Needs must meet certain standards for the other person to understand and be able to meet them.
Four Needs Criteria
Needs are about doing or refraining from doing. You have no control over what someone else thinks or feels—in fact, in the short term, neither does she. There’s no point in asking her to “expect,” “respect,” “know,” “mean it,” “believe,” “understand,” “be sensitive to,” “recognize,” “be happy,” “have a sense of humor,” “love,” “desire,” and so forth. If she’s motivated enough, however, she can change her behavior, even if it takes work and effort. You can’t expect someone not to get angry, but you can insist that she not hit or yell at you.
Actions are also measurable. Someone may not be able to hide her disappointment, but she can agree not to accuse you of causing it.
By concrete, we mean specific, not general. People use generalities as barriers against each other. By seeming to say something without really doing so, they harm or prevent good relationships. If your life partner says she wants “love,” “space,” or “respect,” do you know what she means? Of course not; these terms mean different things to each of us (and they are not about behavior).
Gregory Bateson, a brilliant anthropologist, pioneer in the integration of systems theory into psychology, and an early mentor of Alicia’s, used to call such terms “black boxes.” We all think we agree about what’s really inside them, but we have no way of telling. If you don’t press for specifics, you will guarantee misunderstandings down the line. In fact, if you give a need only in general terms, you can be sure that it most likely won’t get met, a failure that will probably suit your inner saboteur just fine.
“Surely,” you might argue, “everyone knows what is meant by respect.” Not so.
How you want respect will depend entirely on your upbringing. A client of Bob’s from rural North Carolina, for instance, said he showed his son respect by belting him.
“My boy can take anything I dish out, and he knows I know it!” he said proudly.
His idea of respect is not ours or probably yours either.
The harm that using generalities can cause starts in childhood. Kids are very concrete thinkers. Even metaphors or slang can be confusing and upsetting. For example, as a child, Alicia can remember being very upset by the Harry Belafonte song lyrics, “My heart is down, my head is turning around, I had to leave a little girl in Kingston Town.” She worried about this child abandoned in a busy city until the truth dawned years later.
Or, were you ever told by a parent or caretaker to “sit down and be good”? Did you have the vaguest idea what was meant? A small child, eager to please, might think, “How can I do that? A moment ago Mommy said to pick up my toys and that was being good. But they’re all picked up now and anyway I can’t pick them up if I’m sitting down!”
If Mother had said, “Sit down in your chair at the dining room table, pick up your fork in your right hand, and don’t throw food at your little sister,” the child could have done so and been praised. But in many cases she didn’t and the child wasn’t, which does not make her a bad mother, simply one who did not have sufficient job training. But if the child often can’t please her parents because she can’t understand what they want, she will be set up for failure, pessimism, and depression.
By appropriate we mean that the need is fitting and realistic for the relationship.
For instance, your needs of your boss are different from those of your child or life partner. “I need you to set aside an hour each day to let me talk about my feelings and concerns,” is an appropriate need for a partner or even perhaps for a close friend; it is not appropriate for your ten-year-old or probably your boss.
One Uplift student had a problem understanding what was suitable behavior around her former boyfriend, who was still a friend. She constantly quizzed him on who he was seeing and even clandestinely checked his cell phone to suss out who he’d contacted. Ultimately she lost the friendship as well as the romance because of her inappropriate behavior.
It is appropriate, however, for parents to check up on who their young teenager is dating, especially if they are concerned about that person’s reliability. An employer has the right to set some standards of dress code. However, when a client’s husband told her to dress up during all her waking hours as if they were entertaining, Bob advised her that it was an inappropriate need. Alicia told the same thing to a client of hers whose boyfriend insisted she never wear makeup. (Had these men explained what category their needs came under and what childhood trauma lay beneath them, some compromise or at least a deeper understanding might have been reached. But that wasn’t the case in either situation.)
When we say your needs should be doable, we don’t mean by any particular individual. Too often, people don’t articulate needs even to themselves because they believe a specific person wouldn’t meet them.
An Uplift participant said that she couldn’t ask her husband to keep his own clothes tidy because he never had and it was probably too late for him to start. “Are you telling me a grown, able-bodied man can’t pick up his own socks?” asked Bob.
Rueful, sympathetic chuckles were heard from around the room. After a moment, the woman herself joined in.
“I think there are going to be some changes from now on,” she said.
When you censor your needs, you diminish your self. Instead, think, “Would a person in the position of being a boss/wife/child and so forth be able to meet this need?” not want to or even agree to. Actually meeting the need might require a determined effort. It might involve self-examination, therapy, a shift of priorities, memory aids like rubber bands around the wrist, perhaps even a change in job or lifestyle.
But all you need to consider is would it be possible for such a person?
By acknowledging what you need—even just to yourself—you are affirming who you really are. Many of us try to squeeze ourselves into the shape others want us to be, and then we wonder why we have no sense of self!
Later we’ll talk about the other person’s right to say “no” and the negotiation process. But for now, as you think of your needs, think only of what you need from someone and whether it is doable by a person in his situation.
Prioritize Your Needs
At some point during the Uplift Program, someone inevitably asks, “What’s the difference between a want and a need?” It’s a good question and has probably occurred to you too. Obviously, some needs are more important than others. Prioritizing your needs will form the basis for evaluating whether you want to stay in a relationship that may not meet them all. It will also provide parameters for negotiating your needs with others and setting functional consequences.
We’ve developed the “traffic-light” system to help you decide which needs are simply wants and don’t matter that much, which needs are important but negotiable, and which are relationship breakers. The needs are graded by zone, in order of importance, from green through orange to red.
A green-zone need is basically a want or a wish. You definitely need this to happen to meet a category of need, but the other person can go about it in many ways.
Everyone’s needs and alternatives will differ. For example, “I need you to remind me not to buy any candy bars when we next go to the supermarket” might be a green-zone need for someone who’s trying to watch her weight but isn’t really all that concerned about it. But if someone is a diabetic, the need could be in the orange zone.
An orange-zone need is one step up from green. It has some flexibility, but not a whole lot. Tanya, who has two children in elementary school, needs her boss to allow her to leave early to pick them up from school two days a week (when her mother can’t do it). But in special situations, she can stay later if her supervisor lets her know a few hours ahead of time.
A red-zone need is essential to your self-esteem, personal integrity, or safety. It is the bedrock on which your recovery stands, the ultimate boundary, and a condition of the relationship. It cannot be substituted and the only negotiation will involve when and how, not if. Everyone has red-zone needs, and it’s important to know yours, even if they are already being met in your current relationships. Physical abuse or the threat of it is obviously covered under red-zone needs.
Marty’s red-zone needs for Stan included that he not criticize her, yell, wave his arms during arguments, or insist she visit his parents. These needs define her bottom line. Others’ examples include, “I need you not to threaten to leave the relationship unless you really mean it,” “I need you not to charge me for services you didn’t provide,” “I need you not to reduce my health benefits,” and “I need you to be honest with me.”
If a red-zone need is not met (and you have no agreement to do so in a reasonable amount of time), you may have to choose between staying in the relationship and your emotional health.
Getting to Concrete
When Angie was asked to think of needs for someone during the Uplift Program, she decided to start with her teenage son, who was beginning to be emotionally distant, argumentative, and was slacking off on chores. As a single mother, she was feeling increasingly frustrated and powerless. Her first need, tentatively spoken to the group, was “I need you [her son] to stop driving me crazy and to be nice to me and helpful.”
“OK, let’s try to break that down a bit,” said Alicia. “What would he have to do or not do to stop driving you crazy?”
“He’d have to be nice to me.”
“What would it look like if he were nice to you? What would he do or say?”
“Well, he’d . . . I don’t know. Speak to me more.”
“OK, when do you want him to speak to you?”
“Anytime? What if you’re on the phone or in the middle of your favorite TV
“No, not then . . . in the morning, maybe.”
“Good! What would you like him to say in the morning?”
“I can’t tell my kid when to talk to me and certainly not what to say!”
“Why shouldn’t you tell him what you want?”
“It would seem . . . silly, I don’t know.”
“How else is he going to know what you need from him?”
“Wouldn’t he just know?”
“Evidently not. So what would you like him to say in the morning?”
“Well, ‘Good morning, Mom,’ would be a start.” (Sympathetic chuckle from the other Uplift participants, head nods from the parents among them.)
“Excellent! Anything else?”
“Well, maybe he could say when he’d be home after school or what he was doing and not just when he needed a chauffeur.” (More chuckles.)
“OK, good. Now put those two really fine needs into the needs format.”
“ ‘I need you to say “Good morning,” when you come down for breakfast and tell me when you’ll be home.’ But it’s not going to work if he says it in a surly tone, and he’s often in a bad mood when he gets up.”
“OK, so form a need for his tone.”
“You can’t tell someone what tone to use!”
“But a different tone is what you need, isn’t it?”
“OK. ‘I need you to say it in a pleasant tone of voice and to smile at least once during the conversation, and say “thank you” for making breakfast.’ How’s that?”
“Perfect!” (Applause from group.) “That’s really concrete. Now what’s the category?”
“Attention and . . . importance. Also emotional security, so that I don’t have to be tense all morning wondering what breakfast-time will be like.”
“And what zone need is it?”
“Orange, because we could negotiate some, like about exactly what he says. But being pleasant is red zone.”
Identifying Your Needs
Many people find working out what they really need from others difficult at first.
The following process should help. Jodhi used our techniques to identify—in concrete terms—what she really meant when she said she needed her boyfriend Jarrod to “love her,” and what he would have to do or not do to make her feel loved.
I need you to love me.
I need you to say you
I need you to say you
love me twice a day.
I need you to hug me.
I need you to hug me
when you leave and
when you come home.
I need you to call me.
I need you to call me from
work every lunchtime.
I need you to be faithful.
I need you not to flirt
I need you not to call
I need you to introduce
me to your friends.
Jodhi saw that in fact she had several needs of Jarrod. She could now say, “I need you to love me, and by that I mean I need you to say you love me twice a day.” That way she could be assured there would be no misunderstanding.
Now it’s your turn. The exercise Identify Your Needs leads you through the entire seven-stage process of identifying functional needs, which you’ll go through whenever you identify a need for anyone. Perhaps you’ll refer to this exercise at first; then later, you’ll be able to do this automatically.
Source Credits: Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill