The Universal Empathy Machine: Nonviolent Communication Explained Axiomatically with Mathematics and Computer Science

An tutorial using Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003) by Marshall Rosenberg

Have you ever tried to talk to someone about a problem and they’ve responded with, “it’ll get better,” or such a lazy response that it only frustrates you further? There are lots of explanations of the difference between empathy and sympathy, often in the fields of psychology or social work, but you would be hard-pressed to find one based in logical discourse. This tutorial borrows gentle analogies from mathematics and computer science to elucidate the distinction between empathy and sympathy for the reader that may be drawn to a logical approach. This is done with the understanding that different types of learning styles could benefit from specialized explanations for concepts of an emotional nature.

A simple view of computation involves data (information) and a program (interpretation of that data). But a simple computation by itself, does not a computer make. The origins of the modern computer originate in trying to capture all possible computations. The Universal Turing Machine, is such a concept. It accepts a program and data, and runs that program on that data. In this way it can simulate all programs on all data.

If a human is a program and human experience is data, sympathy is analogous to running your program on someone else’s data. Empathy is running their program on their data.

The results of sympathy and empathy computations are not guaranteed to be identical. In a nutshell, nonviolent communication is about becoming the Universal Empathy Machine, able to emulate the architecture of an any person given any experience. In this way our communication partners can fine-tune their thinking by seeing how closely our Empathy Machine mirrors their Identity function. That is, how well our reflection matches their intended expression. This lets them know if we are missing any of their points that need to be reiterated.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a theory by Marshall Rosenberg contained in the book of the same name, whose presentation might be miscategorized as self-help pseudoscience to the uncareful skimmer. Speaking with my own biases, I would never have popped it open if not for that a) it could be pirated on The Pirate Bay, and b) it was the reciprocating recommendation to me after I had been proselytizing my then-favourite-read to a friend. While its insight-olives are sparse in its ciabatta, I found that the book contained solutions to stalemated, decade-long arguments I’d had with friends. After reading, I felt so resourceful having a theory of dealing with conflict where I never had one before. The only problem was I couldn’t chat to my “math friends” in my PhD program about it. The “logical” mind of the mathematician would be left desiring a shorter and snappier synopsis. I’ll describe Nonviolent Communication through mathematics and computer science analogies into the realm of motivations, axioms, communication protocols, and foundational flaws.

I’ve kept the format of NVC’s exercises at the end of each section as a way of inviting readers to practice ways of thinking about empathy that may be non-intuitive.

1. The Intention of Nonviolent Communication is Connection

Some arguments go on forever and are intractable: not every argument is solvable. And like the Halting Problem, there is no way of deciding whether an argument will run forever without actually trying to solve it. Still, disharmonies, disagreements, and arguments are problems we aim to resolve.

Argument resolution starts with finding connection. Sometimes the problem starts when terms or topics are not agreed upon. In other cases we are discussing the same topic, but cannot connect onto a mutually agreeable answer. Here NVC would say to connect on observations. Once observations are mutually acknowledged, the same process can start for feelings and needs.

2. Axioms of Nonviolent communication

In Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) Ludwig Wittgenstein attempts to describe the world from only the smallest, least controversial claims. NVC will disappoint fans of that approach because we will start with three strong axioms.

2.1 Feelings Are Connected to Needs

Our first axiom ties together our internal imperatives (needs) as the direct cause for our internal state (feelings). That is, there is a Connection map between feelings to needs.

C : F → N

Where F is the set of all feelings, and N is the set of all needs. Furthermore we assume that whatever feelings are observed, can be mapped to a need surjectivity. This need usually becomes the focal point of resolution.

2.2 All Needs Matter

The set of needs and important needs are exactly equal.

∀ n : n ⋲ {needs} ⇔ n ⋲ {important needs}

Taking as an axiom that all needs are important needs allows participants to declare needs without fear. The Universal Empathy Machine is a system of how to accept needs as important which do not appear important, to you.

2.3 There Is Always a Choice

The empty set is not contained in the set of all choices.

S := {s ⋲ P(choices) ∧ s ≠ ∅ }

We always have a nonempty, and possibly infinite set of reactions for all interpersonal interaction. NVC asks us to accept a theory of free will, that we are never choiceless.

3. Communication Protocols

In trying to connect we will have to, in some way, communicate with each other; for now we’ll assume verbal communication, and call it messaging. NVC says that it’s important to do this in a specific way. In NVC, ideal messages, are a 4-tuple containing: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

messagingtuple:=(observation, feelings, needs, requests)

This quadruple produces a flow from empiricism, to emotion, to humanism, and finally to action.

Not every message needs to contain all four parts; for brevity often they can be omitted. When starting though it can be useful to be exhaustive for practice.

3.1 Observations

“Observing without Evaluation”: Non Violent Communication Chapter 3

In the observation block of the message observations rather than opinions are transmitted. NVC operates with the assumption that when viewing the world, people start with the observable universe and then evaluate it to return opinions. The risk is the natural default to eager evaluation, yet NVC would prefer lazy evaluation, that opinions don’t have to be given until they are necessary. In fact, evaluation is not necessary until we send feelings.

If you are not a fan of fixed evaluation strategies, another way to think about observations is that observation is the site of our imports. Here, we are providing the populated namespaces, libraries, Connection API and constants that are referenced in the rest of the communication–the context. Since sensory perception varies from human to human, the exterior universe is not observed equally, thus humans should pass along their context. To avoid ambiguous statements our definitions must be precise. Natural-philosophy-style remarks can only be made when studying the physical universe.

“You’re always late,” has truth value in the open interval (0,1) depending on which human is observing. “We agreed to meet at 7:30, and I saw you arrive on Monday at 7:45, and on Tuesday at 8:05” has a truth value of just 1. Because context is given, the rest of the program, or proof – whichever side of the isomorphism you prefer – can refer to lateness with no misgivings.

Exercises: Observation or Opinion?

  1. “Your email signature is 41 lines long, rendering for me as over 4 screenfuls, where as your last 5 messages to the list were each less than 41 lines long.”
  2. “Dante often does not wash his dishes in the hackerspace.”
  3. “Allesandra told me that I was not good at identifying contrapositives.”
  4. “Our group facilitator controls the meetings.”


3.2 Feelings

There is the counter-intuitive Rosenberg law: “Expressing our vulnerabilities can help resolve conflict.” (NVC pg. 86).

After having made the pre-evaluation observation, the next step is to give the results of evaluations – feelings. To explain what feelings are, we explore a classic gotcha –psuedofeelings. Pseudofeelings unfortunately do pass duck-typing tests, that is they walk, swim, and quack like regular feelings. They key difference, is that, with respect to the feeler, feelings are internal— psuedofeelings are external.

Some examples of pseudofeelings are “I feel unimportant”, “I feel misunderstood”, or “I feel ignored”. Re-expressed as feelings these would be, respectively: “I feel discouraged because I observed I was not part of [important decision]”. “I feel anxious because you doing [action] doesn’t reflect that you understood me.”, “I feel hurt, because I perceive I am being ignored.”. These re-expressions take an external feeling, and talks about what external event made you feel internally. This is important, because with this syntax, a personal statement wouldn’t be logically read as blaming. Instead, it prioritizes the communication of personal perspectives on personal observations.

Exercises: Feeling or Pseudofeeling?

  1. “I feel scared when you talk about about forking”.
  2. “When you don’t cite me, I feel neglected.”
  3. “I’m happy that you found time to come to Wikimania.”
  4. “I feel disappointed by the fact that you did not publish your dataset, because I had to recreate it.”


  1. Feeling. Scared describe’s the internal state of the feeler.
  2. Pseudo-feeling. Neglect is a thought about the exterior world. Feeler is probably depressed about not having their work recognized.
  3. Feeling. The user happy, and said so.
  4. Pseudo-feeling. Despite very clear reasoning, disappointment is not a feeling, but a pseudofeeling. User is probably feeling aggrevated because of needless extra work.

3.3 Needs

“God gave us the universal needs, man created the rest”

—Empathetic Einstein

Having described the outside world, and stated feelings about it, one more step is required to expose the “Connection API.” UX Designer Ben Sauser has made the analogy that NVC is an API for expressing needs. Needs are the sufficient and necessary conditions for a life. According to NVC, humans are not Tabla Rasa, but come preloaded with some immutable natural needs which are like factory defaults. Because needs are very low-level, basic objects, it’s likely that the communicators will have some of these in common. And with common needs, connection can be found.

Needs are typically very basic, like: autonomy, celebration, creativity, appreciation, love, respect, play, peace, food, rest, and sex. Recall Axiom 2.2, that all needs are important, if both communicators believe this, then there isn’t anything of which to be embarrassed. Communicating these needs may seem weak, irrational, and impossible to admit out loud, but the whole point is to open up. This point is opensourcing ourselves to the very lowest machine-level. There are two ways in which this Richard Stallman, free-as-in-freedom doctrine can be lent to this argument. First, the “open code” of ourselves is a signal for our partners to work with us, and the mystery of how we work disappears. Secondly, when we disclose our code, all bugs are shallow. It is scary that others will be delving into our innermost code, but like the recent Heartbleed computer security kerfuffle, which used SSH, the algorithm used for computers to talk to each other, it is the only route to deep communication and connection.

Exercises: When Are Needs Being Expressed?

  1. “I feel angry when you talk about transhumanists that way, because I am wanting respect for my own destiny and I hear your words as an insult.”
  2. “I’m discouraged because I would have liked to have progressed further in my work by now.”
  3. “I feel disappointed because you assigned yourself to those bugs, but didn’t squash them.”
  4. “I’m sad that you won’t be meeting me at the vegan restaurant for dinner because I was hoping we could chat about anarchism together.”


  1. Wanting respect for way of life is a basic need, whatever it may be.
  2. This is close enough to a need. It is implied that the need to is for the speaker to be feel fulfilment from progressing through work. This is actually an exercise verbatim out of the original NVC book.
  3. No need is being expressed here. Perhaps the speaker needs the mental comfort of having no outstanding issues, or needs the security of that comes with trustworthy friends – we don’t know and it isn’t clear.
  4. Human contact is a need. Maybe they also need a tempeh gyro.

3.4 Requests

At last we can try to alter the world with requests. Requests are callbacks we send to our communicating partner. They indicate when and what the communicator would like their partner to do. It’s natural that a communication partner might be reticent. Similarly, we might block a lot of javascript when browsing the web, because we can’t permit the possibility of malware, etc. That’s why the best request-callbacks are verified to be non-malicious by being the conclusion of an observation-feeling-needs-request syllogism.

Issuing precise requests clarifies what we want from our communication partner. If it feels difficult to articulate what we want from others, that’s typically because it is not an action. NVC says that more specific actions make better requests, otherwise we’re issuing request that the receiver won’t know if they’ve done. If we shout at our colleague that a project is behind schedule, and we know they can’t speed it up—we’re not asking them to speed it up, but merely to acknowledge our anger. In this case, the call back request might be “give receipt of my frustration.” Colloquially this would be known as venting. It is nice to have no ambiguity about when the listener’s role is just to listen, and when it is to directly address a behavioural pattern.

Exercises: Request or No Request:

  1. “I want you to grok me.”
  2. “I’d like for you to indicate one moment in my presentation that you appreciated.”
  3. “I would like you to walk more slowly in the airport and tell me where you’re going before you walk off.”
  4. “I want you to be proud of your organizing work.”


  1. Not a request, because grok is not specific action. It could however be illustrated by asking for the receiver to paraphrase speaker. (See how to do this well in 4. Receiving)
  2. This request is asking for a something concrete, empathetic reception. These kinds of requests are made to seem ridiculous in the modern era, but that is just the long term cultural effect of “guess culture”.
  3. A little bit exasperated, but quite clear actioning in the request. This isn’t not not one of my pet peeves.
  4. How is the speaker going to know when the receiver is being proud? “I want you to tell my friends about your organizing work,” is more direct if that’s what they’re looking for.

4. Receiving

NVC’s messaging protocol is two-way. Now that we’ve covered “expressing honestly” there’s still “receiving empathetically”. Receiving empathetically can be understood as the process of parsing unstructured conversation text into the formal grammar of NVC. The conversation text is what the other person says and the target grammar or response is the observation-feelings-needs-request 4-tuple. When using NVC we are not guaranteed to get all of the components, and not in any specific order. Rather we must parse the language we’ve received in the best way we can.

Counter-intuitively paraphrasing saves time, even though it takes time. A typical pitfall in a time-saving mentality of receiving is the bad habit of trying to short circuit the conversation by offering unsolicited advice to people. Offering unsolicited advice would be as if a parser (a) took input, (b) maybe did or didn’t parse the input, (c) did not verify the meaning of the maybe-parsed result, and then (d) returned advice based on exogenous heuristics. Returning that computation to the speaker would understandably be nonplussing, if not absolutely frustrating, as it is devoid of any indication that it related to what they said. Giving advice is only useful if advice is what the speaker is asking for. By assuming they want a “fix-it” response, engagement is happening with the folly of mansplaining.

Receiving empathetically is to parse our partners messages and run it through our Universal Empathy Machine.

Exercises: Empathetic Reception (Y/N)?

  1. Person A: Counting error in Ultimate Street Fighter IV finals? How could I do something so stupid? Person B: Nobody’s perfect, don’t be too hard on yourself.
  2. Person A: You’re a delusional utopian. Person B: Are you feeling frustrated because you would like me to admit that there could be other ways of interpreting the Black Lives Matter movement?
  3. Person A: Oh I’m being SO BAD! I NEVER eat cupcakes! Person B: Maybe exercising more would help you.
  4. Person A: When friends of a friend of a friend join our camp without showing commitment, I feel encroached on. It’s like how fraccing companies squeeze me with anti-protest tactics. Person B: I know how you feel. I used to feel that way too.
  5. Person A: I’m unhappy with the grant’s status because you should have made more impact by now. Person B: I know you’re unhappy, but we’ve been slowed by bureaucratic process.


  1. B is giving advice to A, which is not an empathetic response. “You sound like you’re enraged by your lapse of concentration,” is more along the NVC lines.
  2. Empathetic response since B is trying to ascertain from A’s perspective why A might be lashing out.
  3. Again B is advising A, even though the tone is lighter. B might want to try and understand what feelings are behind A’s not being neutral about food.
  4. Not an empathetic response, a sympathetic response. Same data, but whose program is being applied?
  5. Trick empathy. Just saying you understand is not the same as demonstrating you understand. B left A’s comment about impact on the floor, which B could have used to empathise with.

5. Criticisms of NVC

How many different input methods can be used to write an email? An email could be written on physical keyboard, or a phone, and using different auto-complete schemes, speech-to-text, and maybe even a T9 stylee. Due to factors like, speed, being lead by predictions, ease of using special characters, etc, the final text will be different. If the text of our emails are altered, so too are the conversations. There is also the fact that different formats of email work better for some types of writing. We might be happy arranging dinner plans tapping on glass, but conforming to the standards of a formal letter begs for the accommodation of space in the old clickety-clack.

As input methods change a conversation, so does NVC. Since it is a theory of discourse, using NVC will bring with it prediscursive bias. That is, the format of the discussion is not discussed beforehand. Fair enough, any communication strategy would come attached with its own biases. The question then really becomes; if NVC is the prescribed conversation format, which speakers does it benefit?

How does the context in which a theory is developed, let alone the biography of its author implicate the method? NVC’s founding theorist, was a white American born in 1930 as the son of Russian Jews. The theory imports notions of classical logic, a Mazlowic need hiearchy, and Western rationality. To expand, the technique has an orderly, static and procedural system to follow, where it could be more goal-directed. Additionally, the ontology presupposes the universality of basic needs. This could be interpreted as the hubris of someone currently with privilege—white, male, able-bodied, native English speaker—assuming that others are like them. And lastly it does not make large mention of how it would fit in a multiplicity of different communication strategies, as a pluralist might.

6. Practice NVC, but it’s not for everything

NVC has a grand concept, which works at times and is undermined by its flaws at others. I also find criticism of NVC to be very accurate, it is an ongoing challenge to know which are the right times to employ the technique. It was useful for me because it was the first conflict strategy I’d heard of, and found it intelligently nuanced. It turned out not to be a persuasion-hack, but it did enrich my understanding of the concept of empathy. Trying out NVC is enriching because you will listen more closely to others, and be more present with your feelings. It’s really more praxis than theory. In fact, practising empathy has been the inroad to new ideologies for me like: feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ-allyship, and other social movements for which I am not the affected demographic. So practice NVC, but not too much.

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