“People who are in touch with their needs do not make good slaves.”
Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D
Needs are basic to life. Everything
we feel and do is in service to our needs. In the moment to moment
biological imperative to meet our needs we make choices – thousands of
choices. Every choice we make is an attempt to satisfy the need that is
most deeply calling us at the moment. Mostly unconscious, this process
Our needs fall into two categories – physiological and psychological and we are in a relentless drive to meet them.
The physiologic basics: air, water,
food, shelter, safety, sleep and touch are non-negotiable. When we need
air or water, all other needs are relinquished until we satisfy those
essential needs. While there is, inexplicably, relatively little written
about our basic human needs, there is agreement among academics on the
universality of these needs.
Probably the most well-known categorization of needs, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory classifies psychological needs as:
- Belonging and Love (affection, relationships, family, work)
- Esteem (self-esteem, achievement, mastery, autonomy, status, recognition)
- Self-Actualization (purpose, meaning, fulfillment).
While many descriptions of needs have been identified in the
category of psychological needs – everything from beauty to variety –
these fall more in the category of wants that may be means we use in pursuit of satisfying needs.
Why Aren’t We Better at Satisfying Our Needs?
Working with needs is fundamental to all the work I do as an
organizational consultant. I can’t work with an individual, or a group,
unless I understand what they need. Often I find it is difficult to get
real needs clarified. Our needs literacy is even more obscure than our
emotional repertoire. We aren’t taught the language of needs.
Consequently most of us reach adulthood laden down with “strategies”
developed to try to meet our needs. This is particularly true when it
comes to our psychological needs.
Unaware of our psychological needs, we commonly pursue ineffective
substitutes. Often our strategies involve manipulating our environment
in some way to get what we think we need. We aren’t skilled in being
direct and clear about what we need and how we feel when our needs are
not met. The costs of manipulating, compensating and suppressing our
unexpressed real needs are high. It takes vital neural energy to push
down our real needs and seek superficial satisfaction.
Lack of understanding of our own needs can also take a big toll on
our relationships with others. Conflict is the direct result of unmet
and competing needs. This process can happen inside and outside of
relationships, especially when we are out of touch with our real needs.
My need to be a great parent and my need to work to make money do not have to be competing needs, but they often are. This needs conflict can be an entirely internal process – the war that is waged within, but often with external fallout.
Interpersonal conflict is common.
Life partners, colleagues and friends will inevitably come up against
differing needs and the strong feelings attached to those needs.
Because of our lack of needs awareness, we typically try to resolve differences at the level of “positions.” I want this and you want that – and that’s that.
In their work, Harvard Negotiation Project pioneers and co-authors of Getting to Yes, Roger
Fisher and William Ury spoke about the importance of focusing on the
human needs at the core of the positional stances usually taken in
conflicts. The intransigent positions we take tend to keep us locked in
conflict – and we rarely get near real needs in the process.
There is a purpose behind every position, and without knowing the
purpose or reason that is the real motivator, it then becomes virtually
impossible to identify the real problem which actually needs to be
Fisher and Ury realized that our most powerful interests (often
mutual) relate to fundamental human needs. They point out that these
basic needs do not just relate to individuals but also to groups,
corporate entities, organizations and even nations.
“I Need That Information by Friday”
When I ask employees, especially those in conflict, to identify their needs, I typically get these kinds of responses, “We have to get the data to corporate by the 15th of the month,” “We need more productive meetings with full attendance,” “I need a colleague who takes initiative,” “Our team needs to make decisions faster.” Buried inside of all these diagnoses and interpretations are needs – organizational needs and personal individual needs.
The person who says she needs a colleague to take more initiative may
really need help so that she can accomplish her business obligations
and personally satisfy her own goals. The employee who says he needs more productive meetings with everyone attending may really need to feel as if his effort to reliably show up for the meetings is recognized and rewarded.
If we don’t speak the language of needs and feelings, we can just keep going around in circles.
internationally recognized conflict resolution expert and founder of
the Center for Nonviolent Communication talks about the obstacles of
dealing with needs in business settings, “In
many of the organizations I work with, people can’t talk about their
feelings. Nobody cares about what they feel and need. But when you don’t
express your feelings and needs, when you just keep going into
intellectual discussions, you end up like this company; unproductive use
of time by not getting to the root of the problem.”
Since most organizations still run on a model of compliance with
authority, we’re not likely to be able to influence our work cultures to
rise to the level of open discussions with room for the expression of
feelings and needs. But we can take responsibility for articulating our own needs. To do that, we’ve got to begin the process of learning to identify what we need, what we feel and how we behave in response.
Learning to Get to the Core of What You Need at Work
- First and foremost begin to separate out what you need and what your boss, job, team and organization needs.
Of course there will be compatibility in some areas, but while the
organization may need you to be reliable to advance its profits, your
need may not be the same. It’s important to understand why you do what
you do and what individual need it serves. The goal here is to
recognize and satisfy your own need.
- Use your feelings as a guide
to unearthing your needs. Your emotional literacy will be a valuable
tool to help you to understand your needs. Emotions act like a barometer
for our needs. If you are feeling content, satisfied, enthusiastic, or
confident, chances are you’re meeting your needs. If you’re feeling
angry, resentful, overwhelmed and frustrated – the flashing red light is
on telling you that your needs are not being met.
- Understand that the more you
understand your own needs – the more you will begin to see that other
people’s needs are also driving their feelings and behavior.
Recognizing mutual needs is the great humanizer – often capable of
producing real breakthroughs in communication. When people feel
understood, it’s easier for them to open to other possibilities.
Understanding and respecting the needs of others requires empathy and
produces more empathy in kind.
You can change what you want,
but you cannot change what you need. If you identify that you have a
real need for autonomy – and you work for an intrusive, micro-managing
boss, you can’t rationalize away your need. While you may not
be able to change your situation immediately, you can begin to align
your future wants and goals with that need.
Needs are powerful because they
represent what is most alive and unique within us. Your well-being is
based not only on the satisfaction of your physiological needs – but on
your psycho-social needs as well. The fulfillment of those needs is what
defines your humanity. Your work will only truly prosper when you
experience the empowerment of realizing your own needs.
Author and theologian Howard Thurman spoke to the deep and enduring power of our needs when he said, “Don’t
ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come
alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people
who have come alive.”
As always, I am grateful for your readership, comments, tweets and shares.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners