When Needs Becoming Strategies

Sometimes you identify a need in yourself or hear someone else name a need and you get a funny feeling like something isn't quite right. The need named, makes sense logically, but something in your gut says something is off. Or, you are in a dialogue and you both have named your needs and negotiated requests, but the issue doesn't feel settled.

If you have been working with universal needs for a while you have likely found that in any given situation there are layers of needs alive for you. Sometimes needs seem to take the role of strategies to meet other needs. This creates a tangle of needs and strategies that can be difficult to navigate. Let's look at an example.

Imagine that your partner is giving you suggestions about how to keep order in the house. You want to collaborate and contribute to your partner's need for order, but you don't want advice about housekeeping. You dialogue with your partner and identify the need for autonomy for yourself and your partner identifies the need for order. You negotiate a couple of requests. For the coming week you agree to focus on fulfilling these two requests: 1) Your partner agrees to make specific requests about household stuff rather than telling you how to do something. 2) You agree to put any personal items, such as clothes, dishes, and books away at the end of each day.

You agree to check in about how it went on Sunday morning in a week. When you check in on Sunday, you find that neither of you fulfilled the agreed upon requests and you both feel disappointed and irritated wishing for harmony and collaboration. You decide to sit together taking time for each of you to reflect on your experience with mindfulness. You go first. You take a few moments just to follow your breath and become focused. Then you remember a moment of your partner giving advice and focus mindfully on the feelings and body sensations that come up. You find that when you remember your partner giving advice, a more vulnerable layer of hurt and fear comes up relative to a need for love and acceptance. You also notice a thought about not being good enough for your partner. As tears flow, related memories come into consciousness and you can see how this current reaction to receiving advice was originally formed. As you share all this with your partner, your partner's heart softens and opens with understanding of your experience.

When your partner takes time for mindfulness a vulnerable layer of fear is revealed regarding a need for groundedness. Your partner reveals the thought that if the outside isn't in order there is a fear that the inside will fall apart. The push for more order is really a longing to having groundedness and internal stability. Your heart softens and opens as you connect with your partner's vulnerability.

Having identified these new needs you now have a very different negotiation about how to take care of these needs for yourself and how you would like to contribute to your partner and they to you.

In this particular example, autonomy is the first layer of need and love / acceptance is the second layer. This, in my experience, is not necessarily a common pairing. However, there are a number of common pairings in which the first need is valid by itself and at the same time is serving as a strategy to meet a second need which is often associated with more vulnerability and/or reactivity. In other words, a conditional relationship has been set up like this: If need x is met then need y will be met. Here are some pairings of needs that are often set up in this conditional relationship.

  • Order / Groundedness or Peace
  • Competence / Acceptance
  • Competence / Belonging
  • Intimacy / Acceptance
  • Acknowledgment / Belonging
  • Efficiency / Acceptance
  • Competence / Safety
  • Connection / Safety

These conditional relationships between needs create difficulty when they are operating unconsciously. Such unconscious conditions can result in demands, rigidity, lack of creativity, desperation, anxiety, stuckness, and an inability to collaborate. If any of these signs are present, take time in mindfulness with the challenging situation and notice what else is present for you. Here are three questions that can help you uncover deeper layers of needs:

  • If this first need is met, what other needs do I think will be met?
  • What am I afraid will happen if this initial need isn't met?
  • What interpretation am I making of the other person's behavior?
    When I believe my interpretation, what need comes up for me?

Disentangling a universal need from your favorite way of meeting it (like a having another need met first), is one of the most empowering aspects of Compassionate Communication. When a universal need exists freely without a sticky attachment to a particular way of meeting it, the doors to creativity are open wide. With creativity and shared vulnerability, the life in you and all other beings you meet can be cared for and honored.


Take a moment now to reflect on a situation that is consistently challenging or currently stuck. Set your intention to become aware of deeper layers of experience including universal needs. Take a few moments just to follow your breath and become focused. Then bring into your awareness the relevant situation. Focus mindfully on the feelings and body sensations that come up and ask yourself what's most deeply important to you regarding this situation.


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