Needs Consciousness for Better Conflicts

Eva Hamer
August 2, 2023

This series is an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. This blog will cover preliminary concepts in Nonviolent Communication, which will help in understanding later blogs in this series. Part One covered why we study nonviolence and Part Two covered the practice of empathy. 

The Gist:

  • We discuss the use of feelings and needs in NVC. Feelings are emotions or sensations related to whether needs are met or unmet.
  • Identifying needs allows for better understanding and empathy in conflicts and interactions.
  • We distinguish "fusion words" (faux feelings) that contain judgments about others' intentions from feelings, and discuss how they can lead to defensiveness and hinder connection.
  • The practice of empathy and understanding needs can lead to sustainable satisfaction. The next part of the series will explore observations and requests in NVC.

Feelings and Needs

We know about feelings. They come in many shades of sad, glad, mad, scared, and disgusted. 

When introducing this concept in the workshop, I like to ask people to guess my feelings such as from when described my petitioning experience in the last blog:

“I was petitioning the other day and someone said they eat meat and want to keep eating meat. I gave a response to him but he walked away without acknowledging it. I feel so frustrated with how little some people seem to engage.”

It’s easy to name a feeling when I already did! “Try offering that one back to me,” I’ll say to the workshop participants. Our conversation might sound something like this. 

“I hear how frustrating that was.” 

“Yeah, it was frustrating. I hate that ‘gotcha’ thing where they act like I was saying something that isn’t true.”

The feeling was frustration, but what about my need underlying that feeling? My response in the dialogue above might point you toward what was important to me in this situation. I wanted respect, perhaps, or a sense of being seen. Also called values, this is the concept of universal human needs in NVC. 


Needs might take a little more work to understand. To do so, let’s talk about babies. I want to use a baby as an example here because babies come out and they’re mostly just a little pile of need for the first bit. What do babies need? 

Babies need food. They need to be changed—kept clean. They need care and love, which comes in the form of physical contact, attention, and interaction. Interaction is really important for them to have mental stimulation and learning, too. Attention is really important to keep them safe. So, in summary, we could say that the needs of a baby include nourishment, cleanliness, care, physical contact, attention, and so on—and the baby will keep needing these same things throughout their life.

There are specific strategies to meet these needs for babies. For example, their own mothers’ milk is a great strategy to meet their needs for food, and choosing this strategy over another can meet other needs as well. But spoken as generally as I listed above, we all have the same needs as babies. 

If I can have a felt sense of what someone is feeling and needing, then I can have empathy for that person. If someone else can feel that empathy, then we’re in connection. 

What needs aren’t

When I’m guessing your needs, I’m guessing what needs are alive in you, not what you’re supposed to do or receive. The important distinction is that I’m not giving you advice; I’m letting you know that I hear you. 

For example, if you’re feeling lonely, you might have a need for companionship, love, safety, or to be appreciated. You don’t have a need to invite a friend over to watch a movie, even if that’s a strategy that would meet your needs. You also don’t have a need to have more or better friends, even if these are the only strategies you can think of that would meet your needs. And to give you empathy, I don’t need to know what strategy is going to work for you—I simply need to let you know that I hear your need for connection. 

Needs vs Strategies 

Another way to get the concept of needs is to ask, “What is the need here that I want for everyone in the world?” If my strategy is to invite a friend over to watch a movie, I surely don’t expect everyone in the world to have that same friend over to watch a movie tonight. What about having more or better friends? Some people keep to themselves more than I do, so I wouldn’t want them to have as many close friends as I want if that’s not something that would actually satisfy them.

Thus, this discussion reveals the needs that would be met by the strategies I’m considering. Companionship, care, love, and appreciation are things that I do want for every single person in the world- this qualifies them as needs. 

The important thing about this distinction is that identifying needs allows us to fully hear people in what’s important to them. By separating needs from strategies, we can break through adversarial dynamics and start out on the same side. I want you to have your needs met, even if I disagree with your strategies. 

By starting with needs consciousness, we can be open to creative strategies that could meet everyone’s needs. 

How to make needs sound less awkward

But Eva, you protest, that sounds so weird. I’m never going to ask my friend if they have a need for connection when they invite me over to watch a movie. I’m never going to suggest that a fellow activist who has an idea I don’t like is trying to meet their need for purpose and meaning. You’re suggesting that we talk like robots! 

Some people use needs lists when studying NVC. These lists can be helpful in learning how to identify and name different needs. I sometimes avoid using them, though, because I worry that the vocabulary in them doesn’t feel natural. 

If these words don’t land for you either, express them however you want. I want everyone in the world to have someone get where they’re coming from, to know that there are people who give a shit about them, to have hangout time, and to have space to do their own thing. Needs are needs even if they’re not put that way on a list. 


In NVC parlance, feelings are emotions or body sensations that give us feedback about our needs. That is, feelings and needs are always related. Feelings are often categorized into pleasant (relating to needs that are met) and unpleasant- (relating to needs that aren’t met). 

How feelings can go wrong

Feelings might feel overly intimate to guess at right away, especially in conflict. If someone guesses a feeling that is too vulnerable for us, it feels bad. We might worry that they’re trying to manipulate or diagnose us. In these cases—conflict that feels adversarial, formal settings like work—a less heavy feeling might make for a better guess. If your first guess is angry, maybe the one you say out loud is a little frustrated. Another option is to skip feelings altogether. Having just the need reflected back can be enough, without the emotional weight of asking someone to acknowledge their feelings. 

Feelings are also differentiated from faux feelings—words that are phrased like feelings, but contain more information about what happened than how the speaker is feeling. For example, if I say that I’m feeling judged, what I’m really saying is that someone is judging me. If I say I’m feeling betrayed it contains a story about someone betraying me. Same with others, like taken for granted, violated, insulted, and attacked. Using these words might result in defensiveness from the person you’re talking to; it’ll be harder for them to hear how you’re feeling when they’re distracted by a desire to defend themselves from an accusation of wrongdoing. 

Faux feelings may also lead to right/wrong thinking in those you’re going to for support, sowing the seeds for allegiances and conflict of their own down the road. 

Big Caveat!

I feel nervous when I talk about faux feelings because I worry that given only this concept, we can leave an NVC training much more obnoxious than when we entered. I’m discussing faux feelings here to suggest that you, the reader, avoid them, especially during conflicts. When other people use the language of faux feelings, please don’t correct their language, but instead translate what you are hearing them say into pure feelings and needs. Then, you can check with them that you understood correctly. Or, you can simply use this silent translation to avoid a defensive response, yourself. 

Forget Faux Feelings

Roxy Manning redefined these as fusion words instead of faux feelings. This is because these terms have a lot of useful information in them. If someone shares a fusion word with you, you have a wonderful opportunity to make an empathy guess. For instance, unwanted contains a story that nobody likes you. If our partner comes to us feeling unwanted, we can notice that we might feel tempted to argue. That’s not true! I love you, I was just busy yesterday! But, now that we know about fusion words, we might choose to make another choice first: to reflect a feeling or need that might be alive for our partner in that moment. We might instead choose to say, “I’m guessing it was really sad for you when I wasn’t home by the time I said I would be, and you’re wanting more of a sense of care from me?”

When we use fusion words to express our own feelings, they might be more likely to cue defensiveness because they contain a story about the other person's intentions. They might also be more likely to cue defensiveness in us, when we hear them. Let's do a little bit of practice translating these into feelings and needs guesses. I’ll list a few, invite you to make feelings and needs guesses from the perspective of the speaker, and then I’ll reflect on what my own guesses might be. 





Taken for granted

Blamed- Are you feeling hurt and wanting a sense of trust, understanding, or acceptance?

Tricked- Is there some shock up for you? Or some confusion? Would it be nice to have a sense that you’re on the same team?

Manipulated- Would it be nice to have acknowlegment of disgust? Are you so wanting trust in this situation?

Judged- Are you feeling angry? Would it be nice to have a sense that you’re accepted exactly as you are? 

Taken for granted- Is there some alienation? Is there a need up for appreciation? 

But blame feels amazing!

It does. Go ahead, try it. Think of a conflict in your life and imagine telling the person, “I feel ____ and it’s your fault.” You might use one of the above faux feelings for this. Notice the sense of righteousness in your body. 

Empathy is a gentler satisfaction that feels less like less of a rush. It’s a release of tension, a sense of relaxation, or a shift in what feels important about the situation.

The hope here is that a practice of empathy, for yourself and others, can help us to access this more sustainable satisfaction. This can mean replacing the roller coaster of blame with something more sustainable for our own emotional health and the health of our relationships.

If you found this discussion interesting, stay tuned for the next piece where we’ll explore observations and requests. We will learn how to untangle objective observations from blame-tinged assessment and begin the practice of NVC requests. 

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