Need → [Belief] → Want (or not want) → [History/Belief] → Strategy → [Ability/Skill/Will] → Outcome

The pathway above is a simplified version of thinking through how we get from what we need to what we want, how we get what we want [strategy], and what we end up getting in the end [outcome]. As with any simplification, there are some problems with this model – in that often we’re operating at the strategy/outcome level without any clear knowledge of our needs and wants (i.e., Have you ever thought ‘Wait, why am I eating this?! I’m not hungry,’ or ‘Wow, I got everything I want, and yet I still feel like something is missing.’? Those are moments where our strategies and outcomes are out of alignment with our needs.)
There is far more interaction (both directions) between strategies, needs, wants and outcomes than the table suggests – and the table only marginally accounts for feelings, environmental factors, 100% responsibility, rackets/stories and interactions with others.


For now, let’s take the above model as a relatively solid introduction to needs, wants, strategies and outcomes. First things first – there is only one box above that cannot be shifted or changed in some way – and that’s our needs (the black box!). Needs are universal – we all have them, and we all have the same ones. BUT, there’s also a problem – needs are supralinguistic. What the heck does supralinguistic mean?! It means that needs occur outside of language, thought, belief – everything! They cannot really be put into words, except by the roughest of approximations. Trying to really pin-down, or describe, or capture, the essence of a need is like trying to pin-down a cloud – it’s always going to be slightly different, slightly more or less, slightly distinct, to even the most beautiful and perfect description.

“I have a need for connection – BOOM! Done. Take that supralinguistic fiddle-faddle. I just beat you – I have a need for CONNECTION. Hahaha. I win!”

Ok ok, yes. We do provide an extensive list as a reference-able set of human needs. But let’s explore this here- When you say you have a need for connection – what do you mean? If I handcuffed myself to you for the next three months, would that meet your need for connection?

“Uh – no not really. For me connection is more like, the two of us reading a book in a room together but not really talking to each
other. Just kind-of enjoying each other’s company”

Ah, I see now. So connection is about proximity without interrupting each other’s work/activity?

“Yea, that’s kind-of it. Though, you know, sometimes I want to chat. Like if I read a funny part of my book, I’d want to share it with
you – oh no, this is getting complicated.”

As you can see, we’re always approaching our needs with kind-ofs and sort-ofs and maybe’s. Even when we label a need with a word that zings through your heart and soul, there’s still a microscopic distance between that word that zinged (language) and the need underneath (internal). We can get really close, but we’re always a slight distance away from perfectly describing it to ourselves and others. The tools in this section on Compassionate Communication help us to better understand our needs. Techniques like Reading Minds, Reflect, Reframe, Validate, and many of the ‘More Tools’ are ways for us to both 1) recognize our needs and 2) see those needs as universally present in others.

Initial Definition:

Needs Shifting

The conscious or unconscious process of moving away from certain needs or/and towards other needs with peace, power and balance.

Subconscious Need Shifting

We’ve come to a tentative understanding of needs as they relate to our daily experience. Largely, we walk around without conscious thoughts about our needs. Instead, we’re focused on our strategies and outcomes, and can likely articulate our wants when asked by others. Here’s the fun part: while we’re going through our daily schedule, our needs are shifting on a regular basis – again without ourselves noticing! Some needs light-up, others go dark for a bit, and then come back up for us in another place. You’re likely need shifting 20 times a day – if not 20 times an hour!

For example, in reading this web page you may be meeting your need for competency, self-mastery, and hopefully fun; and that may have involved a shift from a need for creativity that you were experiencing earlier, or a need for rest and ease. Likely, when you opened this page, you didn’t consciously think ‘Hmmm… I’m experiencing a need for ease that looks like wanting some rest, which I could meet through taking a nap; however, that exists in conflict with my need to be competent that looks like wanting to be an effective communicator which I can meet through reading this web page. You know, I’m going to shift my need for ease to my need for competency.’ Can you imagine if we thought that way all the time?! It would take us fifteen minutes to make any decision. Instead, you likely went, ‘ok. Nap can wait – time to read more of this website.’

We also shift our needs gradually over the course of many years. You may enjoy meeting certain needs for freedom and self-expression which are more available to you in your mid-20s. Then a romantic interest may enter your life, and inspire you to place more importance on connection and sharing life’s joys with another person, causing you to place less value on raw freedom. In your 40’s, you may place high importance on meeting needs for order via financial stability. Yet you may have a parent who gets sick and needs lots of attention and care, and your values compel you to be there for them (strategy), meeting a need you have for service…your money may soon be going to support your parent, and your schedule will likely change drastically.
You shifted your needs, gradually over time, in response to a variety of desired outcomes and environmental factors. For perspective, consider that some needs may be more present/important during certain periods of your life than during others.

Young Child
Young Adult
Senior Citizen

Sure, when you are a senior citizen, you will still have a need for freedom. But the way that need can be met will likely be very different than when you were a teen or a young adult: and as such, that particular need might ‘go-dark,’ meaning it becomes less important/present for you. You still have that need, and the many other needs that you hold and value might become more important for you [needs shifting] – hopefully, you’ll also still be meeting the need for freedom through shifting your strategies and wants. Wouldn’t that be a lovely expression of retirement?

Conscious Needs Shifting

Those needs of yours are shifting on a daily, hourly, minute-ly basis; and, there may be times where you hit a bit of a traffic-jam with regards to your needs. Where you’re there at work, thinking “Ugh, my need for autonomy is NOT being met here. What to do???”

The rest of this website offers hundreds of options for situations like this – go ahead, click to a random page – you’ll likely find a technique or mindset that will offer you an option for this very scenario. And, need shifting in a conscious fashion is about bringing a mindfulness to how our needs are impacting us – and recognizing that we have many needs that we can connect with at any one moment. Perhaps at work you feel yourself thinking “UGH!” and then follow that feeling a bit and think “Wait… what am I thinking?! That’s not what I want to be doing here;” maybe you have a little laugh and then, looking at the task before you, you’re suddenly filled with awe, gratitude and love – you realize that this work is in your hands. More, you realize that your manager and coworker are counting on you – trusting you to do this task with expertise, and trusting that you will save them from their needs not being met. Suddenly, you find yourself lit up: contribution, meaning, beauty, competency; all of those needs are bright and getting met. And, without attachment or resentment, you notice that your need for ease and autonomy has darkened a little.

In a scenario like this, context plays an important role, and you have consciously needs shifted through the Power of Perspective. It has slipped away (shifted) in light of the other bright needs.

Again, there are other paths here, and many ways to relate to your need for ease in this moment. And, Needs Shifting offers us the chance to see the many needs present within us… and to hold loosely to our strategies to meet one particular need (or ALL needs; or even to having that need met at all) at any one moment. In bringing this mindfulness to our needs, we may find that they are far easier to meet than we once suspected / demanded; and/or, we can powerfully let go of a need: perhaps with joy, mourning or relative neutrality.

Needs Shifting: Joy and Mourning

Need shifting can be a peaceful process of joy and acceptance of the new opportunities available to us for meeting other needs. Of course, there may also be some loss associated with need shifting. Something that you really enjoy, and that meets highly-valued needs of yours, may no longer be available to you.
Mourning, in NVC, means taking the time to get in touch with your feelings and needs, and sitting with those feelings without trying to fix them or immediately meet them with requests of yourself or others. In mourning, you shift your mind away from the habit of trying to solve things that it cannot solve. Giving yourself the ‘permission’ and space to recognize your unmet needs, without judging yourself or others for not meeting those needs, opens your heart to what is available to you. It is possible to treasure the needs that we are unable to meet without discounting them. ‘Giving up,’ ‘Getting Over,’ or resentfully doing what you ‘have to do’ are paths to martyrdom and dirty communication – they are not mourning. Similarly, stewing, complaining, biting-the-bullet, and ‘being the bigger person’ are not acts of mourning – again, they are paths towards less-powerful ways of being, and likely take us away from the spirit of needs shifting. For more on mourning, see the Forgiveness section. For more on making powerful choices with regards to needs shifting, see The Six Faces of Dirty Communication, Mambo #5, and 100% Responsibility.

Shifting Strategies and Wants

If a need is powerfully present for us, we’re unlikely to shift that need with peace and joy until we’re able to quiet down our emotions (and that need) a little. In these cases, we recognize that while needs are universal, there are thousands of different wants and strategies for meeting any particular need. Finding more effective strategies (and changing out wants) is tough, and, necessary sometimes. Ask yourself:
“What am I wanting?”
“How am I wanting to get it?”
“How is that working out for me?”
If you’ve already acknowledged your needs and are aware of your feelings, you may find yourself more open to alternative strategies and/or wants after asking these questions.

Got Some Needs, Got Some Wants

-Needs give rise to wants, and wants may or may not give rise to strategies to meet those needs
Need X, Want Y, sometimes Via Z (where Z represents a strategy)

-We seek to meet our needs in accordance with our values

-Our needs often change quickly, known as ‘needs shifting’

-Both joy and mourning may accompany needs shifting

-Others’ or Community needs and individual needs can differ in priority. These differences are moderated by shared values and, if still unsure, further communication.

How are you prepared to shift your needs at work, home, and elsewhere?