A lot of things can interfere with getting our needs met. Depression and illness make us tired, confused, lonely, sore. It can interfere with our ability to think clearly about what we want or need. High adrenaline from stress or stimulants can make us fidgety, irritable, sleepless, and quick to anger or feel defensive. Our emotions are heavily determined by what's going on in our physical bodies, plus what we're expecting or fearing in our thoughts. Even our ability to communicate can be hampered by unmet body needs.
But how do we get these needs met?
We've all developed habits for how to get what we need. Some grab, some beg, some attempt to please, some refuse to ask out of risk of being turned down and do whatever they believe they need. Sometimes we get fixated on a particular solution to the exclusion of other approaches. There are thousands of strategies we use habitually to try to meet our needs.
Strategies based on solving only one person's needs are likely to conflict with other people's strategies for meeting their own needs. This doesn't mean the needs are in conflict. But when we confuse the strategy with the need, things can get so muddled that we aren't sure what's happening.
Enter, NVC - nonviolent communication (also called, compassionate communication). This is a communication tool with the intent of working together to meet mutual needs, in a way that is satisfactory to everybody.
NVC guides us to reframe how we express ourselves and hear others by focusing our consciousness on what we are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.
As the name implies, this approach to communication emphasizes compassion as the motivation for action rather than fear, guilt, shame, blame, coercion, threat or justification for punishment. In other words, it is about getting what you want for reasons you will not regret later.
The process of NVC encourages us to focus on what we and others are observing, how and why we are each feeling as we do, what our underlying needs are, and what each of us would like to have happen.
NVC requires hard listening. It helps you realize that when you are feeling attacked, that is really an expression of the other person which is quietly saying underneath, "My needs haven't been met. I am feeling desperate and afraid that my needs will be violated. I am trying to defend myself." If you're used to the social script, your initial reaction to feeling attacked will be to defend yourself by attacking back; and this escalates the conflict.
It takes a jump of intention to hear the other person's words as defending themselves, rather than as attacking you. It is hard to step back and pull your feelings out of the situation for a moment so you can think. It takes practice to change this habit.
But the moment you realize that the other person is feeling scared and needy, you shift the entire dynamic of the conversation. The next step is to try to hear their feelings, and let them know you hear it.
"You appeared to tense up when I asked you this question. Are you feeling pressured, that I'm trying to push you to do something?"
"Yeah, I can't say no 'cause you'll be pissed at me, but I can't say yes when I'm feeling pressured."
"So you need to feel independant, that you have a free choice?"
"I want to make a decision I won't resent."
"I realize my question wasn't worded in a good way. I'm trying to ask because I have a need for ____, and your actions influence what I can do. I'd like to find a way to make both of us happy. As I see it, your needs are ___ and my needs are ___. Got any ideas?"
The key here is that the listener is echoing back feelings, recognizing the underlying dynamic, until the person relaxes and the tone of conversation shifts. When a person knows they have been heard, and their need is recognized and verbalized, they no longer need to defend and protect. Instead, they can listen to the other person's stated need, and then working together they can come up with a strategy that solves both.
Remember that needs don't come into conflict - strategies do. By separating the needs from the strategies, you can honor both people's needs, and them work as a team (instead of against each other) to create an acceptable strategy.
Active listening is the hard part. It means recognizing when you're in an escalating battle, and taking time out from defending yourself, to step back and identify the unmet needs. It means being willing to listen, and listen, and listen, putting your own feelings on hold for a few minutes until the situation calms. You will learn a lot about what's going on by listening and listening until it's all been said.
Then, with the needs in mind, work together to make an actionable request to get needs met.
Realize that you may be told no. This is not an excuse to grab or demand; it indicates that strategies are in conflict, or the emotional situation isn't as resolved as you thought. Keep trying, or decide together to take a break and try again later.
Sometimes coming up with the words is hard. If you struggle with this, consider printing out a copy of this Feelings When Needs are Met or Unmet list of words.
Likewise, the Needs List is important to recognize as well. We're in a culture where only the most basic needs are publically recognized as needs (food, shelter, safety), which does a disservice to the complexity of being human. Emotional needs are needs as well.
Categories of Needs
Connection (closeness, community, intimacy, inclusion, love, nurturing, safety, trust)
Honesty (authenticity, integrity, presence)
Play (joy, humor)
Peace (ease, equality, harmony, inspiration, order)
Physical Well-being (air, food, exercise, rest, sexual expression, safety, touch)
Meaning (awareness, celebration, challenge, clarity, creativity, effectiveness, growth, hope, participation, mourning, expression)
Autonomy (choice, freedom, independance, space, spontaneity)
NVC is a process.
- Observations of what is happening now. These are Sergeant Friday, just-the-facts-Ma'am descriptions, without evaluating, moralising or blaming.
- What I am feeling, and what I guess you are feeling.
- What it is I think I need and what it is I think you need.
- Concise, specific, concrete, doable, clear requests of others to meet those needs. A five year old should be able to tell if the request were granted. You can't ask that X love you, but you can ask for a kiss or a cherry pie. State them postively, what you want others to do, not want you want them to avoid doing.
We get caught up in fighting because we lack practice with the language of compassion.
Jackal-speak and Giraffe-speak
Whereas Jackals say, "I feel angry because you... ," Giraffes will say, "I feel angry because I want ... " As Giraffes, we know that the cause of our feelings is not another person, but rather our own thoughts, wants, and wishes. We become angry because of the thoughts we are having, not because of anything another person has done to us.
Jackals, on the other hand, view others as the source of their anger. In fact, violence, whether verbal or physical, is the result of assuming that our feelings are caused not by what is going on inside us but rather by what is going on "out there." In response, we say things designed to hurt, punish, or blame the person whom we imagine has hurt our feelings. Aware of this tendency, a Giraffe will conclude, "I'm angry because my expectations have not been met."
As Giraffes we take responsibility for our feelings. At the same time, we attempt to give others an opportunity to act in a way that will help us feel better. For example, a boy may want more respect from his father. After getting in touch with his anger over the decisions his father has been making for him, he might say: "Please ask me if I want a haircut before making a barbershop appointment for me." Giraffes say what they do want; rather than what they don't want. "Stop that," "Cut it out," or "Quit that" do not inspire changed behaviors. People can't do a "don't."
Giraffes ultimately seek a connection in which each person feels a sense of well-being and no one feels forced into action by blame, guilt, or punishment: As such, Giraffe thinking creates harmony.
Stating a request in simple Giraffe is a four-part process rooted in honesty:
- Describe your observation
- Identify your feeling
- Explain the reason for your feeling in terms of your needs
- State your request
In a Jackal culture, feelings and wants are severely punished. People are expected to be docile, subservient to authority, slave like in their reactions, and alienated from their feelings and needs. In a Giraffe culture, we learn to express our feelings, needs, and requests without passing judgment or attacking. We request, rather than demand.
As Giraffes, we may persist in trying to persuade others, but we are not influenced by guilt. We acknowledge that we have no control over the other person's response. And we stay in Giraffe no matter what the other person says. If she or he seems upset or tense, we switch into listening, which allows us to hear the person's feelings, needs, and wishes without hearing any criticism of ourselves. Nor does a Giraffe simply say no; as Giraffes we state the need that prevents us from fulfilling the request.
When people say no in a nasty way, what they invariably want is to protect their autonomy. They have heard a request as a demand and are saying, in effect, "I want to do it when I choose to do it, and not because I am forced to do it." Sighing, sulking, or screaming can likewise reflect a desire to protect one's freedom of choice, one's need to act from a position of willingness. If people scream at us, we do not scream back. We listen beneath the words and hear what they are really saying - that they have a need and want to get their need met.
In the end, Jackals are simply illiterate Giraffes. Once you've learned to hear the heart behind any message, you discover that there's nothing to fear in anything another person says.
I don't claim that it's easy. It takes a while to retrain habits of listening and responding, especially when your own needs are pressing you, when you're hungry and tired and can't think clearly.
But especially then, having built this habit is valuable. "I recognize that you need resolution on this. I'm not thinking clearly because I'm very hungry. I would like to go get myself food, and then continue discussion later so I can better help you come to resolution. Do you feel okay with that?"
Denying our needs leads to suffering and broken relationships. Stating our needs without pressuring or invading someone else gives us an opportunity to work together for a better future. It opens the door to peace instead of conflict.
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NVC has helped make my life more peaceful. Hopefully it can help you too.