Two ways of meeting needs


In Nonviolent Communication one assumes that anything we say, do, think, etc. is for meeting a need. In this usage, needs are defined as being abstract (not related to a particular person, place or thing), universal, and positive. Positive in the sense that when someone does or says something you don’t like, understanding the need behind it helps you rehumanize the person. You may still not like what they are doing or saying, but you’d like them to have some way to meet their needs.

So needs are things like connection and food and purpose and clarity and so on. The language of Nonviolent Communication and most of the practices around it are designed to help us tune in to our own needs, and to others’ needs, so that all of us can be moved together to seek & find creative strategies that might meet everyone’s needs to the greatest degree possible.

Some even assert that it is possible to meet all needs.

This can seem wildly unrealistic in the face of daily suffering and death we see and for too many, experience. Further, even in a world in which unnecessary suffering and death had been eliminated(!) there would still be fairly common, as would moments when one’s needs were not all being met. So, why are people steeped in NVC so upbeat about the possibilities?

Broadly, there are two ways of meeting needs. (in practice they can run together but hopefully this distinction is helpful)

One is to find strategies to meet a need. Identifying a need can help clarify or point to strategies that will help. But Nonviolent Communication does not promise your needs can all be perfectly met all of the time. This is why needs are defined as being abstract – not connected to any particular person, place, or thing. If your need for safety is up because your kidney is at risk, you can learn to be more creative in strategies for saving the kidney but you may still lose it. Your need for safety relates to other things besides your kidney though, so your need for safety can still be met in those other areas.

The other approach is to meet the need as one would meet a good friend. Whether a need is being met or not, something is giving you a chance to connect with your needs! So, when you get to a need that feels like “it” really stop and let the awareness of that need spread through you. Sit with it. This is what is meant in Nonviolent Communication by “connecting with our needs.” When people in conflict connect with each other’s needs in this way it helps humanize the ‘other’ in our hearts – even if we pursue the same strategies, now they are at least looking for ways that will meet ours as well. If the ultimate result is unsatisfying to either, both will mourn it. Even if the actual circumstances don’t change much, it can go from grinding to surprisingly graceful. This same shift can occur when the ‘conflict’ is with a need we don’t know how to meet (in a particular way).

(Skip if this makes no sense, but: If a given need is not helping, dig deeper! I’ve found you can always keep going for needs behind needs behind needs. Just because a word is on a list of needs (there are many of them) doesn’t mean it has to connect for you every time. Personally, I struggle to connect with safety – what do I want to be safe from? Death? So I have a need for life! Why do I want to be alive? People I care about, goals in life (purpose)? Ah, now it’s easy for me to connect. And there are multiple needs on the table to sit with. Painful situations can enable one to tap into needs deeply, with enough empathy. Doesn’t fix the situation, but it helps in how we experience it and roots us to what matters most.)

Even though this second approach is not focused on strategies, it still results in creative ones fairly frequently!

I credit our powerful need to be with things as they are for so many people discovering and sharing the even more widely-practiced and related approach of simply experiencing pain, allowing the sensations themselves to be there without going to needs and finding a kind of witness position to them. Many people who practice Nonviolent Communication come to something like this organically, and of course there are many other teachings (secular & religious – meditation, mindfulness, etc.) which focus on this explicitly.

Writing about this stuff helps keep it in mind more. Companionship practicing it would help me bring it back more regularly. Contact me if you are interested.


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