Part three of our series presents the remaining components of Non-Adversarial Communication (NAC): Feelings, Needs, and Requests. Part one is here, Part two is here.
Feelings are internal, physiological, unconscious reactions to what we see or hear. Feelings–such as happy, hopeful, alert, confused, mad, sad, scared–are universal to the human species, although people may react differently in the identical situation due to their previous experiences. For example, upon encountering a snake, frequent hikers on the Picture Rock Trail may feel curious, whereas visitors who have only seen snakes behind glass at the zoo may feel panicky.
Feelings are present and influence our behavior even when we’re not consciously aware of them. Being able to identify our feelings enables us to make conscious choices rather than automatically reacting.
Frequently we mislabel words as feelings by using words that sound like feelings but actually describe what we think someone else is doing to us. Examples include saying that you feel attacked; manipulated; disrespected; pressured; unappreciated. The NAC vocabulary helps us avoid words that are likely to trigger an adversarial reaction.
Needs are inborn fundamental yearnings for qualities that would enrich our lives, such as freedom, intimacy, safety, understanding, honesty, clarity, humor, peace, and physical well-being. Like feelings, needs are universal to the human species, and can be unique to individuals in the identical situation based on previous experiences. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that to have needs means to be “needy,” deficient, or lacking in some quality.
I used to feel resentful washing the dishes each night. However, after I realized that I wash the dishes because I need cleanliness in my kitchen, I changed my language from “I wash the dishes because I have to,” to “I wash the dishes because I need my kitchen to be clean and orderly.” This shifted my irritation, and washing the dishes no longer triggered my resentment.
A need identifies an internal hunger for a quality of life–such as for purpose or for the freedom to make our own choices–and is separate from the requests we make (or strategies we propose) to meet those needs. In other words, a need is not caused by or dependent on someone else to meet it; it is your need.
Even when we are unaware of our needs, they influence how we feel and how we react. When we are unaware of our needs, we often communicate them indirectly by judging, criticizing, and blaming others for our inner state when things don’t go as we’d like. We might say, for example, “You must think I’m stupid,” or, “If you loved me, you would . . .”, instead of saying what we feel and need.
Another problem that can occur when we are out of touch with our needs and the needs of others with whom we disagree is that we tend to come up with solutions to problems without fully understanding and addressing what’s truly important to those involved.
Requests are invitations to engage in strategies to alleviate the distress of an unmet need. Requests identify the actions that we hope will meet our needs–the specifics of how, by whom, by when, or where. Requests are most likely to be successful if they attempt to meet at least some of the needs of all involved.
If you want to learn to use NAC to create mutual understanding across the divide, check out the self-study book, Non-Adversarial Communication: Speaking and Listening from the Heart, from the Lyons Library.
Arlene Brownell, Ph.D., is retired from a career as a mediator, collaborative divorce coach, social and behavioral scientist, organizational consultant, and executive leadership coach for the federal government. She has lived in Lyons since 2005.