When is a ‘need’ not a need?

Our habitual language is confusing in all the different ways it uses the word ‘need’. Here are some traps to watch out for, if like me you want to save the word for the more clearly defined usage proposed in NVC.

1. When it’s a strategy:

“I need a bigger house” (need for space? ease? comfort? etc)
“I need to get to work early today”  (anything with ‘need to’ means ‘want to’; the need is well hidden)
“I need you to fix this
for me  (as above, plus anything with ‘you’ can easily be a demand as well!)

2. When it’s a demand:

“You need to sit down and be quiet now!” (= I want you to / think you should / demand you do …)

“This rubbish needs to be cleared up by tomorrow morning!” (Well, the rubbish is probably quite happy where it is!)

. When it conceals a deeper need:

“Leave me alone, I need some space!

“What are you going to do in that space?”
“I just need time by myself to think things over”
“Oh, so you want connection with yourself?”

(It’s not that space is not a need in itself – but in this example, ‘getting space’ is not an end in itself, it leads immediately to the deeper need, self-connection, so it’s closer to a strategy. Many superficial or ‘first order’ needs reveal a more fundamental need on closer inspection).

. When the ‘need word’ is a hidden intensifier: hope, trust, confidence, faith

“I am needing (to have) trust”

When people say they need trust, it is hard to know what they mean unless we explore further. There is something they want very badly, but we don’t know what. A conversation could go like this:

“Trust in what?”
“Trust that he really loves me”
“Ah, so you want to know that he loves you?”
“If you knew he loved you, how would you feel?”

“Relieved, happy, content”
“And what needs would be met in you?”
Ease, connection, peaceease mainly”
“So, your main need here, what you’re most longing for, is ease…”
“Yes! Ahh..”

. When it’s not so much a need as a ‘fact of life’*: choice

“I need more choice”

“Choice around what?”
“Well she’s always telling me what to do, interfering in everything, trying to control me…”
“Sounds like you might be wanting more freedom or autonomy?!”
“Yes, exactly!”

(We cannot get away from choice. Not choosing is also a choice. So, I don’t know what it means when someone looks at a needs list and says: “I have a need for choice!”. There is also the phrase ‘to (not) be at choice’. All that means to me is that the person has(n’t) realised s/he has a choice. So, what s/he needs in this case might be clarity or understanding..?)
* caveat: I’m not saying that we always have choice about everything!  In fact, a huge part of life’s learning seems to me to be about when we do and do not have choices.

. When it’s something you want somebody else to embody: honesty, integrity, respect

“I’ve been messed around too much already. Now I just need some honesty”.

Many ‘needs words’ can be mis-used by projecting them onto other people, these are only 3 popular examples. Each case requires individual exploration. What would the speaker get if the other person was what she would describe as honest? For example, she might say: I want to know where I really stand”. In that case her need might be for clarity. Or, “I want to know he will stand by me”, (support), etc.

Usually these words refer to a standard we want others to live up to, or to something we want them to do for us. Switch the focus to inside ourselves, though, and we may find an important human need which can easily be missed if we make our supposed needs into mere measures of other people’s performance.

Of course it is also possible to want more integrity, (self-)respect etc in one’s own behaviour. Then it’s a real need as I understand it.

. When it’s something you want somebody else to do for you: to be seen, to be heard, to be valued

These phrases often appear on needs lists even though the passive grammar itself clearly tells us they are about other people’s behaviour towards us, and as we know, our needs are about us! Behind the ‘third person’ needs are always deeper needs such as appreciation, self-expression, meaning – which we can equally well or better meet for ourselves.

When it’s not so much a need as a value: reliability, security, constancy, predictability

“I need security, to be sure my children will grow up to be happy and have good jobs”.

These are examples of values, not needs. They’re something we want because of cultural expectations and programming, perhaps as a product of the industrial age which introduced the possibilities of repeated mechanical processes.  They are not universal in all cultures. Probably people who were more closely integrated with nature did not expect to find these qualities in life; like quantum physicists trying to determine the position of a sub-atomic particle, they knew that the only certainty is uncertainty. My response is, “Sorry, there is no way on Earth of being secure about the future. Maybe what you need is courage in order to face the insecurity of life?!”

. When it’s not a need but an action or a state of being: love

“I need love” could mean that you’re longing for affection, excitement, caring, tenderness, contact, connection, touch, intimacy, companionship, sex, warmth, meaning, belonging or a dozen other needs.

By potentially saying so much, this little word is in danger of saying nothing. Take care of all of the individual needs which apply in your own case and you are left with no such ‘need for love’, but you may well have a surplus of energy – which, if you like, you can use to support other people to meet their needs! Maybe that is the true expression of love?!