A Needs-Centered Approach to Life

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

From a young age, I was taught that all human beings were selfish from birth. This was instilled in me as a boy and later as an adult. This theory of human nature seemed to explain why there was so much violence and evil in the world. It was because human beings were inherently selfish; and when there was not some mechanism of punishment to keep them on track they would resort to selfishness.

Carrot and Stick Approach
I learned from others that the way to navigate through conflict and to get my way was by using the carrot and stick approach. If people did something wrong, they deserved to be punished, and if they did something good, they deserved to be rewarded. It was also acceptable to motivate people by offering them a future reward or threatening to punish them if they did not do what was expected of them.

Many people in positions of power still follow this line of thinking. For supervisors, leaders, teachers or parents it is tempting to use the carrot and stick approach.

A Needs-Centered Approach
I no longer subscribe to this approach. I believe in a different theory of human nature. I believe that all human beings are motivated by needs or values, and that these needs are universal. The reason human beings do what they do is not motivated by selfishness, but by a longing to connect with values and to live in alignment with those values and needs.

Marshall Rosenberg sums it up well when he says, “a need is life seeking expression.” There is a good reason behind every action we choose because it is connected to a need, and needs are essential to life, pure and universal. There is no problem with wanting love, understanding, peace, justice, mattering, to be heard, support, cooperation, or justice. These are all good things. We all have the potential to bring these things into our lives and the lives of others and make the world a better place.

A question we can ask ourselves when we have an awareness of a value or need in our life is, “How do I live the value of love, understanding, peace or justice in the world? What do I notice when I connect internally to those needs and values?”

The problem arises when we choose strategies that contribute to ours and others’ suffering. It is our choice of how we go about attaining a need that can get us into trouble. While universal needs and values are never in conflict, the strategies we choose can be.

The Problem
When we choose to believe that human beings are selfish, we are prone to judge others as such. We see the world through the lens of judgment. We use labels. When we do this, our thinking sees things in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. We create enemy images of others. There are now good people and bad people in our mind. Our hearts are not as open to the people we label “bad.” We are more apt to think they deserve punishment and prone to use punishments or rewards. When we have enemy images of others, we increase the likelihood that we will choose strategies that stimulate more suffering for ourselves and others.

An Open-Hearted Approach
I want to invite us to take another approach. An approach that involves starting with the belief that everything anyone does is in service of meeting a need. For instance, when we or someone does something that we disagree with (and that we believe is harmful to others) we can focus on what need(s) we or they are connected to and value.

Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy of needs and demonstrated the importance of human needs. We all have basic needs like the need for air, water, food and shelter, that we need for survival. We also have needs for love, mattering, to be heard, community, affection, etc. When these needs are not met, we feel a sense of lacking, longing, and in some cases (where our physical needs are not met) we can die.

Once we hold to the belief that everything human beings do is in service of meeting needs, we can practice trying to guess what need(s) an individual is trying to meet when they do something that we believe does not serve life. With continual practice we will increase our capacity to care for others by doing this.

If a baby is crying it has a need. The baby may be needing food, warmth or comfort. Most parents would not think that the baby is being selfish. The infant is simply letting the parent know it needs something in the best way that it can. A parent can grasp this, usually, because they see the infant as innocent and vulnerable. There is an assumption of innocence.

When we realize it is all about needs, we do the same. We assume that others are doing what they do simply because they have learned to meet their needs this way. There is hope. They can learn a different way.

When we assume an evil intent or selfishness we get into trouble. A baby also does not think “bad parent” if the parent does not figure out what it needs. The baby has not been taught to make judgments. This will be taught later through socialization. The baby that was connected to its needs when it cried will later be educated to judge others when its needs are not met instead of clearly articulating them. This is the tragedy – the result of the domination paradigm that has become our collective habit.

Batterers’ Intervention Program
For the last 19 years I have worked with men and women who have been physically violent in their intimate relationships. I have approached them in an open-hearted manner. What I mean by this is that I did not judge them for what they did. I would give myself time to become curious about what needs they were trying to meet when they acted out in a violent manner. I would then ask them what needs they were trying to meet. Initially many of them did not know.

With instruction and practice they began to be able to name what needs they were trying to meet. One individual shared that when he grabbed his wife and pushed her on the bed, he had a need to be heard. I asked him if the strategy he chose worked to support the need to be heard. He said it did not. He said that she started crying and called the police.

Choosing Life-Enriching Strategies
I asked him if he could think of another strategy that he could have used to increase the likelihood that his need to be heard would be met and that would hold his wife with care. He said he could have paused and taken a deep breath and asked her if she would be willing to talk and listen to him. He also said he could have waited to talk with her – when they were both ready and calm. This new strategy that he came up with worked and improved his connection with his wife.

How easy it would have been for me to tell him that he was selfish and rude. That he deserved to be arrested. But instead, I have trained myself to look at what needs my clients are trying to meet and to help them to identify them and find strategies that they could use that do not involve violence; strategies that increase the likelihood that everyone’s needs will matter.

For seven years I worked at The Center for Violence-Free Relationships in their Batterers’ Intervention Program (BIP), and integrated this needs-centered approach. I am proud to say that the graduates from the 2008 BIP had no prosecutions for any further domestic violence charges 10 years later. Another BIP group from 2017 also had a zero percent recidivism after two years. This is the lowest known recidivism rate to date. I’m still providing the same approach through Life Enriching Communication to this day.

When individuals recognize that they can simply modify their strategies and get a different result that works better for everyone involved, it is revolutionary. It is revolutionary because they can empathize with the part of themselves that made the choice and forgive themselves and others. They are released from their own judgments and empowered to make change happen.

Empathy as a Path
Another approach I encouraged my clients to do was to get curious about what their partner’s needs were. When they realized that their partner needed respect, care, mattering, safety, reassurance, space and other needs, often needs that they could relate to themselves, they experienced a shift and found room in their hearts to empathize with their partners.

Compassion could take place and they could choose strategies that not only increased the likelihood that their needs would be met, but that would increase the likelihood that everyone’s needs would be met.

By focusing our attention on needs, we can embrace ourselves and others with compassion. We can approach life with a tender open heartedness that leads to holding our needs together, and leads to strategies that will work for everyone.

This approach can be used by parents with their children, supervisors with their employees, teachers with their students, and in all types of relationships.

Creating a Different Culture
When leaders, parents, supervisors choose the carrot and stick approach they foster a culture of fear. Children, employees, or students, for instance, are afraid of what punishment might come to them or are motivated simply by a reward and not by intrinsic motivation.

The main motivation becomes not getting in trouble or being punished, or getting a reward. It is not the greater cause, mission or the value that motivates. That greater value usually gets lost in the process.

When a child or an employee understands the needs they are contributing to, they can partner with that from the heart. It is not fear that drives them, but a value that is shared by all human beings.

Two questions that Marshall Rosenberg asks parents are:
• What do you want your child to do?
• What do you want the motivation to be for them doing it?

The first question is easy. The second question is critical. Do we really want a child, an employee or a student to do what we are asking them because they are afraid of us?

My hope is that more people will choose to adopt the needs-centered approach and create empathetic cultures where connection, transparency and collaboration can thrive.

Further Practice:
1. Self-Empathy
o Observation – Write down something that you did that you regret, without evaluation.
o Need – Write down what values or needs were not lived out when you did this.
o Need – What value or need were you trying to meet when you made this choice?
o Request of self – What strategy will you choose for meeting this need in the future?
o Feelings – how do you feel, having connected with both needs?

2. Empathy for Other
o Observation – same as above
o Feelings – How do you think this person felt when you did what you did?
o Needs – What values or needs were not lived out for other people when you did this?


Eddie Zacapa is the founder of Life Enriching Communication, a certified trainer with The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) and the author of Principles and Practices of Nonviolence: 30 Meditations for Practicing Compassion and Essentials for Cultivating Passionate Volunteers and Leaders. Eddie has worked in the domestic violence field for 19 years dedicating his life to ending the cycle of violence. He and his wife also work with couples and individuals who want to strengthen their relationships with others. You can visit his website at www.strength2lovecoaching.com and his blog at www.harmonyoftheheart.com.