All About Needs

by | Feb 28, 2018 | Nonviolent Communication

unsplash image AsahNlC0VhQ

Last week, I received this lovely question:

“I love how much more literate in feelings I am now, however honestly, I just don’t really get the universal human needs. Like how to actually connect to them and communicate about them in real life in real time? It always just seems totally forced and out of touch. This seems so basic, but I need some sort of in-depth crash course on the NEEDS part … Do you know of anything already out there on the internet? Or would you like to write something? :)”

I love your question!

I’ll share a few thoughts and some resources at the end, but if you still have more questions about this please consider hopping on my free Q&A call this Thursday at noon!

First, the word “needs” can be misleading. We think of being “needy” as being dependent, a burden on others, selfishness, high maintenance, victim-y, childlike, and so forth.

Depending upon the context, I prefer to use phrases like intrinsic motivators, values, desires, hungers, drives, or just getting to the essence of what matters.

What we are trying to point to is this life energy that flows through us, motivating us to optimal surviving and thriving in any given moment.

Our feelings are the felt-sense data we get about the state of our needs.

  • When I feel hungry, I need fuel.

  • When I feel thirsty, I need fluid.

  • When I feel lonely, I may need connection or companionship.

  • When I feel tired, I may need rest or play.

Feelings give us information about our needs, and our needs are at the essence of that which helps us survive and thrive.

Marshall Rosenberg used to say that all behavior is essentially simply our best attempt in any given moment to meet our deep human needs.

By taking the time to develop a greater awareness of our needs, we’re able to align our behaviors and choices with strategies to meet those needs for ourselves and others.

Simple, right?

Well, a few issues can arise.

Problem #1: Talking about Needs Indirectly – through our interpretations

Since most of us have not been taught to think terms of needs, when they aren’t met we jump to thinking about how other people and situations are wrong and at fault.

For example, although I say “You never listen to me,” what I may mean is that I have a need to be heard or understood in our interactions.

Or, when I complain to my partner, “You’re always working and never come home for dinner; we never get to play or connect like we used to,” I may be trying to say that my needs for intimacy, connection and play aren’t met as well as I would enjoy.

Our habits of expressing our needs indirectly through our interpretations and evaluations often results in others then feeling criticized by us, then going on the defense and ending up in old patterns of fault-focused conflicts.

Marshall Rosenberg often reminded us that judgments are simply tragic expressions of unmet needs, and when we focus on the needs, we can see far more options for making life better.

Problem #2: Mistaking Strategies for Needs

The other issue is that we often mistake strategies for our needs and then argue about the rightness and wrongness of various strategies without understanding what deeper needs are driving the conflict.

When we remember there is a need behind every action, we can begin to look for the need behind everything you and others do and say.

Focusing on our needs allows us to focus on our shared humanity and to problem-solve together instead of making people the problem.

Needs consciousness points intrinsic, shared human drives and interests, and is not culture bound. To discern whether you’re focusing on needs or strategies, you might ask yourself:

  • Is this something that human beings of all ages, all cultures, all periods in history value and seek?

  • Is this something people of all ages need to survive and thrive?

  • Am I including a person, time, object, place or action? If so, it’s more likely a strategy than a need.

The answers to these questions get us closer to the concept of universal human needs, like subsistence, protection and safety, affection and belonging, understanding, participation, play and recreation, freedom, consistency, and integrity. Here’s a longer list of needs!

As our human needs are met, we increase our ability to simultaneously experience increased autonomy and self-reliance, and also to function with love and compassion in interdependent relationships with others.

As for the part where you asked about how to work with needs when they feel “forced and out of touch” in conversations, I just want to remind you that this is totally normal. This is a lot like learning a new language, and it has all the same awkward stages.

Many of us aren’t used to focusing on needs, we don’t have a great vocabulary to draw from, and when we are in the thick of a charged conversation it can feel awkward and clumsy to bring in unfamiliar language.

Make peace with clumsy. Be gentle with yourself and others. 

The more you work with needs consciousness and language, the more natural it will feel, and the more easily the language will come to you.

One tip for naturalizing the language: don’t use single words, but instead use descriptive phrases.

If you’re accurately communicating what is deeply important to you and asking about what is deeply important to the other person, I personally wouldn’t get too hung up on the precision of words and language, especially if it’s interfering with connection and flow.

For example, instead of saying something potentially clinical and stilted like “my need to be heard is not being met,” you might say something like, “I’m longing to have what I’m saying land on you in a way that matters and feels satisfying to us both.”

Make sense?

Use whatever language feels relational, gentle, and inviting in the moment.

I know you have it in you.

Still have questions? Want to talk more?

Join me at my next Y’s Cafe Q&A zoom call this Thursday at noon!

  • I’ll be talking more about needs consciousness, needs language, naturalizing needs language and translating judgments into the underlying feelings and needs.

  • Have a situation where you are stuck?

  • Have more questions about how to apply this concept in your own relationships?

  • Register in Advance for this meeting!

  • After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. There is no cost to participate in these calls, but I do ask you to register in advance.

And, to wrap it all up, here are some links and further resources to learn and explore more! Enjoy!

1 Comment

  1. ...

    For me, examples are what really bring concepts alive and give me something concrete to model my efforts on. So a list with a bunch of examples along these lines would be super helpful:-

    Strategy statement: ??

    Detached needs statement: "My need to be heard is not being met."

    Relational way to express self: "I’m longing to have what I am saying land on you in a way that matters and feels satisfying to us both."


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