How To Uncover Hidden Needs


Over the last couple of months, the Family Connection has discussed the problems that power, permissiveness, and compromise create in our relationships. We have seen that all three of these approaches to resolving conflict can cause hurt feelings, anger, resentment, mistrust, sadness, and frustration.

We also closely examined Dr. Gordon’s No-Lose Conflict Resolution, Method III, the problem-solving alternative to Method I (Authoritarian), Method II (Permissive) and Compromise. Instead of creating feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, or sadness, Method III creates a safe environment in which all parties involved in a conflict work together to meet everyone’s needs, in turn, resolving the conflict.

Recall the six steps of Method III:

  1. Define Needs
  2. Brainstorm Solutions
  3. Evaluate Solutions
  4. Choose Solution
  5. Implement Solution
  6. Check Results

Most of the time, Method I, Method II and Compromise begin immediately with the parent and child (or other) trying to impose, sell or trade solutions. Step 1–Defining Needs–sets Method III apart from Method I, Method II and Compromise.

While Defining Needs is an essential ingredient of Method III, it is also the most difficult of the Six Steps. Identifying real needs is often challenging.

Frequently, we unconsciously offer our preconceived solutions that will meet our need rather than expressing the need itself.

If the underlying needs of the parent and of the child are not clearly understood and expressed, all subsequent steps of Method III will be misdirected and the conflict will not be resolved.

Separating needs from solutions can be very difficult. Even when people use the word “need,” what they are saying is often a solution. Also, keep an eye out for “wants,” as most “wants” are solutions.

For example, your child might say: “I need my own room.”  This is actually a solution, not a need. What will having his/her own room do for the child? It would provide privacy or a feeling of having his/her own space or quiet, etc. These are the needs; a room of his/her own is a solution.

Active Listening is an essential skill to use when determining what is a need vs. what is a solution. From the example given above, if your child says “I need my own room,” a little bit of Active Listening can go a long way towards uncovering what his/her real needs are. Maybe you can say, “You would really like your own space–can you say more about that?” and in turn your child reveals that s/he feels like it’s noisy all the time and s/he can’t concentrate. You have now defined your child’s need for more quiet, and you can both start on Step 2 and brainstorm for possible solutions to help meet his/her need for quiet time.

Your child (or other) may not know right away why s/he feels s/he needs his own room (this of course applies to any solution that is being presented as a need). While Active Listening is the major skill to use in separating needs from solutions, the question, “What will that do for me? (or you?)” can also be an extremely helpful one. For example, if you say “I need a new car,” is that a need or a solution? Ask the question, “What will that do for me?” Possible answers might be:

  • “I’ll get to work safely.”
  • “I’ll feel good about my image/myself.”
  • “I’ll save money since my old car uses a lot of gas and requires lots of repairs.”

These answers are the needs; a new car is the solution.

When you use this clarifying question, “What will that do for you?” avoid overdoing it or using a probing or pushy tone of voice. This question is intended as a gentle way of helping others to find the need behind a solution. Active Listening is still the skill of choice when it is difficult to identify a child’s/other’s needs.

When you express your own needs, use I-Language. In essence, this means you need to Active Listen to yourself first to be sure you have identified your need and not just your solution. Asking yourself the same clarifying question, “What will that do for me?” can also be helpful.

The key to clearly understanding needs is:

For a parent — expressing needs in congruent I-Messages. This involves the parent in Active Listening to herself/himself to understand what is really wanted or needed as opposed to the question of how to get it–then expressing these needs in I-Messages.

For a child — the parent needs to Active Listen to the child, especially if the child’s messages seem unclear or coded (masking some deeper need).

Active Listening will aid the child to express her/his needs in I-Messages as well.

For more information on defining needs, see the P.E.T. Blog’s post “Defining Needs with Maslow’s Hierarchy.”