The Elusive Nature of Needs


This word that I (and most NVC trainers) talk about endlessly.  NEEDS.  What are they?  Why does it seem so difficult for some to ‘get’ it?


I learned a few years ago that they are abstract nouns.  Well, that was actually kind of helpful.  If —and this is a big if, people can consider what they are thinking in their moments of distress.

I remember when I first discovered Nonviolent Communication, my commitment was to only say in my conversations with Steve, Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests.  At the time, it was extremely challenging for me to ‘get’ what need was causing my distress.  None of those words seemed to hold the depth of energy of my pain. Luckily, I was committed to the process, so I would tend to stop our conversations.  And just wait.  

My habit (and likely I was taught), that the way to feel powerful (NEED = to matter, although I didn’t know it), was to puff myself up, yell and demand respect!  Somehow for me, screaming at someone about how wrong they were seemed like a good idea.  Truthfully, I had nothing to compare it to, as that was all I did, and mostly what I had seen in my family.

Others (unlike me) might be ‘so mad’ they can’t (or won’t) even say anything.  Just because someone is quiet when they are upset, I don’t make the assumption they are connected to their needs.  Most likely they are either silently ripping someone apart, or they are resigned to never getting heard.   Equally unproductive.

Back to the needs…

I see this with clients and friends.  Getting to the need and connecting to it as something meaningful, is elusive.  

The solution?

For me it was commitment. I wouldn’t say anything else which led to a backlog of conversations stuck at the point of me sharing my needs. What happened, I believe, was my mind just processed over and over until one or some of the needs words finally made some kind of sense.  Or I just tried one out.  What did I have to lose by just semi-randomly picking one?  Nothing.  In fact, I could finally get to the request!!!


So I picked a need. Either randomly, or one that seemed like it made sense.  Then I could ask for something.  Which I did. And this is the gold of NVC. Often I got a yes to my request.  

Why?  Because I was asking for something that would meet the need. I was nolonger locked into asking for the same thing (with little, if any thought to why I was asking for —well, actually demanding over and over that I already got a ‘no’ to.  

The benefit of truly connecting to a need, is that you become aware of a wide variety of ways to have the need met.  You are no longer stuck with the single strategy you have been harping on for hours, days, or years.  

The beauty of needs is that no one person is required to get them met.  Sure, we might want someone to do something that signals to us they care, or we matter, or partnership, or companionship. If a person says no over and over to something you want, then truly it is up to you to get over your attachment to the strategy.  It is a losing effort.  Draining for all parties.  As Marshall said, “A tragic, suicidal attempt to meet the need.”

In my opinion, this is why it is elusive.  We are not willing to get our needs met by how we think.  And example of this is:  You think your partner should do social things with you…go to family events. Your partner has no interest in going. Or at least as often as you would like. This “no” from your partner stimulates distress for you.  And you have been talking, arguing, nicely pleading, for years at this point.  So much hurt, pain and resentment has built up over the years, just thinking about the next family birthday event is distressing. You want your partner to go so badly, that you will pretend you aren’t upset, ask (once more) very nicely…no negative energy…and this time they say yes, and on the day of, they find a reason they can’t go.  Your rage is off the charts, and they no longer want to talk about it because you are unreasonable —quite frankly have been for a long time.

So the conversation is most likely all about “going/not going”.  Rather than the deeply (hidden?) needs that will get met or not by “going/not going”  Add in the years of disappointment, (likely inaccurate) meaning making, anticipated responses and lack of creativity to get the needs met and the possibility of actual connection is unrealistic.  Once we are locked in to a single strategy —‘going to family events’ to get needs met, the conversation gets harder and harder to have.

Why?  Because one (and usually) both people are not willing to just sit in their sorrow, disappointment, pain, hurt and make choices from the truth.  We just want it to be different.  “I want you to want to go to my family.”  And, “I want you to understand why I don’t.  Can’t you see all the other things I do ‘for you?”

This conversation will never end.  

If it is actually a deal breaker…You want a partner who likes your family and wants to go with you to visit them, or you want a partner who will let you off the hook for family events, then the sooner you get that you two are nota match, the more likely you can make new choices for partners, the less distress and resentment you will build up together.   People would rather be partners and argue for years when there seem to be so many other possibilities.

How about accept what other blessings the relationship has brought into your lives and celebrate it, and stop the arguing about this one topic.

How about talk about why it is so important to go/not go?  Meaning get to the needs or each person.  Maybe the needs are the same?    Maybe there are agreements you can make that will serve both?

How about making agreements about how often or what type of events are the most important?  Then setting up de-briefing conversations after, so the person who doesn’t love going will get appreciation for the effort, rather than another complaint that it isn’t enough?

What else can you think of?

Until and unless you connect to the needs, take full responsibility for how you feel about things that happen, and share it as an offering for connection and solutions, you are likely going to continue to be less than happy in your relationships. 

I understand it might not be so easy.  It is necessary.

Say This Not That ~ Practice:

Next time you find yourself in conflict with someone —You want one thing, they want another, immediately pull up the NEEDS sheet.  Take the time to determine what needs (what experience you will have) by what you are asking for.  And the same for the other person.

Make a list of 12 (yes, 12!!!) or even more ways that you could actually get the needs met.  Choose ways you would like, you would love, ones you likely wouldn’t say yes to (although, why?) so you have a nice list. Please, make the list.  Don’t just think about it.  The process allows you to break out of your attachment to having things go your way, and break into the idea of everyone’s needs getting met.

Then choose one.

Let me know what happens.