The Feelings and Needs lens

The second lens of our roadmap helps us examine feelings and needs. Most approaches to having better conversations about disagreement and conflict emphasise the importance of exploring feelings. Without this exploration we fail to grasp what lies behind our reactions, both positive and negative. Understanding our feelings enables us to more fully understand a situation, thereby helping us to maintain and restore our relations with others. Most of the ideas for this lens come from the Nonviolent Communication approach (NVC) created by Marshall Rosenberg, drawing on his experience in clinical psychology, comparative religion, and mediation.

Feelings and emotions arise when our needs are met, or not met. When they are met, we see this as a reward, and experience warm, positive feelings. When our needs are not met, we perceive this as a threat and experience negative feelings and emotions. Negative feelings can have a greater impact on us because we often react more strongly (negatively) to threats than rewards.

When conversations become difficult and result in argument and conflict it usually means we have reacted emotionally. Although the cause appears to be that we have different views to the other person, the real stimulus – that is, what we are reacting to – is that our needs are not being met.

When talking about feelings it helps if we have good vocabulary to express our feelings. The following list of feelings is from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) website.

Feelings when our needs are satisfied Feelings when our needs are NOT satisfied
Affectionate Afraid
Engaged Annoyed
Hopeful Angry
Confident Aversion
Excited Confused
Grateful Disconnected
Inspired Disquiet
Joyful Embarrassed
Exhilarated Fatigue
Peaceful Pain
Refreshed Sad

Lists of feelings can be quite lengthy. A simpler approach might be to consider the underlying emotions that generate feelings. Research suggests that we have a much smaller set of basic emotions. These are produced in the limbic system of the brain when it processes unconscious signals from the amygdala. Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions:

  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Happiness (joy)
  • Sadness
  • Surprise

Robert Plutchik’s theory suggests adding trust and anticipation to the list. He arranges the eight basic emotions in a wheel. Others extend basic emotions adding secondary emotions and tertiary emotions.

In practice, it can prove difficult for us to adequately describe our emotions and feelings. In certain circumstances, it might not even be that productive to try. When we experience emotions and feelings they usually come with associated physical sensations. For example, when we feel anxious or frightened our pulse rate might increase. So instead of trying to describe an emotion or feeling, we might understand better what we are going through by becoming aware of our physical sensations, and describing these.

From Feelings to Needs

When considering feelings and needs it is useful to think of feelings as the symptom and needs as the cause. It is easy to focus on our feelings and not to take into consideration our underlying needs. While some of us may (or may not) be able to recognise our feelings, including those listed above, few of us have a ready grasp of our basic human needs. Thankfully, quite a bit of research work has been done in this area. The following table of needs is drawn from. The list is divided into the main groupings of needs identified by Abraham Maslow. These are usually known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It was initially proposed by Maslow that needs lower down the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to higher needs. He later changed his view, saying that needs at all levels of the hierarchy are attended to at the same time.

Self Actualisation - realisation of potential, meaning, achievement, purpose, creation, autonomy Esteem - recognition, status, importance, respect from others, fairness, control, competence, privacy, identity Relatedness - friendships, intimacy, family, community, participation, honesty, attention, understanding, emotional intimacy, affection Safety - protection, personal security, financial security, health and well-being, play, leisure, peace Physiological - subsistence, air, water, food, clothing, shelter

Using wants to uncover needs

It can be useful to have a good grasp of human needs to understand why we feel a certain way and what can be done about it. However, we cannot assume that those we are in dialogue with will have a similar understanding of underlying needs. What others will often be aware of is ‘what they want’. This can be used as a stepping stone to uncovering underlying needs. For example, I might want a new car, but what I am really saying is that my neighbours have new cars and I need to maintain my status by also having a new car.

A useful way to work with wants is to ask a person what they want and to use the answer to ask the further question, ‘if you had X, what would that give you?’ Once you have the answer to this question it can be used as the basis for repeating the question, ‘and if you had that, what would it give you?’, until we eventually get to the needs underlying the wants.

The NVC Model

Four Components

1. Observation: Observation without evaluation consists of noticing concrete things and actions around us. We learn to distinguish between judgement and what we sense in the present moment, and to simply observe what is there.

2. Feeling: When we notice things around us, we inevitably experience varying emotions and physical sensations in each particular moment. Here, distinguishing feelings from thoughts is an essential step to the NVC process.

3. Needs: All individuals have needs and values that sustain and enrich their lives. When those needs are met, we experience comfortable feelings, like happiness or peacefulness, and when they are not, we experience uncomfortable feelings, like frustration. Understanding that we, as well as those around us, have these needs is perhaps the most important step in learning to practice NVC and to live empathetically.

4. Request: To make clear and present requests is crucial to NVC’s transformative mission. When we learn to request concrete actions that can be carried out in the present moment, we begin to find ways to cooperatively and creatively ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

Two Parts

1. Empathy: Receiving from the heart creates a means to connect with others and share experiences in a truly life enriching way. Empathy goes beyond compassion, allowing us to put ourselves into another’s shoes to sense the same feelings and understand the same needs; in essence, being open and available to what is alive in others. It also gives us the means to remain present to and aware of our own needs and the needs of others even in extreme situations that are often difficult to handle.

2. Honesty: Giving from the heart has its root in honesty. Honesty begins with truly understanding ourselves and our own needs, and being in tune with what is alive in us in the present moment. When we learn to give ourselves empathy, we can start to break down the barriers to communication that keep us from connecting with others.

The model provides an outline for how to apply the ideas which can be used and adapted by individuals. It is based on how we can communicate the components of the model, as follows;

When I see that __________ (observation)

I feel __________ (feeling)

because my need for __________ is/is not met. (need)

Would you be willing to __________? (request)

In a restorative dialogue, we might not use these exact words, or try to combine the first three components into a single sentence, but going from observation to feeling to need to request forms a useful process.

Second Guessing Feelings and Needs

The difficulty of people not knowing their feelings and not having the vocabulary to describe them led Marshal Rosenberg to develop an approach of second guessing what people are feeling from what he observed. He found this approach to be more successful than asking people how they feel. The purpose of second guessing is to probe for what a person is feeling with the expectation that the initial guesses will not be right, but will produce responses that help uncover the true feelings. For example, instead of asking “how are you feeling?”, this approach would make a guess such as, “I can see that you are angry”, which might produce the response “No, I’m not angry exactly, I’m more frustrated than angry”. It may take more than one guess to uncover the precise feeling.

Rosenburg also combines second guessing feelings with guesses at the possible needs behind the feelings. For example, the guess might be “I can see that you are frustrated because you are being ignored”, and the response might be, “I’m not frustrated because I’m being ignored, it’s that many people are not being heard and that’s not fair”.

Second guessing requires us to be detached from our guesses being right, being aware that our intention is to probe to gain greater insight. This is the intent of making the guess. If we don’t keep this in mind, we could be in danger of wanting to be right or interpret making a wrong guess as a dent to our status, particularly if we are in a position where we are expected to be knowledgeable.