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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Clark

Needs in Nonviolent Communication

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

The third component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) brings us to express our needs. We began to touch on this at the end of our guide on feelings in NVC. These two components are deeply linked, and together, they form a bridge from our value-neutral observations to making requests that enrich everybody’s life.

needs in NVC

The Four Ways to Respond

Combined with feelings, thinking about needs helps us frame more enriching responses to people. Let’s look at the four major ways you can respond to something as defined by NVC. For example, let’s say your partner sighs, “You never clean up the dishes.”

You could respond by:

  1. Taking it personally: I really am a bum around the house.

  2. Retaliating: I do all the rest of the cleaning around here, and you just focus on this one task.

  3. Consider your feelings and needs: Hearing that, I feel sad because it makes me think that my efforts to keep the house clean are being unappreciated.

  4. Consider their feelings and needs: Are you upset with me because you’d like a little more support around keeping the dishes clean?

Number One unnecessarily bends to the evaluations and perceptions that you anticipate someone else has of you. Number Two creates unnecessary conflict by trying to shift blame. Numbers Three and four, meanwhile, interrogate the feelings and needs arising out of the communication — either the effect they have on you or the place they are coming from.

But to get to these powerful modes of response, we need to learn more about communicating our needs.

Why Communicating Our Needs Is Essential

Once we begin to trace our feelings to our needs, we can fully express where we are coming from. While saying exactly how you feel is a wonderful start, describing the source of that feeling gives someone a complete picture of your world. It also lets them see how the feeling doesn’t arise as an evaluation of who they are as a person.

To see how this works in action, let’s look at an example of when a speaker does not explain the need that their emotion arises out of and then an example where they do. This can give us a visceral understanding of the benefit to be found in the third component of NVC.

  • No need expressed: I felt sad after you said you couldn’t come over.

  • Need expressed: I felt sad after you said you couldn’t come over because I have a need to connect with you.

In the second example, we get a much richer version of the speaker’s world. Most importantly, we see what their emotional state is arising out of. This bit of information begins to form ways that we can, if we want to, ameliorate the speaker’s state. It can also clearly show us that their emotional state isn’t our responsibility. We are free to engage with them in whatever way we feel appropriate.

In short, we have options!

If you look closely, you’ll also see that in the first statement, where the speaker doesn’t include the need, they don’t take full responsibility for their emotional state.

Something worth remembering: people’s words and actions can stimulate feelings in us, but we are ultimately responsible for our emotional state.

It might seem harsh. It might seem unfair to people who suffer. But actually, when we take this to heart, we realize we have a tremendous amount of power over ourselves as long as we remember it.

Our feelings, after all, act like smoke signals — helping us locate needs that aren’t being met. Once we work our way down to find the need, we can take steps to actually address it by taking action ourselves and making clear requests of others.

But we can’t do that if we take our emotions as something caused by another person’s words or actions. Instead, we give them all of the power in the situation. Nothing can be improved until they decide to change how they behave.

NVC encourages us to take the empowered approach of using our feelings as guides to excavating our unmet needs and then resolving them.

Aren’t Some Needs Really Just Desires?

A common objection to the term need is that it is frequently used to refer to things other people might simply call desires.

In fact, there are good arguments to simply change the NVC terminology altogether and replace need with desire. That can help get people to wrap their minds around a couple of really transformative ideas:

  • Desires are valuable, worth pursuing, and not to be ashamed of

  • We typically reserve the word need for desires that lead to death if they aren’t met (air, water, food, sleep, etc.)

  • Just because a desire wouldn’t kill us if left unmet, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be met or that someone should keep it to themselves

In general, it seems the resistance to using the word desire comes from a feeling that it is just too weak or not insistent enough.

This one is a real choose-your-own-adventure. This guide, because it is trying to get you up to speed with NVC as a system that exists in the real world, will continue using the term need. But on episodes of The Container, you are just as likely to hear us using the term desire to mean the same thing.

How Do You Actually Know the Need?

This is one of the most subtle arts you’ll ever learn: tracking down a need from the signal of a feeling.

There isn’t any single roadmap to finding your needs using your feelings. Worse yet, this is a pretty undertheorized part of the NVC process (needs in general are probably the least clearly defined component of the system).

To start, you’ll have to trust your intuition and get practice. You’ll make mistakes, sure, but you’ll eventually develop a connection to and understanding of your needs. Once you begin to build this, it becomes easier and easier to make the move from really getting in touch with your feelings and then getting to the need.

Building a Vocabulary of Needs

As with feelings, the process of expressing needs only improves when we are more aware of the

  • Autonomy: choice, dignity, freedom, independence, self-expression, space, spontaneity

  • Connection: acceptance, affection, appreciation, authenticity, belonging, care, closeness, communication, communion, community, companionship, compassion, consideration, empathy, friendship, inclusion, inspiration, integrity, intimacy, love, mutuality, nurturing, partnership, presence, respect/self-respect, security, self-acceptance, self-care, self-connection, self-expression, shared reality, stability, support, to know and be known, to see and be seen trust, understanding, warmth

  • Meaning: awareness, celebration, challenge, clarity, competence, consciousness, contribution, creativity, discovery, efficiency, effectiveness, growth, integration, integrity, learning, mourning, movement, participation, perspective, presence, progress, purpose, self-expression, stimulation, understanding

  • Peace: acceptance, balance, beauty, communion, ease, equanimity, faith, harmony, hope, order, peace of mind, space

  • Physical Wellbeing: air, care, comfort, food, movement/exercise, rest/sleep, safety (physical), self-care, sexual expression, shelter, touch, water

  • Play: adventure, excitement, fun, humor, joy, relaxation, stimulation

How Do I Know What’s a Need and What Only Seems Like a Need?

Something that’s come up a lot in The Container’s practice group is deep questioning about the origins of needs and their legitimacy.

What if a need comes from a destructive pattern, shadow, or wounded part? (There are still other terms we could use for this, and the previous three are merely there to show several frameworks you might find helpful for describing this.)

Meeting needs that are healthy seems preferable to meeting a need that will only perpetuate a destructive pattern. The most obvious version of the latter is probably a drug addiction.

In this example, you might have someone saying, “What you said really irritated me because I need a cigarette.” You might move on from the process to make a request to bum a cigarette, and there you are out on the porch smoking and not embroiled in conflict. As you puff away, you might be thinking that you mastered NVC.

Not so fast.

There is still so much excavating of the need left to do! After all, you were not born needing a cigarette. That is a situation that came about during the course of your life. And not everyone who smokes cigarettes becomes addicted, so there are certain fundamental needs the cigarette must satisfy that fit your own makeup and life experiences.

And that launches us off into entirely new territory. What needs are we born with, and what do we learn over the course of a life? How should we treat these two kinds of needs differently (if at all)?

These are enormous questions, and they live in a tangent universe hanging off the side of our original inquiry into what we do about needs that could perpetuate damaging patterns if met.

These are questions that go beyond the realm of NVC, and they can only really be addressed in your personal practice. In the end, it is up to you to determine what needs should be met and which are presenting themselves as needs but are actually the demands of patterns you’d rather not feed.

Read More About NVC

Check out our entire series on NVC:

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