Universal human needs

Needs, rights, feelings and wishes

“I need an ice cream!” Really? Need? One of the interesting things about language is that we can say things are not true. Lying is a special category of untruth. But it is also possible to say things that are not so, ie simply not accurate, and not even realise that we are being inaccurate. We hear the word ‘need’ and recognise that someone is probably wanting to convey some sense of urgency, and may have intense feelings; but that does not necessarily mean that they have accurately named their need. The excellent work by Marshall Rosenberg in Non-Violent Communication (NVC) makes a careful distinction between need, feelings, and the strategies. Feelings arise from our needs being met or unmet; strategies are what we to try to get our unmet needs met.

There is much talk these days about ‘rights’. I can understand why, in the complex arena of social justice that the language rights can be  helpful. It is good when we can reach inter-subjective agreement on some principles that we would like to protect (e.g. freedom from harm; access to food, water, sanitation and health care; access to housing and education; and so on). By making such agreements, we can also enforce them and expect the law to uphold them. But we must be careful here. Some of those ‘rights’ that I mentioned are indistinguishable from universal human needs. I prefer using that term whenever possible. I am disturbed at how often the claim to one person’s ‘rights’ is used as a stick to beat down someone else’s ‘rights’. What I have learned through NVC is that strategies can conflict and compete with each other (as can rights), but needs never conflict. It makes no sense for one person to say, “I need love”, and another to say, “No you don’t – I need meaning”. Your need and my need never compete. A need is simply true.

“I want an ice cream.” We would probably normally describe that as a ‘wish’. In the language of NVC, though, it is really a strategy. Do we need pleasure? Well, yes. But is having an ice cream absolutely the only way that could come about? Clearly not. Do we need to experience our own power? Yes. But is trying to manipulate the feelings and behaviour of the person with the money for ice cream our only way of experiencing this? No. Is it the strategy most likely to make us feel powerful? Quite possibly not, especially if the person is strong willed and opposed to buying us ice cream. Do we want our feelings to be acknowledged? Yes. But why insist that the person who is preoccupied with something else should do this for us? Such a strategy carries a high risk of failure. Insisting on our wish, and our strategy – ie “I want an ice cream!” – stops us from recognising our real needs, which reduces the likelihood of our getting our needs met. Pausing before we jumping straight to a strategy, and learning to name our feelings, can help us begin to identify our underlying real needs.

List of universal human needs

[Note: This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but should provide a useful starting point for your own researches.]

A – Acceptance – Acknowledgement – Adventure – Affirmation – Air – Appreciation – Authenticity – Autonomy

B – Balance – Beauty – Belonging

C – Celebration of life and dreams fulfilled – Clarity – Closeness – Collaboration – Community – Company – Compassion – Completion – Consideration – Contact – Contribution – Cooperation – Creativity

D –

E – Emotional safety – Empathy – Expression

F – Food – Freedom – Freshness – Fun

G – Growth

H – Harmony – Help – Honesty

I – Imagination – Inspiration – Integrity – Intimacy

J – Joy

K – Kindness

L – Laughter – Learning – Light – Love

M – Meaning – Mourning, honouring losses – Movement – Mystery

N –

O – Order

P – Participation – Peace – Play – Pleasure – Power – Protection from physical harm, illness etc.

Q – Quietude (internal)

R – Reassurance – Recognition – Respect – Rest – Rhythm

S – Safety – Self-worth – Sexual expression – Sharing – Shelter – Solidarity – Structure – Support

T – Tolerance – Touch – Trust

U – Understanding

V – Variety

W – Warmth – Water – Wholeness

X –

Y –

Z –

Drawn from teachings on  –