In this blog post, I will mainly reflect on needs from the perspective of us humans. My thoughts about needs are based on my understanding of what Marshall B. Rosenberg – the founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) – has written about needs. I have also taken inspiration from other NVC sources, mainly Friare Liv (Liv Larsson and Kay Rung) by reading their books and participating in their one year programs. Additional sources of inspiration are various popular science fact books, often linked to neurobiology and psychology. While preparing this blog post, I have also done research and collected information and inspiration from the internet. Here is the result.
Needs in Nonviolent Communication
One of the basic assumptions about needs in NVC is that all human beings share the same needs.
The needs are universal, regardless of background, age, gender, etc. The difference between us is how we try to fulfil our needs. In order to fulfil the needs we use different actions – different strategies.
Another assumption is that all actions are attempts to meet needs. No matter what people do, it is an attempt to meet needs. Even if we find the action not in line with our own values.
An additional assumption is that feelings point to needs being met or unmet. What we feel depends on whether our needs are met or not met at the moment. These feelings are based on how we choose to interpret the information that constantly flows through our senses. What other people say or do may be a stimulus for what we feel, but not the cause. The cause of our feelings are our needs and we take responsibility for our feelings by connecting them to our needs. Easier said than done…
Identifying and expressing needs
Connecting with needs might be challenging, because most of us have never learned to identify and/or express them. Expanding our vocabulary of feelings can support us in it – thanks to that we are able to more easily connect our bodily emotions to our needs.
Why is it important? Our habitual way of communicating makes it difficult to fulfil our needs. Many times we express our needs by threatening and punishing, condemning and blaming, using labels, criticism and/or moral judgments. We attack or counterattack, we defend ourselves or withdraw. That makes it difficult for others to receive us with compassion. What makes it much easier? Taking responsibility for our needs and expressing them honestly. Here is a link to a list of needs that may support you in that: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/cards-of-feelings-and-needs/modules/lists-of-feelings-and-needs/
Value of needs
Many of us have not learned to value our needs. Women have traditionally been taught to ignore their own needs and instead serve others. Men have traditionally sacrificed their lives and health as soldiers and through hard work. When we don’t take care of our needs for a longer time, it may turn against the people we do it for. We become easily irritated, angry, bitter or critical.
Needs versus strategies
One more thing that is worth remembering, is that needs are general and not connected to specific:
When we attempt to meet needs we need to use strategies. Strategies are our individual ways of meeting needs. Strategies are concrete and specific and include people, actions, places and timing.
Three sources to fulfill needs
In A Language of Life Marshall Rosenberg writes about three stages of emotional liberation (A language of life, Chapter 5)
- Stage 1 – Emotional slavery
- Stage 2 – Obnoxious
- Stage 3 – Emotional liberation
Based on these stages, we can describe three basic ways to meet our needs:
- Stage 1 – Dependency: In this stage you are dependent on others for your needs to be met.
- Stage 2 – Independency: Most of us eventually get tired of being dependent on others. In this stage you make sure to meet your own needs, often without regard to what other people need and sometimes at the expense of others.
- Stage 3 – Interdependency: Stage 2 can be a bit lonely and you may become aware that you can not basically meet your own needs without taking others’ needs into consideration. In this stage, you will discover that you can meet your own needs by contributing to others.
We can look at these stages as different TV channels. Each channel has a variety of programs, different strategies, that can meet our needs. If you have reached step 3, you can have your needs met by receiving from others, giving to yourself and contributing to others. Your opportunities and your strategies for meeting needs are now virtually endless.
Some reflections on needs
All living entities – all organisms – have needs. Needs are the force to ensure the continuing existence of the organism and getting the fundamental living conditions met. Plants and animals need warmth, water and nutrients to survive. We, humans, also need to meet these basic survival needs.
These needs are fairly easy to observe and measure. If we remove the physical conditions for these needs to be met, we are going to die in the near future. Without warmth (below -60ºC) the cells freeze and we die immediately. Without water or other fluid we die after a few days, and without nutrition we die after a few weeks, maybe some months, depending on how much fat we have stored in the body.
Not just basic survival needs
We do not just have pure physical survival needs. We also have needs linked to, for example, autonomy, meaning and connection. Even though a lack of these needs does not lead to death and bad health as quickly as the physical needs, there are many examples of what happens to people who do not have their needs met. Having some of our needs unfulfilled leads to premature death and although lack of some needs does not lead to a shorter life, the quality of life will decline significantly. Some famous and known examples are the orphaned children in Romania, prisoners in solitary confinement and homeless people.
When it comes to the basic physical survival needs, it is easy to see how life has arranged for us to have these needs met. The body signals in different ways what it needs. We freeze when we get too cold. We feel thirsty when we need water and hungry when we need nourishment.
The body responds and sends physical signals when we need something. In the same way, the body sends out signals when we are satisfied and have had enough (and more than enough) of what we need. We can learn to interpret these body signals. Instead of just feeling a general discomfort or pleasure when the body sends signals, we interpret the signals, take action and use different strategies to give the body what it needs and thus meet our needs.
Language as a useful tool
Through language, we have been given a tool to be able to classify and label these body signals. When enough signals in the body interact and we through our memory recognize a similar state that has occurred earlier in our lives, we use different terms to name different emotional states. We call these words emotions and feelings. In different cultures around the world, we have agreements which words for emotions we use. This facilitates communication. We could say that we interpret the signals sent by our body and when enough people agree with previous experiences, we use a term that most people around us recognize, for example “happy” or “sad”.
Similar body signals can point to different emotions. A fast heartbeat can, for example, signal fear, excitement, anxiety, stress, anger, joy or that you have ingested a substance that affects the heart without feeling any of these feelings.
One and the same emotional experience can also have origin or result in completely different body sensations. For example, fear can be signalled with rapid breathing and hard heartbeats, calm breathing and slow heartbeats, hot or cold sweating, increased or decreased physical activity, etc.
Are feelings universal?
Lisa Feldman Barett describes in her book “How Emotions are Made” how different cultures use different words to describe emotions. Some cultures lack words for feelings that exist in, for example, English-speaking countries, and the English language lacks expressions of feelings that occur in other cultures.
Yet, scientists have documented numerous emotion concepts around the world that don’t exist in English. Norwegians have a concept for an intense joy of falling in love, calling it “Forelsket.” The Danes have the concept “Hygge” for a certain feeling of close friendship. The Russian “Tocka” is a spiritual anguish, and the Portuguese “Saudade” is a strong, spiritual longing. (How Emotions are Made, p 168)
Feelings can be said to be social constructions, agreements that make it easier for us to communicate. The body sensations exist in an objective world while the feelings we use as a description are human made. We can measure the heart beating, the cortisol levels rising and the shut down on activity in the frontal cortex. Those body sensations would exist regardless if we are aware about them or not. But the feeling word we use to label these sensations (in this case fear) is not part of the objective world (for example the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert lack the word and concept “fear”).
The difference between the life force and the needs
In the same way, words that describe needs could be viewed as social constructions. Without having examined the matter further, I am convinced that in different cultures there are words for needs that don’t occur in other cultures and vice versa. Even the word need in itself is a social construct. The words, the labels, that we put on different need states are pointers or road signs toward different aspects of our bodily experience. The words we use for needs are like a map. Don’t mix up the map and the territory.
One definition of needs says that needs are life’s way to sustain and reproduce itself. The basic need, the mother of all needs, might be described as contributing to life. With this approach, needs could be defined as a life force, a drive, a flow of energy within and between us. This life force exists whether we are aware of it or not. The organism seeks to satisfy this life force whether we categorise the needs or not. It may be only us humans who have the ability to categorise and name needs, but all organisms have this drive and ability to meet their needs whether they are aware of them or not.
I think the bottom line is, whether we agree on certain words pointing to specific needs or not, we can agree that humans need certain conditions to live and prosper. When we agree on how to describe these conditions, it facilitates understanding and communication and, ultimately, contact between us.
Join the Needs’ Year
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CNVC Certified Trainer, Sweden
I am a communication consultant and a certified CNVC trainer. I work with groups and individuals who want to be able to communicate better and build sustainable connections in their family, with their friends, at their workplace and in the bigger community. I am offering lectures, workshops, mediation and individual training both for individuals and for organizations. Anything from shorter presentations to several days or weeks of training. Since 2010 I have offered over 100 lectures and workshops with inspiration from NVC (Nonviolent Communication). I have attended three one year programs organised by Friare Liv (Liv Larsson and Kay Rung): the Year 1, the Year 2 and the Mediation program. I have been assistant trainer on five of Friare Livs one year programs as well as on several of their shorter workshops.