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Do you really need that?

I recently attended a conference on Nonviolent Communication. A statement at the top of the handout we received read: “All human actions are an attempt to get a need met.” Wow. Fascinating. And totally applicable to mediation.

In mediation, people often come in entrenched in their positions. All kinds of emotions come out as they defend those positions. We see it expressed in ways that run the gamut from disengaging to yelling. The premise of nonviolent communication is that the clients’ emotions express feelings that stem from a perceived need, and the actions people take (crying, speaking loudly, talking over someone else) are their attempts to get the need met.

The problem is, people may not even recognize they have a need, and only be in touch with the feelings invoked by not having that need met. Therefore, they can’t express the actual need. What they do instead is put forth a strategy they have developed to get their need met. This can be the cause of conflict with others. For instance, a neighbor may insist they need to put up a fence in their yard, when their actual need may be privacy, or to have the neighbor’s dog stay off their lawn. If putting up the fence is a problem for their neighbor, what other ways can the need be met that might be agreeable to both parties? Can the dog be kept on a lead when it is outside? Will a privacy hedge work?

In a divorcing couple, both might insist they need to stay in the marital residence. That may seem like an impasse, until you ask the question, what needs are they trying to meet? A need for stability? For the children to have continuity? For keeping up relationships with neighborhood friends? Obviously, they can’t both stay in the house, and sometimes for financial or other reasons neither can stay in the house, so how else can they get these needs met?

The next time you are in conflict with someone, ask yourself “What is my real need, separate and apart from my strategy of trying to get it met?” What is the other person’s need that is not being met by my deciding to meet my own need this way? If you separate the needs from the strategies, you will move the discussion from an emotional exchange where neither party can move from their positions, to a problem solving session. In that space, you can work together to create mutually acceptable solutions.

As the presenter put it: “Hold on tight to your needs, but be wide open to the possible strategies for getting those needs met.”

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