Connecting to the need

(This article is based upon the work of Marshall Rosenburg, founder of Non-Violent Communication. If you wish to find out more about NVC concepts and practices, read his groundbreaking book: Non-Violent Communication; A Language of Life.
You can also find many more resources and information on the website of the Center For Non-Violent Communication:

Connecting to our needs is an integral part of coming to know ourselves better, and finding healing from our stuck places. Needs, as the method of Non-Violent Communication defines them, are life serving, life affirming qualities that matter deeply to us. Needs are things like understanding, purpose, self-expression, or autonomy. In making a practice of connecting to our deeper needs, we develop a capacity for self-awareness, especially in times of difficulty and struggle. Knowing what we are actually needing in any given moment gets us very present to what really matters to us.

There is a certain amount of stigma around having or expressing needs in westernized cultures today. One could be seen as “needy”, like some psychological disease and thus perceived as weak. Needs equate to dependency, that we are dependent on others to get our needs met. But this is not the goal of connecting to and expressing our needs. If we don’t even know what we need, how can we know what is important to us? Moreover, how can we know how to care for ourselves, or know what is important to another?

Needs, as a word, takes on a new definition in this context as its common use has so many loaded implications.

The needs that are most central to our humanness, most essential to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, are motivating and fueling all human action towards their fulfillment. These needs are universal by nature, because they are fundamental to everyone no matter what their walk in life, though the strategies they use to meet those needs may be different.

Acknowledgement of the need

Getting to the deeper need that motivates our feelings and behaviors is in itself a piece of powerful healing. Uncovering our deep life serving, generatively motivated needs is the lance in the boil that formed when we have an unmet need. Sometimes, merely awakening and naming to ourselves our vulnerable need, is the self-compassion we were denying ourselves; self-compassion or self-recognition itself is the need.

Strategies for getting our needs met

Behind every action, there is a strategy to meet a need. Quite often, what we need is pretty transparent and straight forward: I need some chocolate please! But when we are feeling frustrated and angry at another person, understanding the needs that motivate our feelings and also understanding the needs that motivate the other towards whom we feel angry and frustrated, can be the difference between staying locked into our feelings, or rising above them and finding understanding for what is really going on. Thus, we can arrive at compassion, instead of staying in anger and frustration.

The strategies we use to get our needs met may or may not work. We won’t recognize them as strategies either. The man who beats his wife and children has a deep seated need – perhaps he desperately needs understanding and to be heard, perhaps recognition and love, or acceptance. Whatever his actual needs are, his strategy is horrific for his family, and fail to give him what he needs. In countless small ways we use strategies that end up being destructive, causing pain for ourselves and others, but the need we tried to meet is in itself universal, true, and beautiful.

Taking a look at our strategies to get needs met is so very helpful in the process of working to transform our current reality. Our strategies may not be serving us, and would it not be helpful to know that?

The role feelings play

Feelings and emotions are the symptoms, the red flags, showing us where to look for our as yet perhaps unconscious needs, expressed through our feelings and emotions. We need to be connected to what is going on in our soul, that body made up of our feelings and emotions. However, if we look only as far as our feelings and emotions and no deeper, we will be tossed about by their ephemeral nature; what we are feeling can change at any moment and is at the mercy of our inner thoughts and external stimuli.

It is not only to the feeling life that we must look for better understanding and guidance, but to the needs that lie beneath them. Feelings and emotions are only the symptoms, not the cause.


When we work to understand the underlying needs behind our motives, strategies, and feelings, we connect to need that is universal. All human beings know what autonomy, love, and trust are, for example.    On the level of needs, we have an opportunity to empathize with another person when we understand and can relate to the universal human need that motivated their behavior.

When we are faced with another person’s negative emotions coming at us with force and hostility, we have the possibility to see the real, unspoken need behind their actions to which we can connect. Then we have the potential to stay with the needs, rather than get taken up with the brutality of the emotional war.

This is not easy, because we have learned through example to fight the battle of blame and shame, finding fault and dealing punishment in the name of justice. Instead, what would it be like if we helped each other to see what need our moment of anger and hurt was expressing, and together find a way to meet those needs?

Compassion does not mean only compassion for the other. It also means compassion for oneself. Striving to hold all needs equally is the foundation of NVC practices, and has the power and potential to transform the lives of those around us and at the same time our own.

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