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Everything anyone ever says is an expression of a need that has either not been fulfilled (‘please…’) or has been fulfilled (‘thank you for…’).

(If you haven’t already read my article on ‘non-violent communication’ and its amazing power in every day life, please read that first and then come back!)

This idea is extremely resourceful in the way we frame our requests of other people and, more importantly, how we interpret what they say.

But it also opens up a deeper question: What actually are our needs?

(Besides my classical guitar, marmite and a steady flow of cricket podcasts of course…)

When we criticise or judge other people, what needs are not being met? How can we identify them?

Without understanding that, the communication side is, at best, a way of deflecting judgment and criticism (as Marshall Rosenberg says, you’ll never hear another criticism again) – but knowledge of the underpinning need is a powerful tool to help others and help ourselves.

Marshall Rosenberg states that the needs that underpin our communication are universal – we all have the same needs and they can be defined in the same way. I believe this to be true – however, each person has their needs dialled to different levels, and we all define them in slightly different ways.

So how do you identify your own fundamental needs?

I’m going to describe my own experience, with a step-by-step account of how I explored this question, as a way to suggest a process for extracting your needs from your everyday thoughts.

I realise some of these things sound ridiculous but I don’t see the point of doing this if I’m not being super open. If I can’t compare myself to Stephen Fry in my head, where else can I do it? 

Fulfilling my need for some peace and quiet…

STEP 1 – List as many of your recurring negative thoughts as you can

These are some of the things I found myself thinking repeatedly:

I hope people like my songs and not think that what I’m doing is pointless.

Why can’t I manage to read more books? Stephen Fry seems so well read, why can’t I be like that?

I need to spend more time at home working…
(and then, 24 hours later)… ‘I’m bored, I want to get out more.

Why is the fridge always full of mouldy vegetables? Who even buys parsnips except at Christmas??

Can’t I just have a couple of hours on my own to sit and think?

Doing this exercise is a little like some of the CBT exercises to identify (without judgment) your ‘negative automatic thoughts’. Just writing them all down can be very therapeutic – I am a huge advocate of writing a diary, which is one of my daily tasks. If I’m ever stuck in writing song lyrics, sometimes I just write my diary instead and use that!

I would aim to write down at least 20 of these recurring thoughts, and certainly no less than 10. This is a process you can keep coming back to, but it helps to create a balanced picture of your needs if you have a lot of thoughts to work with at the start.

TIP: Flatmates, romantic partners, parents, siblings and bandmates (!) are a great source of juicy material here. What are the arguments you feel like you have all the time? What are the things you sulk about? When was the last time you criticised someone else? Was it something I said?

STEP 2 – Next to each item, write down why it bothers you

To put it another way: what situation do you want to see and why?

For example, next to:

“Why can’t I manage to read more books?”

I wrote:

I want to learn more about the world and be able to say a wider range of clever-sounding stuff in conversations.”

Or next to:

“Why is the fridge always full of mouldy vegetables?”

I wrote

“The environment is unpleasant if there are mouldy vegetables, plus it points to a lot of waste which is bad for the planet…”

This is starting to turn a what (e.g. reading more books) into a why (increasing your knowledge).

Imagine you are saying your first statement, and then someone is asking you: ‘What do you want instead?’ and then ‘What is the point of that? Why do it / change it?’

STEP 3 – Now, next to each Step 2 statement WHY it is important to YOU, in the simplest terms possible

(This is where my law degree leant me a hand, because you practice summarising things in their most basic form. You just have to keep reworking it until you can’t make it any more fundamental. Thanks law degree!)

So, for example, next to:    

The environment is unpleasant if there are mouldy vegetables, plus it points to a lot of waste which is bad for the planet…”

I wrote:

‘I want tidiness – tidy spaces make me feel less stressed. This is because I feel like I have control over my surroundings, which in turn makes me feel like I don’t have more things to worry about in the back of my mind. Tidiness therefore fulfils my need for order in my surroundings.

It helps to phrase the final sentence in that form: ‘X fulfils my need for _______’

How you phrase this need is up to you – but try to capture it in a way that nothing, however hard you try, can explain it – it just is. It’s a little bit like wringing out a wet cloth – you just have to keep squeezing until you have every last drop.

STEP 4 – Go through your list of these statements and write down all the fundamental needs you have identified.

I ended up with this list:

I need relevance and I to make a positive impact on the world around me
I need serenity and order in my surroundings
I need time to myself, to allow me to process thoughts at my own pace, and let my hair down
without fear of judgment
I need to be loved
I need to feel like I am progressing & developing as a person
I need physical intimacy
I need adventure and excitement

Side note: The list is eerily similar to Tony Robbins’ 6 reasons for ‘Why We Do What We Do’, which I watched several months after first doing this exercise for myself. We’re on slightly different scales though; he presented his to a massive TED Talk with Al Gore in the audience. We’ve all gotta start somewhere!  

This list of needs, created properly, is one of the most precious items in your possession. It is a road map that explains pretty much everything you ever want, say or do.

Mine taught me why I write music, why I contradict myself all the time by wanting space one minute and company the next, why I feel this irrepressible urge to listen to cricket, and so on.

You can use it to explain a lack of motivation and change your lifestyle in a way that increases it again.

It also helps you to explain the above to anyone with whom you spend substantial time. I used my list to explain to my band mates exactly what I wanted out of August and After and why (turns out they didn’t want to collaborate with Justin Bieber…)

Finally, it provides a way of understanding your values and principles, which I define as:

The conditions you want of the world around you, to fulfil all your needs (Values)
The rules you set yourself to bring about those conditions (Principles)

(But more on those in a later post…)

Was this exercise helpful? Did it make sense? Leave a comment below…