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Sensing the Needs of Others (No Matter How They Express Themselves)

The approach to conflict resolution that I am describing requires not only that we learn to express our needs, but also that we assist others in clarifying their needs. We can train ourselves to hear needs being expressed through the messages of others, regardless of how others are expressing themselves.

I've taught myself to do this because I believe that every message, whatever its form or content, is an expression of a need. If we accept this assumption, we can train ourselves to sense what needs might be at the root of any particular message. Thus, if I ask someone a question about what they have just said, and they respond. "That's a stupid question," I choose to sense what the other person might need as expressed through that particular judgment of me. For example, I might guess that their need for understanding was not being fulfilled when I asked that particular question.

Or, if I request that someone talk with me about some stress in our relationship and they say, "I don't want to talk about it," I might sense that their need is for protection from what they imagine might happen if we communicate.

This ability to sense what people need is crucial in mediating conflicts. We can help by sensing what both sides need, put it into words, and then we help each side hear the other side's needs. This creates a quality of connection that moves the conflict to successful resolution.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I often work with groups of married couples. In these groups, I identify the couple with the most long-standing conflict, and I make a rather startling prediction to the group. I predict that we will be able to resolve this long-standing conflict within twenty minutes from the point at which both sides can tell me what the other side needs.

Once when I was doing this with a group, we identified a couple married for thirty-nine years. They had a conflict about money. Six months into the marriage the wife had twice overdrawn the checkbook, and the husband had taken control of the checkbook and wouldn't let her write checks from that point on. They had been arguing about this for thirty-nine years.

When the wife heard my prediction she said "Marshall, I can tell you this, that's not going to happen. I mean, we have a good marriage, we communicate quite well, but in this conflict, we just have different needs about money. I don't see how it can possibly be resolved in twenty minutes."

I corrected her by saying that I hadn't predicted we'd resolve it in twenty minutes. "I predicted resolution within twenty minutes after both of you tell me what the other person needs." She said, "But Marshall, we communicate very well, and when you have been talking about something for thirty-nine years, you certainly understand what the other side needs."

I responded, "Well, I've been wrong before, I certainly could be wrong in this situation, but let's explore. Tell me then, if you know what his needs are, what are they?"

She said, "It's very obvious, Marshall, he doesn't want me to spend any money."

The husband immediately reacted by saying, "That's ridiculous."

It was clear that she and I had a different definition of needs. When she said he didn't want her to spend any money, she was identifying what I call a strategy. Even if she was right, she would have been accurate about his desired strategy, not about his need. As I define needs, a need contains no reference to specific actions such as spending money or not spending money.

I told her that all human beings have the same needs, and I was certain that if she could get clear what her husband's needs were, and if he were clear about her needs, we could resolve this. I said. "Can you try again? What do you think his need is?"

And she said. "Well, let me explain, Marshall. You see, he's just like his own father." And then she told me how his father was reluctant to spend money. I stopped her and said: "Hold on now. You're giving me an analysis of why he is the way he is. What I am asking is to simply tell me what need of his is involved in this situation. You're giving me an intellectual analysis of what has gone on in his life."

It was very clear that she didn't know how to identify his need. Even after thirty-nine years of talking, she still didn't have an idea what his needs were. She had diagnoses of him, she had an intellectual awareness of what his reasons might be for not wanting her to have the checkbook, but she didn't really understand his needs in this situation.

So I asked the husband. "Well, since your wife is not in touch with what your needs are, why don't you tell her? What are your needs that are being met by keeping the checkbook yourself?"

He said, "Marshall, she's a wonderful wife, a wonderful mother. But when it comes to money, she's totally irresponsible."

Now again, notice the difference between the question I asked him, "What are your needs in this situation," and his response. Instead of telling me what his needs were, he gave me a diagnosis that she was irresponsible. It's that kind of language that I believe gets in the way of resolving conflicts peacefully. At the point where either party hears themselves criticized, diagnosed, or intellectually interpreted, I predict their energy will turn toward self-defense and counter-accusations rather than toward resolutions that meet everyone's needs.

I pointed out to him that he was not really in touch with what his needs were and I showed that he was giving me a diagnosis of his wife instead. Then I again asked him, "What are your needs in this situation?" He couldn't identify them.

So even after thirty-nine years of discussion, neither person was really aware of the other person's needs. Here was a situation where my ability to sense needs could help them out of conflict. I used Nonviolent Communication skills to guess the needs that the husband and wife were expressing as judgments.

I reminded him that he had said his wife was totally irresponsible about money (a judgment), and then I asked, "Are you feeling scared in this situation because you have a need to protect the family economically?" When I said this, he looked at me and said, "That's exactly what I'm saying,"  Of course he didn't say exactly that! But when we sense what a person needs, I believe that we're getting closer to the truth, closer to what people are trying to say. I believe that all analysis that implies wrongness is basically a tragic expression of unmet needs. If we can hear what a person needs, it's a great gift to them because it helps them to get connected to life.

Now, I happened to guess right in this situation, but it didn't require that I guess right. If I had been off, at least I was focusing his attention on needs, and that helps people get more in touch with their needs. It takes them out of the analysis and gets them more connected to life.

Checking to See that Needs are Accurately Received

Once he had expressed his need, the next step was to be sure that the other person heard it. This is a crucial skill in conflict resolution. We can't assume that, just because a message is expressed, the other person receives it accurately. Whenever I am mediating a conflict if I am not sure that the person hearing the message has accurately received it, I ask them to repeat it back.

I asked his wife, "Could you tell me back what you heard your husband's needs are in this situation?"

And she said, "Well, just because I overdrew the bank account a couple of times when we got married, that doesn't mean I'm going to continue doing it."

Her response was not atypical in my experience. When people have pain built up over many years, even when the other person says clearly what they need, it doesn't mean the first person can hear it. Often they're so filled with their own pain that it gets in the way of their hearing another.

I asked her if she could possibly repeat back what the husband said, but it was clear that she really hadn't heard it, that she was in too much pain. I said to her. "I would like to tell you what I heard your husband say, and I would like you to repeat it back," and I repeated it for her. I said: "I heard that your husband says he has a need to protect the family. He's scared because he really wants to be sure that the family is protected."

Providing Empathy to Heal the Pain (That Prevents People from Hearing Each Other)

Because she still couldn't hear it, I used another skill that is often necessary in conflict resolution. I shifted. Instead of trying to get her to repeat what he'd said I tried to understand the pain that she felt.

I said, "I sense that you're feeling really hurt, and you need to be trusted that you can learn from past experience," You could tell from her eyes that she really needed that understanding, and she said, "Yes, exactly."

Having received this understanding, I hoped that she would now be able to hear her husband, so once again I repeated what I understood his needs to be. He needed to protect the family. I asked her to repeat back what she heard. She replied, "So he thinks I'm spending too much money."

Well, as you see, she wasn't trained to hear needs any more than she was trained to express them. Instead of hearing his needs, all she heard was a diagnosis of herself. I suggested that she try to just hear the needs, without hearing any criticism of herself in it. After I repeated it two more times, she was finally able to hear her husband's needs.

Then I reversed the process and asked the wife to express her needs. Again, she wasn't able to do it directly; she expressed her need in the form of a judgment and said: "He doesn't trust me. He thinks I'm stupid and that I'm not going to be able to learn. I think that's unfair. I mean, just because I did it a couple of times doesn't mean I'll continue to do it."

Once again I loaned her the skill of my being able to sense her needs behind all of that. I said to her: "It sounds like you really have a need to be trusted. You really want acknowledgment that you can learn from the situation."

Then I asked the husband to tell me what his wife's needs were. And, just as she had judgments that kept her from hearing him at first, he couldn't hear her. He wanted to defend his need to protect the family and began to explain that she was a good wife, a good mother, but that she was just totally irresponsible when it came to money. I had to help him hear through his judgment, to just hear what her needs were, so I said, "Would you please just tell me what her needs are?" He had to have it repeated three times, but finally he heard her need was to be trusted.

Then, as I had predicted, at the point when they both had heard each other's needs, it didn't take twenty minutes to find a way of getting everybody's needs met. It took much less time than that!

The more I have been involved in conflicts over the years, the more I've seen that what leads families to argue - what leads nations to war - the more I believe that most school children could resolve these conflicts. If people just asked: "Here are the needs of both sides, here are the resources. What can be done to meet these needs?" the conflict would be easy to resolve. But tragically, we're not taught to think in terms of the human needs involved, and our thinking does not go to that level. Instead it goes to dehumanizing one another with labels and judgments, and then even the simplest of conflicts become very difficult to solve.

Source: We Can Work It Out: Resolving Conflicts Peacefully and Powerfully by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., 2003 - published by PuddleDancer Press. © 2005 Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. For more information visit and