Learning to speak Giraffe - Nonviolent Communication in action

When Marshall Rosenberg died in 2015, the world lost an innovative thinker and true leader in the field of interpersonal communications. Inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Marshall Rosenberg developed an incredibly simple and effective method of communication – which boiled down the chaotic flow of communication into isolated beats that should be hit when trying to authentically and effectively convey oneself to another.

The system that Marshall Rosenberg developed – ‘nonviolent communication’ – has become an integral part of conflict resolution both on a macro and micro level, and is an indispensable tool for facilitating clear communication in any form of relationship. Marshall was famous for the wry and sometimes painfully direct delivery of his material, often using puppets to characterize the communication habits we can become stuck in. This article will draw on some of Marshall’s own writing in order to get the point across just the way he liked to.

In an attempt to resolve why human beings constantly find themselves in violent dispute, Marshall identified two lenses through which we see and interact with the world – Jackal and Giraffe. “I discovered that the language many of us were taught interferes with our desire to live in harmony with one another. At an early age, most of us were taught to speak and think Jackal. This is a moralistic classification idiom that labels people; it has a splendid vocabulary for analyzing and criticizing. Jackal is good for telling people what's wrong with them: "Obviously, you're emotionally disturbed (or rude, lazy, selfish etc.)”… This language is from the head. It is a way of mentally classifying people into varying shades of good and bad, right and wrong. Ultimately, it provokes defensiveness, resistance, and counterattack.”

“I also came upon a language of the heart, a form of interacting that promotes the well-being of ourselves and other people. I call this means of communicating Giraffe. The Giraffe has the largest heart of any land animal, is tall enough to look into the future, and lives its life with gentility and strength… Giraffe is a language of requests; Jackal is a language of demands.”

Marshall suggests that through our education and through the structure of society, we are all raised up to become fluent Jackal speakers. The trouble is that we need to learn how to speak Giraffe in order to effectively communicate in a nonviolent way.

“As Giraffes, we make requests in terms of what we want people to do, not what we want them to feel. All the while, we steer clear of mandates. Nothing creates more resistance than telling people they "should" or "have to" or "must" or "ought to" do something. These terms eliminate choice. Without the freedom to choose, life becomes slave-like… Prompted by directives and injunctions, people do not take responsibility for their actions.”

Underlying all communication there is a want or need. According to Marshall we must find a way to identify that need, and locate it correctly, and express it clearly. “Giraffes state clearly what they want in the present. And they take responsibility for their feelings, aware that their feelings are caused by their wants. If a mother is upset because her son's toys are strewn about the living room, she will identify her feeling: anger. She will then get in touch with the underlying want that is causing this feeling: her desire for a neat and orderly living room. She will own the anger, saying, "I feel angry because I want the living room to be clean and instead it's a mess." Finally, she will ask for a different outcome: "I'd feel so much better if you'd just put these toys away."
When we think like a Jackal we blame others for the anger or other difficult feeling that we are experiencing. When we see the problem as somebody else’s fault then we are more inclined to try to hurt or punish the person. Thinking like a Giraffe makes us aware of that tendency, and Giraffes try to find a resolution in which each person feels heard and respected, and nobody feels forced into action through shame or punishment. Luckily, Marshall outlined a very simple process in order to do this, along with some very clear examples.


Stating a request in simple Giraffe is a four-part process rooted in honesty:

  • Describe your observation
  • Identify your feeling
  • Explain the reason for your feeling in terms of your needs
  • State your request

In describing the situation, do so without criticizing or judging. If you have come home from a busy day and your partner seems preoccupied with the newspaper, simply describe the situation: "When I walked in the door after an especially trying day, you seemed busy reading." Identify your feelings: "I feel hurt." State the reason for your feelings: "I feel hurt because I would like to feel close to you right now and instead I'm feeling disconnected from you." Then state your request in do-able terms: "Are you willing to take time out for a hug and a few moments of sharing?"

The same process applies if your teenager has been talking on the phone for hours and you are expecting a call. Describe the situation: "When you've got the phone tied up for so long, other calls can't come through." Express your feeling and the reason for it: "I'm feeling frustrated because I've been expecting to hear from someone." Then state your request: "I'd like you to bring your conversation to a close if that's all right."

In Jackal culture, feelings and wants are severely punished. People are expected to be docile, subservient to authority; slave-like in their reactions, and alienated from their feelings and needs. In a Giraffe culture, we learn to express our feelings, needs, and requests without passing judgment or attacking. We request, rather than demand. And we are aware of the fine line of distinction between these two types of statements.

In Jackal, we expect other people to prove their love for us by doing what we want. As Giraffes, we may persist in trying to persuade others, but we are not influenced by guilt. We acknowledge that we have no control over the other person's response. And we stay in Giraffe no matter what the other person says. If she or he seems upset or tense, we switch into listening, which allows us to hear the person's feelings, needs and wishes without hearing any criticism or ourselves.

If we have been Jackalish and demanding in the past, the people close to us may need a lot of empathy at first. So we listen and listen, reflecting back with guesses about what they are feeling and wanting, until they feel heard and shift out of being defensive. We don't take anything personally, for we know that upset, attacking, defensive statements are tragic expressions of unmet needs. At some point, the person's voice and body language will indicate that a shift has occurred.

At a meeting I attended at a mosque in a refugee camp near Jerusalem, a man suddenly stood up and cried, "Murderer!" As a Giraffe, all I heard was "Please!"-that is, I heard the pain, the need that wasn't being met. That is where I focused my attention. After about 40 minutes of speaking, he did what most of us do when we sense we have been accurately heard and listened to: he changed. The situation was immediately defused of all tension.

In international disputes, as well as in relationship, business, classroom, and parent-child conflicts, we can learn to hear the human being behind the message, regardless of how the message is framed. We can learn to hear the other person's unmet needs and requests. Ultimately, listening empathetically does not imply doing what the person wants; rather, it implies showing respectful acknowledgment of the individual's inner world. As we do that, we move from the coercive language we have been taught to the language of the heart.

Speaking from the heart is a gesture of love, giving other people an opportunity to contribute to our well-being and to exercise generosity. Empathetically receiving what is going on in others is a reciprocal gesture. Giraffes experience love as openness and sensitivity, with no demands, criticism, or requirements to fulfil requests at either end of the dispute. And the outcome of any dialogue ruled by love is harmony.

In the end, Jackals are simply illiterate Giraffes. Once you've learned to hear the heart behind any message, you discover that there's nothing to fear in anything another person says. With that discovery, you are well on your way to compassionate communication. This form of dialogue, although offering no guarantees of agreement between disputing parties, sets the stage for negotiation, compromise, and most importantly, mutual understanding and respect.