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Getting in touch with your needs

Previously (see Be the change) I said that Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has two aspects. It is the intention to connect, to go for the connection and let go of the outcome. And it is a powerful set of tools to help us do this. In this article I’d like to explore how we get in touch with the basic human needs at the heart of the process.

To do this, if you’re willing, I’d like to try an experiment. (You might want to write some things down, so I suggest finding a pen and something to write on.)

Firstly, look out of the window (or around the room if there’s no window) and pick something you can see or hear. Now write down an observation about your object e.g. “I’m looking at a bush” or “I’m hearing birdsong” – something that a neutral observer or a video camera with sound would record. If you find yourself writing “It’s ugly” or “It’s beautiful”, ask yourself what you are actually seeing or hearing when you tell yourself this, and write that down (e.g. “I’m looking at the green leaves”.)

Next ask yourself “How do I feel when I am seeing (or hearing) this?” e.g. comfortable, uncomfortable, happy, sad etc. and write it down. If you’re finding it difficult to identify the feeling, ask yourself, “How does it feel in my body?” e.g. full, tense, relaxed, heavy, dull, light.

When you’ve got something down for a feeling, even if it’s a general ‘comfortable’ or ‘uncomfortable’, you’re ready to get in touch with the need.

To get to the need, ask yourself, “What’s causing this feeling?” or “What’s the need underneath this feeling?” NVC suggests that our feelings come from our needs – we have comfortable feelings when our needs are satisfied and uncomfortable ones when our needs are unsatisfied. So what’s the need underneath (or behind) how you feel when you see or hear this particular thing?

You might already be in touch with the need, in which case you might notice how the feeling has changed in some way. And you might still need some help to get in touch with it – in which case I suggest looking down the list of needs (‘Some basic needs we all have’).

If your feeling is comfortable, look down the list for a need that is being met by this particular object. If your feeling is uncomfortable, look for a need that is not met. And notice how the feeling changes when you find one that’s accurate – you might feel light or grounded or full or sad.

I suggest you give yourself a few minutes to do this part of the experiment.
If you get in touch with several needs, write them all down. Move on to
the next paragraph when you’re ready.

Okay, now you are in touch with your need(s), ask yourself, “Do I have a request to make my life more wonderful?” If your need is satisfied, it might simply be, “More of the same, please!” If your need is unsatisfied, you might make a request to yourself or another person to help you meet it. I suggest making a concrete, doable request to a specific person – to go one step towards meeting the need. And I suggest you start your request with, “Would you be willing…?” or “Would you be happy to…?” to make it clear that they (or you) have a choice!

Once you have done this exercise, the next time you see or hear something you don’t like (or do like!), you can go through the steps to help you get in touch with your need (and formulate a request). If you feel under pressure at the time, I suggest you make a note (in a notebook) of the situation or message and come back to it later.

My experience is that getting in touch with your needs gives people a deep sense of confidence. A woman at a workshop I led recently told the group how delighted she was to discover her needs for power (in the sense of trusting in her own resources) and compassion. She said she felt confident to go back to the situation at home and express these needs. As she spoke, I noticed that her posture, expression and voice changed. Once again I felt the power of getting in touch with needs.

And I’ve heard people say this again and again – when you’re deeply in touch with your needs, it’s easy to express them. And if you express them in this way (as your needs), it’s easy for other people to hear them.

Next: How to enjoy it when you screw things up.

Some basic needs we all have

Choosing dreams/goals/values
Choosing plans for fulfilling one’s dreams/goals/valuesCelebration/Mourning
Celebrate the creation of life and dreams fulfilled
Celebrate losses: loved ones, dreams etc. (mourning)


Contributing to the enrichment of life

Emotional safety
Honesty (the empowering honesty that enables us to learn from our limitations)

Physical Nurturance
Air Food
Movement, exercise Protection from life-threatening forms of life: viruses,
bacteria, insects, predatory animals (especially human beings)

Sexual expression
Water Play/Spiritual Communion

Harmony Inspiration Order

© 1995, 1999 Marshall B. Rosenberg and the Centre for Nonviolent Communication

© Shantigarbha 2005. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine (issue 3, Summer 2005). It has been lightly edited for context.