September 27th, 2012
Uncategorized

Doubting the NVC needs list

“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.

Getting unfooled

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?

divider

9 Responses to “Doubting the NVC needs list”

  1. Ali Miller Says:

    I appreciate your exploration, Conal, and look forward to reading your other posts. As someone who recently began more formally sharing NVC, I’m excited to engage in discussions like this. I find that a process I learned called “Deepening the Needs” (or what my friend calls the ladder exercise) helps with this:
    So I’m hearing you have a need for consideration. And if you had that, what would that give you that you value?
    –Respect–
    And what would that give you that you value?
    –A sense that I matter—
    etc. etc. until you land on something that feels like a base need.
    I like this process because it makes room for the person (or myself) to “get there” in their own time, with your empathic support. I worry about dividing needs up into “real needs” and “faux needs” because it has the potential to close down my heart to think in those terms, similar to “real feelings” and “faux feelings.”

  2. Susan Says:

    Hi Conal

    Thank you for linking to this post in the NVC Certification group.

    Ali’s description of “Deepening the Needs” (which is available online) came to my mind when you were saying that the needs list has the danger of only taking us to the surface or the danger of “faux needs” as you describe them. Mining for our core need deepens the practice of self empathy considerably. The Empathy Labyrinth, developed by Marc Weiner is one fun and profound way this can be modelled in a group.

    I wonder if the needs of cooperation, appreciation, honesty, respect and safety are dependent on others or whether we can make choices to meet those ourselves? I think that’s the difference between faux feelings where we attribute our feelings to the actions of another, as in “abandonment” or “rejection” and something like the need for “appreciation”, which we can meet ourselves with choice.

    In other cases, it’s not so clear. I think as social animals we are interdependent for some of our needs being met.I’m curious as to why you would say safety isn’t a real need? Is it because we can’t achieve safety autonomously? People living in a war zone need safety but have little choice about it. In situations where our needs are unmet, sometimes our only choice is to mourn the unmet need and hold it tenderly with honour, perhaps until the opportunity to meet it presents itself.

    Identifying our needs is a starting point, as is the use of a needs list, to find strategies that are life giving and connecting. If our chosen strategy leads us to disappointment and frustration, it’s probably an indication we haven’t fully connected to our needs or empathized with someone else enough to make sure their needs are met as well, or that our requests have been heard as demands. I’m wondering whether removing the needs you’ve named from the list would lead to confusion and frustration because they are so central to our experience. They teach us so much when we use them to deepen our understanding.

    I think I understand what you’re saying in the context of your teaching, that people can become attached to meeting a need for cooperation from a particular person, and I’m guessing that you are keen for them to get to the core need, beyond that attachment. If you were to ask them what need would be met if they had that cooperation and so on, you can take them to the deeper level, as Ali describes. These needs have that capacity to help us mine deeper to find our core needs and I think that’s useful.

    I do feel uncomfortable about your final paragraphs and the use of the words “clingy”, “fooled” and “mired” because I’m hearing them as judgments. I enjoy inner peace and self-acceptance and am curious as to why you find those choices unappealing? I suspect that what you’re expressing here is a state of enlightenment where we experience oneness with all and are less focused on ourselves, and I agree that is a desirable state. At the same time I think it’s important to accept where we and others are in any given moment without judgment that we “should” be feeling or needing something other than what is present.

    Thank you for stretching me this morning. I enjoyed reading your article.

    Susan

  3. Pan Vera Says:

    Nice Conal, very useful. I have been thinking along these lines myself. To me the issue can come about by thinking of the needs words as the territory and not just a rough map of the territory, which can only be explored with curiosity.

    In my experience seeing the words as needs in part leads to thinking about “my needs” and “your needs”, a mind set that looks more like a marketplace than the empathy field we are looking for. The awareness that there needs are universal is the power of NVC.

    I like your methods for self exploration and getting un-fooled, mind if I pass them forward?

    I noticed in Marshall’s latest works, found at Sounds True, his talk about needs is the list form Max Neef. He says he likes this list of nine needs better than the longer lists he had preferred earlier.

  4. Gabriele Vana Says:

    Hi Conal,
    It was interesting for me to read about your experience, ideas and thoughts around the needs lists. Thank you for your post.
    I personally like the needs lists a lot, because they serve me as a wonderful tool and give me the chance for deeper exploration (for myself and others) – at the same time I am aware that they are “just words”.
    From my point of view any “tool” can be a blessing or a hazard depending on how you use it. Any tool (or words) can be used as life-serving or life-alienating. For me the larger context behind the words (in this case the whole philosophy of NVC), the intention and the “vibes” are very important. I believe that the variation of the different tools serve different people according to what works best for everybody.
    Having said that, I’d like to share that I have always experienced the richness and the beauty of the needs (as opposed to the possible deficiency interpretation of needs) from the moment I read Marshall’s book for the first time.
    Peace and love,
    Gabi

  5. conal Says:

    Hi Ali,
    I do indeed like the process you describe to help shift gradually toward genuine & essential needs.

    I worry about dividing needs up into “real needs” and “faux needs” …

    When I talk about “faux needs”, I usually mean ones with riders/qualifiers, as mentioned in this post and elaborated on in the posted linked to in this one whether explicitly (e.g., “trust that”, “consideration for”, “appreciation for”, “clarity about”) or implicitly. There are several words on the standard NVC “needs lists” that I almost never believe are used in the universal, strategy-disentangled sense of needs, but I wouldn’t conclude those words cannot be used to describe needs. Rare, but not impossible.

    I worry about dividing needs up into “real needs” and “faux needs” because it has the potential to close down my heart to think in those terms, similar to “real feelings” and “faux feelings.”

    Is this closing down something that you experience (not just a potential)? If so, what do you understand of the inner thought sequence that leads to your heart closing down? For instance, are there thoughts of “doing it wrong” or “should be better at this”?

  6. conal Says:

    Hi Susan,

    I wonder if the needs of cooperation, appreciation, honesty, respect and safety are dependent on others or whether we can make choices to meet those ourselves?

    In NVC use, I usually hear these words as tied to getting something from others and even from particular others; but I don’t see them as needing to be. For instance, I love the experience appreciation, honesty, and respect within myself. I get terribly discouraged about the habitual externalization of the words I like using for these inner states. “Safety” can be subtle and complex, and for most people I recommend against its use in other than physical/tangible situations. Otherwise, I suspect that it tends to weaken people’s awareness of their inner resources for safety and thus hinders their development of those resources–and hence their actual safety. Similarly for “autonomy”. In other words, it’s not someone else’s manner of speaking that impairs my safety or autonomy, but rather my focus on their manner of speaking rather than on my own inner resources. Cooperation is hard for me to relate to as anything but a lovely strategy. And I’m very suspicious of “cooperation” (the word) when used in power-unbalanced situations such as parent/child, or employee/employer.

    I’m curious as to why you would say safety isn’t a real need?

    I wouldn’t and didn’t. Rather, that in the teaching & practice of NVC, I usually hear “safety” used in a strategy-entangled sense.

    I’m wondering whether removing the needs you’ve named from the list would lead to confusion and frustration because they are so central to our experience. They teach us so much when we use them to deepen our understanding.

    I recommend removing them from lists of “needs” given to people who haven’t yet learned to distinguish needs from vague demands and so don’t notice when the need meanings of those words disappear. I’m happy to provide the words in a separate list of words that can have either meaning, together with tests to find out which is which. With this help, people can start to question the sense in which they use the words and navigate from one to another. It’s in this questioning where I see rich learning. Without the help, people easily conclude that when they choose a word on the “needs list”, they’ve identified a need.

    I enjoy inner peace and self-acceptance and am curious as to why you find those choices unappealing?

    Along with unconditional trust, they’re among my few favorites. Note that I was describing what it’s like to be in the “clingy” space. I assume you’re referring to the following paragraph (now with emphasis added):

    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.

    Returning to your comments:

    I do feel uncomfortable about your final paragraphs and the use of the words “clingy”, “fooled” and “mired” because I’m hearing them as judgments. […] I think it’s important to accept where we and others are in any given moment without judgment that we “should” be feeling or needing something other than what is present.

    Again, I guess you’re reading more into my words than I said or intended. I don’t have a “should” that people be anywhere other than they are, even when they’re in a clingy space, fooled by vague demands, and mired in attachments. When they’re content to stay in that space, I’m okay with their choice. When, however, they’re unhappy where they are and don’t yet see how they keep themselves stuck, I like offering another perspective.

  7. conal Says:

    Hi Pan,

    To me the issue can come about by thinking of the needs words as the territory and not just a rough map of the territory, which can only be explored with curiosity.

    I like this description very much! My father shared the map-vs-territory principle with me when I was a child, and it fits (“rough map”) here nicely. Curiosity has been a central value for me throughout my life, thanks in good part to the examples of both of my parents. It’s exactly that curiosity I want to rekindle in prescribing doubt.

    I like your methods for self exploration and getting un-fooled, mind if I pass them forward?

    Please do! If you point people to my blog, they’ll get more context.

    I noticed in Marshall’s latest works, found at Sounds True, his talk about needs is the list form Max Neef. He says he likes this list of nine needs better than the longer lists he had preferred earlier.

    I’m delighted to hear this change. It may take a long time for the NVC community to catch up with the shift. As I’ve described elsewhere, one of my misgivings with top-down mechanisms like certification is that they lead to stagnation, in contrast to the sort of creative, evolutionary exploration, growth & change that Marshall himself has pursued.

  8. Sharon Says:

    Hi Conal

    I do appreciate this commentary. For me the feelings, needs list seems to be a very helpful tool. However, I am pretty new to actually doing this training so I reserve the right to change my mind at a moment’s notice.

    Maybe thinking of the feelings/needs list like a rake or a hoe . . . something that you use to turn the dirt over without mistaking it for the ground itself would be a helpful image.

    One of the things that I appreciate about Scott Catamas’s teaching is that it seems to be “Marshall simplified & direct” When I studied NVC a number of years ago, it was a little too complicated for my brain to follow! I also appreciate Scott’s introduction of the “baby Jackal” that is just trying to get it’s needs met as a great way to avoid the “good/bad,” “right, wrong” conversation.

    Thank you for starting this conversation.

  9. conal Says:

    Hi Sharon. I like the hoe image, including the importance of not mistaking the tool for the ground. In the case of needs lists, I add an additional warning based on what I’ve often seen in NVC teaching & practice: the tool does harm as well as help. And one must be really in touch with the ground itself in order to tell the difference. Thus my urging to doubt the tool.

Leave a Reply

(You can use HTML in your comments. The Preview button below shows you what your comment will look like when posted.)