the PO as someone who is “never there when we need them,” the developers could ask the PO to establish a time to address questions and points of clarification. This gives the product owner a very clear idea of how they can enrich the partnership. Navigating the four components of NVC, the developers managed to express their needs using clear and positive language.

In Conclusion

NVC is a tool for understanding and responding appropriately to day-to-day situations. The methodology favors objective communication, relaying what we need from other people. That way, everyone involved has clear expectations, and you can maximize the value of each Agile sprint.

Want to learn more about optimizing communication? Programmers recently interviewed QA analyst Vanessa Pecorari to discover how she facilitates discussion and feedback amongst distributed teams.

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