“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 never stops.
Our needs fall into two interrelated categories – physiological and psychological and we are in a relentless drive to meet them.
The physiological 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 those needs.
Probably the most well-known categorization of needs, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory classifies psychological needs as:
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 addressed. 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. Marshall Rosenberg, 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
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 you physiological needs – but on your psycho-social needs being met 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 Howard Thurman spoke to the deep and enduring power of our needs when he wrote, “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 more of are people who have come alive.”
Thanks for reading.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants