Extracting your “needs” from your everyday thoughts

Published by nedmortimer on

If you haven’t read my piece about Marshall Rosenberg and his ‘Non-Violent Communication’ philosophy it’s worth a read before you dive into this exercise.

To summarise: everything we say in life amounts to either ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. Whenever we complain, or argue with someone, or say anything we would describe as ‘negative’, we are actually just expressing some need of ours that isn’t being fulfilled. All of us are a product of these same universal needs and so it seems logical that we should know what those needs are to better express them to other people.

As someone who has been suffering an identity crisis for the past decade (more on that here), I approached this a different way – these needs could serve as a useful tool in helping me understand myself. That is the reason I developed this exercise, inspired by Marshall’s talk, and how I now have a much clearer picture of why certain things matter to me so much.

Step 1 – think of 3 things you argue about regularly

Think back to the last argument you had with your partner or friend or family member or colleague (or bandmate…). Is this something you have argued about numerous times? Try to think of three such examples – tensions that come up a lot in your dealings with other people. You could describe these as your ‘pressure points’.

Now, draw a line down the middle of a page, and write these things down in the left hand column:

JACKAL thoughts

Step 2 – now add more things to this column

Try to think of more things that you think a lot or things that bother you all the time. Examples that I found for myself included:

  • This place is too messy
  • Why is everyone late all the time?
  • I want to spend more time learning the guitar

Basically, write anything down that feels like something you want to improve about your life. It can involve other people (like the first two examples) but doesn’t have to (like the third).

Ideally you want a list of 15-20 ‘pressure points’ in the left hand column.

Step 3 – go through each item on the left and try to work out what basic need is underpinning it


When I first did this exercise for myself, I found that the same 6-7 basic needs kept coming up to explain why certain things were important to me. The 3 most common for me seemed to be:


a) The need for ‘relevance’ (making a positive impact/influence on the people around me)

b) The need for ‘progress’ (feeling like I am getting better as a person, moving somewhere with my life)

c) The need for order and control over my surroundings (feeling organised, not wasting time or money or food, etc)

The world famous motivational speaker and coach, Tony Robbins, describes 8 fundamental needs that motivate what people do – his list was pretty similar to mine (which made me feel like I was on the right track), but I’d encourage you to come up with your own list of needs because even the way you write them could reveal something fundamental and unique about your character.

One question one of my mentees asked me: how do you know that the things in the right hand column are needs, and not just different ways of expressing the thoughts in your left column?

The way I tried to explain is this: you are trying to discover the WHY behind your actions/thoughts/words. So when you think or do something, you keep asking ‘why?’ until you can’t explain any further – it just IS. That is when you have identified your basic need. For the scientists or engineers among you, this is is little bit like doing root cause analysis – a technique to identify why something isn’t working:

[Diagram example of RCA]

[Diagram example using a thought]

Step 4 – reflect on these basic needs and what they reveal about you

As with all my exercises, it’s important to take a step back and learn about yourself.

As I said above, I discovered just how important and pervasive this ‘need for relevance’ was as a driving force in my life. It explained why I wanted to write fiction and produce music, why I turned my back on a career in law, and so on.

One of the biggest revelations was this ‘need for order/control’. I hadn’t realised that organisation and efficiency were so important to me. I own the bare minimum of possessions, hate wasting food and hate being late for things – it’s as though I want to run myself like a business with a hyper-efficient supply chain. Perhaps this need is my internal operations department, and my need for relevance is like my internal marketing/comms team…

Try the exercise and write to me if you have any questions or observations!


1 Comment

The Art of (Nonviolent) Communication – how to understand what people are actually saying – The Emerging Artist · August 21, 2019 at 12:05 pm

[…] Click here to read how to define your needs – the basic needs that underpin everything you do and … […]

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