“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin
Guessing others’ feelings and needs
In NVC, people are taught to make guesses about the feelings and needs of others. They’re encouraged not to believe these guesses to be true without getting verification. Often our first guess won’t be right, but even putting one out there gives the other person something to test against, perhaps leading them closer to self-connection. In this way, step by step, we both get closer to the heart of the matter. If we believe our first guess, then that belief will interfere with the process of getting to the truth with depth and accuracy (for both of us).
What about our own needs?
Now, let’s consider a different scenario, which is tuning into our own feelings and needs. For this purpose, NVC teachers (and Marshall Rosenberg’s book) offer a list of feelings and a list of needs. Students are often told to consult those lists, asking themselves what fits. I want to suggest to you that this advice is deeply problematic just as when trying to understand another person: we’re tempted to believe our guesses and thus miss deeper and/or more accurate truths.
In my experiences with NVCers, whether brand new or with years of experience (and validation labels), I almost never believe that their own first few attempts at identifying their needs are close to hitting the nail on the head. I also suspect that the use of an an NVC “needs list” tends to muddy the waters by lending an element of false reassurance, thus discouraging them from continuing their search.
Hazards of believing in an NVC needs list
A danger of approved NVC needs lists is that they tend to vindicate our jackals. (“Jackal” is Marshall’s term for a culturally inherited mindset that justifies certain claims and obligates compliance, according to externally established rights and standards.) When we’re triggered, jackalized/externalized interpretations resonate strongly. In such cases, people often gravitate to choices like “consideration”, “respect”, “cooperation”, “consistency”, “appreciation”, “honesty”, and “safety”, which are easy to interpret as being tied to changes in other people’s behavior. For instance, if I’m frustrated with my child and I think I’m having a “need for cooperation”, I may well instead be attached to getting my (otherwise self-directed) child to pitch in with my way of doing things. (You can find more examples in the posts Distracted by faux needs?, Vague demands and “honesty”, and Distinguishing needs from vague demands.)
Vindication is satisfying but doesn’t get us liberated from attachment. Because of this satisfaction, the supposed need may get a resounding “Yes!”. However, when you’re in an attached/constricted emotional state, if a suggested need doesn’t challenge your attachment, it’s likely to be a red herring. Such challenges can be unpleasant, because they ask us to surrender our attachments, sometimes before we’ve quite seen other ways to nurture our well-being. Or, as Gloria Steinem put it, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
When we get fooled by the words on the needs list, we can be worse off than before, simply because we are less curious and so less motivated to keep looking for the truth that will set us free.
How can you get unfooled about your needs? Here are some suggested questions to ask yourself:
- Are you believing what comes into your head (from memory or a written list)? Remind yourself that you’re just guessing. Hold your guesses with curiosity–as possibilities to be investigated. Cultivate your capacity for doubt, i.e., for seeing a possibility without believing it and without rejecting it.
- Does your “need” justify what you want (the particulars), or does it help you surrender what you want, releasing you into a larger space of possibilities? Check in to see whether you are getting freed from attachment to someone else changing their behavior.
- Is your range of possible strategies/requests narrow? Imagine five very different ways to meet a guessed need, none of which involve the person or behavior that you’re currently focusing on. If you’re unsatisfied with those alternatives and so still have attachment to the original particulars, then you’ve probably not gotten to the heart of the matter.
- Check whether there are riders/qualifiers indicating strategy-attachments. For instance:
- Not just “trust” but “trust that …”?
- Not just “consideration” but “consideration for …”?
- Not just “appreciation” but “appreciation for …”?
See the post Distracted by faux needs? for more on getting unfooled.
Using a needs list with others
Just as I want to avoid offering my own jackals a tasty menu, I avoid offering the same to other people’s jackals. Several years ago in coaching & teaching, my partner & I started noticing that clients & students tended to leap at some words on the needs list we offered them. I’ve mentioned some of those words above: “consideration”, “respect”, “cooperation”, “consistency”, “appreciation”, “honesty”, and “safety”. They latched onto those choices with what we took to be a sense of vindication. We then started removing those words from the lists we printed. It’s not that I believe that none of those terms can be used to denote universal “needs” (aspects of our well-being, freed from attachment to particular people, actions etc). It’s just that I almost never believe that these words are actually used that way.
Your NVC needs list doesn’t exist
There are no needs on your needs list. There are only words. Needs are not words.
Words have many meanings and shades of meaning. When we’re in a clingy space (mired in the energies of attachment, desperation, and demand), we gravitate toward clingy meanings of the words. None of those meanings are needs, so when we’re in that space, the list contains vague demands and justifications for those demands, plus a few choices that are unappealing from that space, like self-acceptance, unconditional trust, and inner peace.
When we’re in an expansive (rather than clingy) space, it’s as if the list suddenly changes to contain actual needs, i.e., universal aspects of well-being, unattached to particulars. So, when we most need the help, the needs list vanishes and is replaced by vague demands and vindication. In this way, the list can mislead us, giving a false reassurance that we’re on the track to liberation. I’ve seen this effect over & over, and I’m concerned that it’s actively reinforced by mainstream teaching and practice of NVC.
As an antidote, I recommend cultivating doubt (uncertainty/curiosity/openness) and the other steps above to get unfooled.
I would love to hear how this post touches you. In particular, have you also noticed hazards I describe when using an NVC “needs list” with yourself or with others?