The Language of Needs: A New Approach to Resolving Conflict

February 17, 2018


Here is something you might not have considered: Most conflict arises because one or both parties are not getting their needs met.


Understanding this makes conflict resolution infinitely easier.


Here’s a quick example: Let’s imagine that a husband and wife always argue because the husband wants “me time” and the wife feels hurt that her husband does not spend more quality time with her.


Sound familiar? If this does not resonate with you directly, you likely know of a couple who have had this argument.


Though the husband clarifies that his need for “me time” does not diminish his love for his wife, his wife cannot help but feel abandoned and hurt.


On the surface, it might seem like the only way to resolve the conflict is for one person to give in, but if you consider the longer-term implications, you will see that this will foster resentment. Either the husband will have to sacrifice his “me time,” or the wife will continue to feel resentment. This “resolution” won’t feel great.


The truth is: Everyone deserves to have his or her needs met in a relationship.


The husband isn’t wrong for wanting “me time,” and the wife isn’t wrong for wanting quality time. If the couple can remember this, and if they can frame their conversation by using the language of needs, they can create a win-win by finding a way for both of them to get their needs met.


Here is how the conversation might look:


Instead of saying, “You are being selfish. You are abandoning me. You don’t love me,” the wife might start by saying …


“It’s important for me to spend quality time with you. I need intimacy in my relationship with you, and I have noticed that we aren’t spending a lot of time together lately. Is there something we can do about that?”


Notice in the first instance she was talking about him by saying “you are” and “you don’t.” In the second example she is talking about how she feels by saying “I need,” and “I have noticed.” Using "I" statements informs the other person about your experience instead of blaming them for something they are doing wrong.


Whereas the wife’s first response would likely have evoked a defensive response from the husband like, “You are being so needy. You are suffocating me. Why can’t you give me a break?” The second example might evoke something more conciliatory like…


“I understand how you could be feeling lonely. I have been working a lot. But having a little bit of solitude in my life is the way I recharge. If I don’t get some ‘me time,’ I am afraid I will be grumpy and won’t give you my best. How can we fix this for both of us?”


When two people love each other they want the other person to get their needs met, just not at the expense of their own needs all the time. Clarifying your needs allows both people to find creative solutions for everyone getting their needs met.


In this case, perhaps the couple could coordinate their schedules so that the wife makes plans with friends when the husband has his “me time,” which would help her not feel so alone. Perhaps they could also plan a standing date night every week, so she is sure to get at least one night alone with him.


When people are clear about their needs, there are usually multiple ways for both people to get their needs met.


If you think back to most of your arguments, whether they are with significant others, friends, relatives, or co-workers, you will likely see that these arguments were rooted in conflicting needs.


Arguments over money often revolve around one person’s need to feel stable and secure conflicting with the other person’s need to feel free and abundant. Parent/child arguments often revolve around one person’s need for safety and control and the other person’s need for adventure and independence.


Here is one more thing to keep in mind, and this is important:


Not all needs must be met with participation from the other person. Sometimes we need to allow the other person to get certain needs met without us.


Imagine that the same couple has another set of conflicting needs. The wife needs to be around people who validate and support her, but her mother-in-law tears her down. Her husband, on the other hand, has a need to be a good son and to stay connected to his parents.


It is possible for both husband and wife to get their needs met. He can spend time with his mother-in-law on his own.


To make this sort of conflict resolution work, though, both parties need to be willing to get certain needs met without the other party.


This applies to a wide range of issues: If one person needs travel, adventure, and excitement to have a high quality of life, and the other needs stability and routine, they both deserve to have their needs met, but they will likely need to do some things without the other person.


This can work! No shortage exists of happy introverts married to happy extroverts.


When you recognize that the key to successful relationships—of all kinds—is that both people get their needs met, you have the key to resolving conflict.


So the next time you have an argument, try this: Instead of attacking your partner, simply state your need:


  • “I need to feel cherished.”

  • “I need to feel safe.”

  • “I need to feel respected.”


You will find that the conversation will be much more solution-oriented when you begin speaking “the language of needs.”


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