3 months ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He depends on me and my husband to get all of his needs met – food, attention, warmth, a clean diaper, love, stimulation, and comfort. He trusts completely that his needs will be met, and we do our best to make sure they are. On the other end of the life spectrum, my grandmother just celebrated her 90th birthday. She too depends on others to get her needs met. She has meals prepared for her, a cleaning service, and someone to help her bathe. She also needs visits and phone calls from her family and friends or she feels depressed. Both my baby and my grandmother are transparent about their needs. Why aren’t the rest of us? Why is it that during the middle part of our lives we feel afraid to let others know what it is we need?
Pretending Not To Have Needs
Often we pretend that we are completely self-sufficient and that we don’t need anything while secretly, we hope that the other people in our lives will know what our needs are, and meet them without us having to say anything. We find ourselves thinking things like, “It’s so obvious! How could he/she not know?” Or, “He/She just doesn’t know me at all!” We are terrified to put our needs out there because we fear that our needs will not be met, believe that we are not worthy of having needs, or because we really aren’t sure what our needs are because we have become so disconnected from ourselves.
In his book Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg says, “Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our needs.” This is a bold statement. Most of us are not willing to admit that our judgments and criticisms of others are about our own needs. It’s much easier to blame others. By not taking responsibility for our own needs, we remain a victim of other people’s behavior.
Stan & Lora
Stan and Lora had been married for 2 years. They would often fight about money. Stan judged Lora for her spending and felt angry that she did not change her spending habits. Their communication would go something like this:
Stan- “I can’t believe this credit card bill! What were you thinking?”
Lora- “I bought things for the house that we both use. Its not like I bought myself a new diamond! I hate it when you talk to me like that! You sound like my father!”
Stan- “Oh, so now I’m your father? Well you act like an irresponsible child when you spend this much!”
Lora- “I’m sick and tired of this conversation. Stop trying to
And on and on it would go…….
Non-Violent Communication Needs List
Marshall Rosenberg gives a list of basic human needs that fall into the following categories:
* Physical Well-Being
To see the complete list, click here.
Changing the Conversation
Stan and Lora’s current way of communicating about money was not serving either of them, and it was hurting their marriage. I asked each of them to think about what it was they needed in this situation. When Stan saw this list he was able to identify his need immediately. “I need honesty in our relationship. When she spends money without talking to me first, I think I’m being lied to.” Lora also knew what she needed. “Autonomy. I need to be independent and to have freedom.” Both Lora and Stan could relate to each other’s need because these needs are universal. This helped them see the other person’s perspective more easily, as well as have compassion. Together they were able to come up with an agreed amount of spending each month that would not need to be discussed. If Lora was to go above that amount, she agreed to check in with Stan about it first.
Expressing Needs Skillfully
When we aren’t skillful, people hear criticism. When someone hears criticism, he/she immediately goes into attack mode or gets defensive. This makes it even less likely that he/she will get his/her needs met. A few examples of how to communicate needs skillfully:
Instead of: You don’t understand me!
Say: I need to be understood.
Instead of: You work too much!
Say: I need more intimacy.
Instead of: You don’t care that I work so hard to provide for us!
Say: I need appreciation.
Instead of: You never call me back.
Say: I need clear communication.
What if the person I am communicating with doesn’t know what he/she needs?
Most likely he/she won’t. Consider talking to the person about Rosenberg’s statement that, “Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our needs.” Post the list of needs somewhere visible like on your refrigerator so that it is handy in the heat of the moment. Make an agreement that you both will try and determine what your needs are during conflicts.
Changing the way you communicate
It takes practice! Most of us are in the habit of communicating in a particular way, and to change that will take some time. Be patient and allow yourself to be a beginner. If you forget during a conflict to ask yourself what your needs are, see if you can go back after the fact and check in. What did I need that I wasn’t aware of?
So, what do you need? Right now, in this moment?