Imagine, for a moment, a scene in which you had a difficult argument or conflict with someone. It could be one that has never been resolved and still flares up from time to time. It could be anything and anyone: a friend, spouse, parent, manager, employee or colleague, boyfriend or girlfriend, your child. Pick the most frustrating, aggravating, hurtful, annoying, or maddening scenario you can think of or even one that never seems to end.
Try to remember what the conflict was or is about. How did the other person act? What did he or she say? How did you act and what did you say?
Sit still for a moment, and put yourself back into that frame of mind. How did you feel?
You might have felt anger—whether it was annoyance, aggravation, or full-blown outrage. Maybe you were afraid, scared, nervous, or frustrated. Disgusted and impatient, hurt, heartbroken, or lonely…think back. What were you feeling?
When you have a good idea of what, exactly, was going on emotionally for you, switch focus and think about the other person for a moment.
What was he or she asking for or arguing about? Did anything she say or do give you a clue about what she was feeling? If not, what do you imagine she might have been feeling? What feelings could be underneath whatever the argument was all about?
If I think back to arguments I had with my ex-husband, for example, my main feelings—once the argument went beyond anything useful—were anger, disbelief, resentment, and outrage. Underneath that was a lot of hurt and fear, even desperation sometimes as I tried to figure out what was going on. I was far from peaceful. Completely pissed off at high volume was more like it.
If I think about his position, even though he handled things very differently (silence, placating, changing the subject, avoidance, excuses, denial, and so on), I think he was feeling about the same way I was even though his outward behavior was drastically different from mine.
At the time, though, all I could see was a cruel, mean, uncaring, or frustratingly clueless person who twisted my words around and refused to discuss anything. He probably saw similar things in me, or maybe in his mind I was a crazy person who always got right to the point about things he wasn’t willing or able to discuss.
We can never truly know what someone else is feeling, not exactly, though with a good measure of compassion, empathy, and questions we can get close.
But humans all have the same basic needs, and when they’re met or not met, we all have the same kinds of feelings in response.
That’s how I know that my ex-husband was probably feeling just as angry, hurt, and sad as I was, even if he never said as much and even though he tried to get his needs met differently than I did.
A few weeks ago, I attended an all-day workshop for Nonviolent Communication (NVC). NVC, also called compassionate communication, is “both a spiritual practice that helps us see our common humanity, using our power in a way that honors everyone’s needs, and a concrete set of skills which help us create life-serving families and communities.”
We practiced in pairs and groups, and we worked with the foundation or main components of NVC:
Differentiating observation from evaluation
Differentiating feeling from thinking, being able to identify and express internal feeling states in a way that does not imply judgment, criticism, or blame/punishment
Connecting with the universal human needs/values (e.g. sustenance, trust, understanding)
Requesting what we would like in a way that clearly and specifically states what we do want (rather than what we don’t want)
Needs and feelings were a big part of the discussion, and we returned to them several times as we checked in with one another during the day and talked about what needs were getting met at the workshop and how we were feeling.
Nonviolent, compassionate, peaceful communication of any kind isn’t just about the words we choose.
If that were all it is, we’d just be actors in a play, uttering our scripts. Understanding—truly understanding and believing—that others have the same needs and feelings that we do and knowing our own needs and feelings is essential to compassionate communication and living peacefully with others.
What are some common, basic human needs?
According to NVC, there are seven main categories of needs: connection, physical well-being, honesty, play, peace, meaning, and autonomy. Within each of these categories are many possibilities.
Connection can mean acceptance, a sense of belonging, stability, companionship, and to understand and be understood.
Physical well-being includes the obvious like air, food, and water but also rest and sleep, touch, sexual expression, and safety.
Honesty can mean authenticity, integrity, and presence, both given and received.
Play means a sense of joy and humor.
Peace includes beauty, equality, harmony, and inspiration, among other things.
Meaning can be a sense of competence, contribution, growth, hope, learning, participation, purpose, and many variations.
Autonomy is the human need for freedom, choice, independence, space, and spontaneity.
When these needs are met, our feelings are very positive: friendly, loving, happy, eager, vibrant, satisfied, enlivened, and rejuvenated among many other feelings like fulfilled and trusting and so on.
When our basic needs aren’t met, feelings get negative: afraid in its many forms (worried, suspicious, mistrustful), angry, confused, disconnected, troubled, nervous, flustered, depleted, exhausted, depressed, restless, and uneasy—and as many other unpleasant feelings you can think of.
The NVC list of basic human needs isn’t very different from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which you might remember from a psychology or sociology class or references in popular self-help or productivity books and seminars.
How can understanding these needs and feelings make a difference in our communication?
If we can truly accept that other people have the same needs that we do, no matter how they’re acting at the moment, it shifts our perception.
Let’s say your toddler is screaming, you don’t know what he wants, and you’re at your wits’ end. If you’re like many or even most parents, you might be frustrated, at best, and desperate, upset, or angry, at worst. Your basic needs for peace and connection (or other needs) aren’t getting met, and your feelings are natural.
What difference would it make if you could think and truly believe, without wavering, something like this? He needs something deeper that he doesn’t know how to express, he’s not getting it, and he’s feeling the same way I would in a similar situation, even if I wouldn’t kick and scream in quite the same way.
Looking for the needs and feelings that we all share can turn a “me vs. you” situation into a compassionate “us” even if it’s one-sided.
That knowledge might not change how you outwardly handle the situation with a child (time out, take a nap, etc.), but it could help you maintain your sense of peace, connection, love, and compassion even while your little boy or girl is throwing a temper tantrum. It might even help your toddler calm down a lot faster.
The same goes for our adult relationships. If we can focus on the deeper truth in any sort of conflict—that our opponent has needs just like ours—we can not only maintain our own peace but also be better listeners, more compassionate, and better able to get to the root of the problem and resolve it that much more quickly.
There’s a lot more to NVC than just this, of course, but “universal needs” are a big part of the foundation to compassionate, nonviolent communication.
Can you think of even one person who doesn’t have the same needs as anyone else?
Mulling over that might soon bring up some examples like murderers and terrorists and so on. But underneath it all, underneath mental illness, underneath horrific abuse and conditions that turn innocent children into killers, and beyond the methods we use to try to get our basic, universal needs met—whether they work or not—there is always a human being with the same kinds of needs as you and me.
Comments are always welcome.
Want to learn more about Nonviolent Communication? You might want to start by reading Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg.
Hierarchy of needs chart: J. Finkelstein