In this blog post, I write about the background of “The Needs’ Year” and all that has taken place in this project during the year. This final blog post is a summary of my insights and learnings throughout the year as well as a celebration of meeting all trainers and participants, and making contact with old and new colleagues and friends.
I describe the basic theory of needs within the concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Moreover, based on Marshall Rosenberg’s – the founder of NVC – developmental model and with inspiration from Integral Theory, I introduce my own model in which I suggest three different paths of how needs have evolved. After that, I suggest how needs can be seen through an evolutionary lens. The next section is about how different filters – our senses, our awareness and the culture and our individual experience – shape our view of needs. I end the blog post with some thoughts that the words we use to describe needs are human agreements.
It’s a quite long blog post, so please skip parts that don’t speak to you. With that said, let’s dive in!
For a year, I have done a deep dive into needs with the project ”The Needs’ Year” created within the framework of NVC. I’ve had thoughts about this project since the summer of 2021, but it was not until the end of December, exactly one year ago, I actually started to work on it and managed to launch it. Each week I have invited one of the 52 certified and non-certified NVC trainers to take part in a conversation with me. The trainers have chosen which need they want to talk about and every week I have also written a blog post about that need. Each week I sent a newsletter and those who are premium subscribers have also received a PDF with questions for reflections. In addition, the premium subscribers have access to all of the video-recorded talks. All in all, I’ve managed to create a resource of needs content with about 40 hours of video-recorded talks, 54 blog posts and more than 300 questions for reflection about needs.
In this blog post, I want to give a brief (not actually so brief) and at the same time sufficiently detailed account of my current perception of needs. This includes my past understanding as well as the knowledge and insights I’ve gained during the year. I hope that this text will contribute to and inspire a greater awareness of needs and I look forward to feedback and other perspectives from the readers. My wish is that the NVC community specifically and the world in general, will expand its understanding of the importance of this crucial area of our lives.
I want to clarify that this text expresses my current understanding of needs. It’s not an attempt to describe the complete or true view of needs. I’m sure that there are many other ways of describing needs, both within and outside of NVC. When I refer to sources outside my own thoughts, any misrepresentations are my sole responsibility.
Gratitude and celebration
This project would not have been possible without the contribution of all involved NVC trainers. I’m very grateful to everybody that has supported me by joining this project without any compensation for the time spent on preparation and participation in the Zoom Talks. It has been a true joy to be in connection and to collaborate with all of you. I have had the great opportunity to establish new connections as well as connect with trainers I knew from before. I would also like to thank the many trainers I’ve been in contact with that didn’t find the time or the space to participate. I’m grateful that you all took the time to respond and communicate with me, wishing me good luck.
This project would not have been as juicy as it came to be, without all of you who were participants. I’m grateful for all of your questions, reflections and sharings. And even if you just watched and listened, whether it was the live talk or the recorded videos, it helped make these talks meaningful explorations for me. Thanks!
Sometimes it has been stressful to write blog posts and publish them each Monday during the year (once or twice they were published on Tuesdays). Some weeks it wasn’t clear which need I was going to write about until Monday of the very same week. Once I missed recording the session (sorry Ian), and a couple of times I had to postpone the talks due to mishaps in communication. Despite my tendency to procrastinate (sorry, Magda), it has been a remarkably smooth and fruitful year.
Overall, this has been an amazing year for me. I have put in many hours of work every week and hardly a day has passed without me contemplating various aspects of needs. I have learned an awful lot and gained new insights and awareness around my understanding of needs. Everyone who has participated has in one way or another contributed to my journey throughout this fulfilling year. In the frame of all this, I’m humble and grateful. Thank you!
Needs according to NVC
First, I want to share how I perceive the basic theory of needs based on my understanding of what Marshall Rosenberg wanted to convey. One of the main purposes of NVC is to create connection between people. Connection facilitates the desire and willingness for each of us to contribute to fulfilling each other’s needs. As Marshall expressed it:
“What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others
based on a mutual giving from the heart.”
To facilitate connection, we use four components: 1. Observations, 2. Feelings, 3. Needs and 4. Requests. These components support us when we want to create contact with others (or ourselves). The way in which we are experiencing our needs is through our feelings. When our needs are fulfilled, we tend to have feelings we enjoy and when our needs are not fulfilled we tend to have feelings we don’t like. (Read more about the four components HERE.)
It’s not what other people (or what I myself) do or say that causes my feelings. Those actions are just stimuli. What causes my feelings are my needs. I have basically four choices when I’m exposed to stimuli: 1) blame me, 2) blame others, 3) sense my own feelings and needs, or 4) sense others’ feelings and needs. I take responsibility for what is alive in me by connecting my feelings to my needs, rather than connecting the feelings to the actions of others. In the same way, I’m aware that other people’s feelings are not due to my actions (even if they were triggered by something I did or said), but are connected to their needs.
Judgments, criticism, analysis and labelling of others (or self) are distorted expressions of our needs. When we express our needs in these ways, people tend to be defensive or go on counterattacks. The likelihood of our needs being met using this kind of language will be quite small.
When we are aware of which needs are alive in us at the moment, we can do different things. If needs are met, we can enjoy it and celebrate. If needs are unmet, we can make a request to ourselves or others to either: 1) act to meet them, 2) mourn that they are not met, or 3) pay attention to and be present with the needs – the life force within us.
More about needs in the frame of NVC
In NVC we assume that all needs are universal – we all share the same needs. Hence, the needs are not linked to specific people, actions, places or times. Needs are therefore by nature general and non-specific. To meet our needs, we use strategies: concrete and specific actions. Everything people do is an attempt to meet their needs. Whether the strategies people use meet their needs or not, whether the strategies meet the needs of others or not, and whether people are aware of their needs or not, every action is an attempt to fulfil needs.
The needs of different people are never in conflict with each other. Conflicts always appear on a strategy level. When we use a strategy it is connected to one way of doing things. It only takes a fraction of difference between two person’s strategies to create a conflict between them. On the other hand, if we focus on needs, they can be met in a myriad of ways.
Different ways to meet needs
How needs are expressed and which strategies we use to fulfil them change throughout life. During life, an individual can potentially pass through several different developmental stages. In his book “Nonviolent Communication. A Language of Life”, Marshall Rosenberg describes a simple human development model. The model consists of three stages: emotional slavery, the obnoxious stage and emotional liberation.
In emotional slavery, we are dependent on the actions of others in order for our needs to be met. In the obnoxious stage, we have become tired of being dependent and now take our own initiative to meet our needs. In the last stage, emotional liberation, we sense that we are interdependent with each other. Everything I do affects you and everything you do affects me. Therefore we cannot fully fulfil our own needs if it comes at the expense of other people’s needs.
Needs change in expression throughout life
With inspiration from Integral Theory, I have expanded Marshall’s development model and divided human development phases into five stages:
According to many human development researchers, when we are born, we haven’t yet developed an identity – a self. We are completely dependent on the goodwill of people in our environment to get our needs met. We are not yet aware of ourselves and are pre-egocentric.
For the vast majority of us, we begin to develop a self after the age of one – that is when we enter the egocentric stage. We cannot yet take the perspective of others and our actions are solely focused on fulfilling our own needs.
Eventually, we begin to realise that we are part of a group, we make friends and it becomes crucial for us to belong and be accepted. When our group becomes important, we find ourselves in the ethnocentric stage.
Another step is to take the perspectives of other groups, not just the groups we identify with. The well-being of all humans and potentially other species and nature as a whole becomes important for us. We become world-centric.
Potentially, we can develop a oneness with the entire universe. We are part of everything and everything is part of us. We are inseparable. That is a sign that we have entered the cosmic-centric stage.
All these stages are potential abilities within us. We never ARE a stage, but we tend to act out of one of those stages. Under different circumstances and in different contexts, we can act from a different stage than the one we usually find ourselves in. In my experience, many people who become interested in NVC seem to act (or at least have the desire to act) mostly from a world-centric stage. We are curious not only about our own needs, but we want everyone’s needs to be taken into account.
Development of needs
Maybe all needs are alive in me since my first encounter with the world? At the same time, it seems that during my individual development, my needs develop as well. Without diving into various theories and scientific research, I see at least three different paths in which our needs develop.
The first developmental path
The first path in which needs develop is that more and more needs tend to become important and relevant to me during my lifetime. One example is the need for mutuality. When I’m predominantly in the egocentric stage, it’s all about me and my needs. There is no awareness of the perspectives of others and therefore the need for mutuality is not part of my awareness. It might be that the need is fulfilled in unaware ways (for example that grown-ups around me act out of mutuality in connection with me – the egocentric person). If this is the case, I get the need met by others while not being aware.
The second developmental path
The second way needs develop is through the directions I use to meet them. I develop and use different directions, either passively or actively, from others or myself. I see four main directions in getting needs fulfilled:
- Needs getting fulfilled by the actions of others. This can take at least two forms. a) I can passively get my needs fulfilled by other people’s actions, for example, I come to work and someone asks me if I want a cup of coffee. b) I can actively get my needs fulfilled by other people’s actions, for example, I can ask a colleague at work to bring me a cup of coffee.
- Needs getting fulfilled through my own actions. In this way, I do things every day that fulfil my needs. All from basic survival needs such as drinking water to more intangible needs that give me meaning or inspiration.
- Needs getting fulfilled through actions for others. If I’m longing for love I can express love towards someone else in a form that will also fulfil my need for love. This can of course happen also without the intent to fulfil love for myself. I do something for someone and during or after the action I experience my need for love being fulfilled.
- Needs getting fulfilled as ”a third party”, by actions not directed towards me. This can be in the form of people’s previous actions (some people built a road, not for me, but I have access to it and it fulfils my needs). It can also be in the form of natural resources (air exists regardless of whether I live or not, but my needs are fulfilled because I have access to it).
The third developmental path
The third way needs develop is through the strategies I use to meet them. I develop and use different approaches when I transit through the different stages. From early childhood, I mainly have access to different body expressions to get my needs met. One of the most obvious strategies is to scream. As I develop, my abilities to move, think and express myself grow.
As an example, I will use the need for closeness: In early childhood, I might cry or scream in order to have someone hug me. Later on, I still have access to these strategies, but now I can take my own initiative for actions and grab someone’s hand to get close. As I grow I can experience closeness in non-physical ways when talking to someone on the phone. Eventually, I might get my need for closeness fulfilled by sitting on a meditation cushion, without being physically close or even having a specific person in mind.
The evolutionary origins of needs
Inspired by the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his moral foundation theory, I have been reflecting a lot during the year about the evolutionary origins of our needs. Philosophically, perhaps everything that exists has needs. A stone, for example, needs a certain temperature range to hold together in one piece. Outside this range, the stone ceases to exist in its current shape. If we consider needs from this point of view, maybe needs are a prerequisite for the entire universe to exist?
Despite this philosophical aspect, when it comes to needs I am more interested in living organisms and in particular the needs of humans. For organisms, it is more obvious that certain conditions are needed for life to be maintained. All living entities need warmth, oxygen, water and carbon-based nutrition for survival. The more complex the organisms, the more complex the needs seem to be. One example is that the offspring of mammals need more care (at least more sophisticated care) than the offspring of reptiles.
Needs as a base for evolutionary survival
In my view, humans are the most complex organism we know of and we probably have the most complex set of needs. Somewhere along the way from single-celled organisms to modern homo sapiens, needs after needs have been added to our repertoire. An alternative view could be that all needs are present, even in not as complex forms as humans, and it’s the expressions of needs, the strategies, that evolve.
If the needs didn’t contribute to our survival as individuals and as a species, I don’t think they would exist. Even if most of the needs (from the various needs lists that exist) aren’t directly lethal if not fulfilled, the lack of their fulfilment lowers the quality of our life.
I use the need for creativity as an example: in an environment with plenty of resources, that need might not contribute to the survival of individuals or groups of human beings. But in times with more scarce resources, the ability to come up with new solutions by using creativity probably contributed to the immediate survival of the individuals. Humans with more capacity for creativity probably survived longer and produced more offspring than others. And the expression of that need is passed on to new generations. I guess we could look at all needs and see the evolutionary benefits of possessing each and every one of them.
Needs, reality and observations
We experience the world through our physical senses. Traditionally, humans are said to have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. From what I understand, there is a scientific debate going on about how many senses we have. Some believe that we have at least seven senses. Other researchers claim that we have up to 11 senses*. If we look beyond the purely scientific discussions, I’m certain there are even more suggestions of senses.
Within NVC, we tend to focus on two senses: sight and hearing. When we try to share a common reality by making observations, those two senses seem to be the easiest to use. However, we can actually never make completely objective observations. Our interpretation of reality is always a mix of external information (through our senses) and our internal thoughts, beliefs, values, etc. Depending on what we focus on, we create a subjective reality, which we tend to believe is the accurate one.
I’m convinced that there is an objective reality outside of me. Regardless if I live or not and regardless if I’m aware of reality or not, the external world exists. When I become aware of the external world, I only experience a tiny fraction of it. Before my mind gets aware of reality, it passes through several filters. Therefore I’m not able to experience an objective reality – it is always subjective.
The first filter
The first filter is the physical capability of our senses to receive information. Both when it comes to seeing and hearing, the human senses have a range within which they are capable of receiving information. Light consists of electromagnetic wavelengths of which we can only see a fraction. Other animals can perceive infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths but we cannot.
It’s the same when it comes to sounds. Some animals can hear both infra- and ultrasounds that the human ear is not capable to receive (as curiosa, giraffes make infrasounds in a range not hearable for humans). So, we humans are not capable of perceiving and being aware of the entire reality.
The second filter
The second filter is the capability of our awareness. It’s estimated that our senses can receive 11 million bits of information every second. According to the same source, our awareness can only process 40 bits of information every second. We often act out of the unaware information we perceive. One example is when we walk in the woods and suddenly jump to the side. After examining the ground we awarely conclude that what we thought was a snake actually was a branch.
Often we are not aware of why we act the way we do. When our actions (often as a result of our mind’s processing of unaware information) don’t match our values, our mind experiences cognitive dissonance. Our mind doesn’t like this ambiguity and is all the time making up plausible reasons for the way we act. Many times these reasons are completely made-up fantasies by the unconscious parts of our minds, reasons we consciously believe are true.
The third filter
Another filter is the culture we grow up in. We tend to divide actions in different areas into normal and strange behaviours. For the most part, we perceive our own cultures’ range of actions as normal and other cultures’ as strange, abnormal or plainly as the wrong kind of behaviour. In addition to this, our filter is affected by our upbringing and our personal experiences, which differ more or less from the surrounding culture.
All these filters create a subjective reality that we tend to believe is the only valid way to see the world. All external events, everything people do or say is filtered into our experience of reality. We interpret others’ actions and intentions through these filters. Our interpretations affect our feelings and our needs. When I’m aware of these filters, it’s easier for me to accept that people use different strategies than my preferred ones to meet their needs.
Needs as agreements
Some people describe humans as meaning-making machines. What I get from this statement is that we humans in all circumstances inevitably try to grasp the meaning of our existence. We try to make sense of our world by creating models, maps, theories and systems. It helps us to understand and orient in the world. None of these human-made concepts exists outside of the human mind.
In the book “How emotions are made”, author and professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett describes how we create emotions and words for feelings based on our body sensations. Our emotions are social, cultural and linguistic agreements. Body sensations exist in the external world, within us humans as well as in other beings. But – as for human-made theories – words of emotions and feelings don’t exist outside the human mind.
I believe that it’s the same when it comes to needs. The different words we use for needs are agreements made between us. If we use a certain word to describe one of the aspects of our life force, then this word is representing the quality we have in mind. Obviously, as I wrote earlier, life in its different forms depends on certain conditions to stay alive, reproduce and thrive. Regardless of whether we call it needs, life force, prana, the manifesting energy of the entire universe or something else, it exists.
I would like to thank Liv Larsson and Kristiina Krank who read the first draft of this blog post. Thanks to their suggestions (which I partly incorporated into the text), this version is a more smooth, accurate and joyful read. All views and conclusions in the text are of course mine and any misread of sources is my responsibility.
I would never have been able to execute and complete this project without the support and encouragement of my wife and collaborator Magdalena Malinowska-Berggren. Magda is the founder of Empathic Way Europe which has been the host of the entire project. Magda has created all of the supportive structures around the project including, among other things, the landing page on the website, the graphics, the newsletters, proofreading the blog posts and the PDFs.
What are your insights about needs?
Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/the-needs-year/modules/week-52/
* Aristotle’s division of emotions is now considered outdated and scientists believe that we have at least seven senses (the traditional five plus senses of balance and body). However, many researchers claim that we have many more than that. Examples of additional new senses include: Thermoception (Heat), Nociception (Pain), Interoception (internal regulation), and Mechanoreception (Vibrations).
Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)
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On 30 December at 19:00-19:45 CET, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and various NVC trainers. We will talk about our concept of needs.
Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.
If you read this afterward, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.