Nonviolent Communication and the Autonomic Nervous System

John D. Mudie, Ph.D.,


When a person receives empathy as defined in Nonviolent Communication, they can move their state of mind from the Jackal state to the Giraffe state of mind as defined by NVC. We propose that a person in the Jackal state has an active Sympathetic Nervous System as described in Polyvagal Theory and that a person in the Giraffe state has an active Ventral Vagal Branch of their Parasympathetic Nervous System. We also suggest ways that this proposed shift can be observed physically.

Porges (2011) proposed Polyvagal Theory to describe the workings of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), the involuntary nervous system which controls heart, lungs, stomach etc. and emotions.

According to Dana (2022 pg.14) the ANS has two major branches, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) . The PSNS has two branches, the Ventral Vagal Branch (VVB) and the Dorsal Vagal Branch, (DVB).

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)“System of Action; filled with chaotic energy, mobilized to attack, driven to escape, anxious, angry” (Dana 2022, pg. 6)
which can be viewed as being self-centered (Me me me, I want what I want and it’s especially important I get it NOW.) or ” I am in danger and need to get out NOW”
Parasympathetic Nervous System): Dorsal Vagal Branch (DVB)“System of Shutdown: just go through the motions, drained of energy, disconnect, lose hope, give up” (Dana 2022, pg. 6)
Primitive reaction of freezing to avoid predators, no action. (Like a tortoise retracting into shell.)
Parasympathetic Nervous System: Ventral Vagal Branch“System of connection: meet the demands of the day, connect and communicate, go with the flow, engage with life” (Dana 2022, pg 6)
Feelings of calm, safety, connection with and caring for others, acceptance of whatever is happening. (a place I like being in!)
The various states of the Autonomic Nervous System


If you are not already familiar with Nonviolent Communication, we suggest that you read and and of course Rosenberg (2015) until this section is finished. The goal of NVC is to “ empower functional giving and receiving


“Blaming others or oneself can be respectively compared to our “Fight or flight” response of our autonomic system when facing a danger. With time NVC can slowly change our conditionings to react towards more connection in our relations with ourselves and others. (Rosenberg, 2003).” said Letellier (2021) in her thesis

Our basic proposition is that when we are doing jackal behavior, we have an active Sympathetic Nervous System (ego, fear, flight, flight). What receiving NVC empathy (Observation, Feeling, Needs, Request) does is to help a person move to the Ventral Vagal Branch of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (acceptance, connection and caring for others, lack of fear, peaceful) which in NVC is called the Giraffe state.

When a person responds to a successful empathy guess, they sometimes relax and sigh. This most probably is a body response to shift from an active SNS to a more active PSNS.

When a person has an active SNS, blood is diverted from the brain to the muscular system in preparation for a fight or flight maneuver. If a person calms down after receiving NVC Compassion, blood can return to the brain more. This probably increases the brain’s ability to handle the situation confronting it and produce a better solution and express it as a request.


We conclude that the balance of activity in a person’s Autonomic Nervous System shifts from an active Sympathetic Nervous System to an increasingly active Parasympathetic Nervous System when they receive NVC style Compassion.


Would some group of scientists interested in studying the science behind NVC be willing to prove or disprove the proposition described above?
Cell phones can be used to measure High Frequency Heart Rate Variability (HF-HRV) which is an indicator of Vagal/Parasympathetic activity.
The testable hypothesis is that HF-HRV will increase when an angry person receives a NVC based compassionate response and calms down.


Understanding the process of NVC is very unlikely to promote functional giving and receiving between human beings, the main purpose of NVC.
However if it is verified that that the NVC procedure does activate the PSNS, then other methods of activating the PSNS could be used to promote the goal of NVC,” empower functional giving and receiving

One candidate for activating the PSNS is device assisted slow deep breathing as described in Brook et al 2013. They reported that device assisted slow deep breathing was more effective than meditation in reducing blood pressure. The reduction in blood pressure most probably occurred as patients relaxed more often when their PSNS increased it’s activity as a result of meditation or slow deep breathing (the Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia phenomenon).

Could it be possible that device-assisted slow deep breathing could also support people in achieving the goals of NVC “ empower functional giving and receiving.” ?


We wish to express our appreciation of a discussion with Loreen Aguilar which inspired the creation of this proposal. We also want to thank Rodger Sorrow for his support in allowing me to attend the 2022 NVC Conference


Brook, R. D., Appel, L. J., Rubenfire, M., Ogedegbe, G., Bisognano, J. D., Elliott, W. J., … & Rajagopalan, S. (2013). Beyond medications and diet: alternative approaches to lowering blood pressure: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Hypertension61(6), 1360-1383.
Dana, Deb, 2022, Anchored, Sound True, Boulder, CO
Letellier, M. B. (2021). On improving empathetic skills in motivational interview with Nonviolent Communication. A pedagogical material for physiotherapy students.
Porges, S, 2011, The Polyvagal Theory, Norton, New York, N.Y
Rosenberg, M (2015) Nonviolent Communication: A language of life. Puddle Dancer Press, Encinitas, CA

This page is part of mansuscript of a book called Applications of PolyVagal Theory which can be found at

The current version of this page may be found at