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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me


Action 24

Understand each other’s needs

Good communication is at the heart of happy relationships of all kinds. It's about understanding others' needs and having our needs heard. And it's a skill that can be learned that will help deepen our connections with the people around us.

Why do it?

Communication is at the heart of any good relationship. Sharing our thoughts and needs and listening to those of others is critical for forming close relationships and for making us feel valued and understood. Good communication is of course two-way - it involves one person expressing what they have to say and the other person listening. It sounds simple but relationship difficulties are often caused by poor communication. Either we find it hard to share clearly what our needs are or we fail to hear those of the person we are communicating with.

We all share some common needs, for example to be treated respectfully, to belong, to experience joy and to feel safe. If we can get a clearer understanding of the needs driving our own and other people's behaviour, we have a much better chance of being able to have richer, deeper and more positive relationships.

This sort of understanding is important whether we are communicating good things, making a request or explaining why something is bothering us. If we're angry with someone, our anger is because we have some important underlying needs that have not been met. If we don't explain our needs that person may misinterpret why we are angry and is more likely to get angry or upset in return. This can lead to a spiral of misunderstanding.

If instead we recognise our needs and those of others, we have the opportunity to connect with what is underneath the ways people act. We also have the best chance of having our own needs met if we are able to express clearly what these are. It's about giving and inviting empathy and about being open and honest.

Where to start

An effective approach to help communicate needs is using Nonviolent Communication (NVC). The technique was created by psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and it helps deepen our connections with others by building respect, empathy and understanding. The NVC approach is based on the principles of nonviolence and compassion. It has been used to build relationships and resolve conflicts across the world. Why not give it a try?

The starting point for NVC is that we are compassionate by nature. It assumes we all share the same, basic human needs and that each of our actions or behaviours is a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.

Many of the difficulties in relationships come from us not explaining clearly what our needs are or from someone feeling that their needs are not being met. NVC provides a simple framework to enable us to identify and communicate what our needs are in each of these situations.

Feelings and emotions are triggered in response to our underlying needs. To help us understand our feelings we look underneath them to our needs or values. A key point in NVC is that as individuals we take responsibility for our own feelings. Other people can trigger our feelings, but the choice is ours about how we respond. Just being more aware that needs underlie emotional reactions in others and ourselves can help us to communicate better.

Non-Violent Communication: The Basics

When someone has done something that annoys or upsets us we can use the principles of NVC to think through the issue and communicate effectively.

  1. Listen to your judgements. We often jump to conclusions about what's behind another person's behaviours. If we act on these judgements without understanding their needs it can lead to miscommunication and disagreement. So try to notice what are you telling yourself about why someone is doing something.
  2. Identify the facts. Removing any judgements, take a neutral perspective and try to describe the situation in the way that someone who was not involved might observe it.
  3. Name your feelings. Describe how you yourself felt when this happened.
  4. State your needs. Identify and explain the underlying needs that lead to these feelings
  5. Make your request. What specific thing can the other person do in order to meet your needs? Note: they may not be able or want to do the thing you request, but making it is a clear starting point to finding a win-win compromise.

So combining these different steps together we can communicate as follows:

"When you [observation], I feel [feelings] because I [needs]. I would really appreciate it if you would be willing to [request]"

Non-Violent Communication: An Example

Here's an example of how the Non-Violent Communication approach can be used to deal with a frustrating issue. The situation: your partner, flatmate or child leaves his dirty clothes on the floor of the bathroom, again!

  1. Listen to your judgements. This is what you might be saying to yourself: "He's so messy and inconsiderate. He really should learn to look after himself and take more responsibility for keeping the place tidy. He always expects me to do all the tidying up". But if you react straight away on the basis of judgements like these, it can lead to conflict and without the other person understanding why it is important to you.
  2. Identify the facts. Describe the behaviour in a non-judgemental way, for example: "When you leave your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor..."
  3. Name your feelings. Explain how this behaviour makes you feel, for example: "...I feel really upset and annoyed..."
  4. State your needs. Try to explain the needs that make you feel this way. So you might say: "…because keeping the house tidy makes it nicer for all of us to live in and when you leave your clothes around it seems you don't care about our house or what's important to me."
  5. Make your request. Finally ask the person to do something differently to avoid this happening: "I would really appreciate it if you would be willing to put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Do you feel you could do this?" When we make a request we should be ready to listen to what the other person feels and what their needs are.

So, adding these steps together we might say:

"When you leave your dirty clothes on the bathroom floorI feel really upset and annoyed. Keeping the house tidy makes it nicer for all of us to live in and when you leave your clothes around it seems like you don't care about our house or what's important to me.I would really appreciate it if you would be willing to put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Do you feel you could do this?"

Although the steps of NVC are simple, they do take practice and patience. Try to stay in the conversation until you feel you have been understood and have understood the other person, which may take a few turns of each of you expressing your feelings and needs.

[1] Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life. Puddle Dancer Press


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Together we're stronger

Having a network of social connections or high levels of social support has been shown to increase our immunity to infection, lower our risk of heart disease and reduce mental decline as we get older.

Not having close personal ties has been shown to pose significant risks for our health.