Understand basic needs and learn how to communicate to reduce conflicts

A man's needs are few. The simpler the life, therefore, the better. Indeed, only three things are truly necessary in order to make life happy: the blessing of God, the benefit of books, and the benevolence of friends. ― Thomas Chalmers

Chalmers may have oversimplified somewhat, but he's on to something. In order to survive, we need food, clothing, and shelter. To thrive, we need relationships.

Just as finding food, clothing, and shelter are not simple tasks, maintaining thriving relationships is not easy. Since we all have different personalities and goals, conflicts are inevitable. Of course, some relationships involve more conflict than others. John Gottman and his colleagues tried to identify the most important causes of interpersonal conflict. What did they discover? 

Was it:

  • Finances?
  • Sex?
  • Parenting?
  • Dealing with difficult in-laws?

No, they discovered that the number one thing couples fight about is:


Gottman says 69% of the issues couples fight over are impossible to resolve.

Does that mean we should give up and devote our lives to a never-ending quest to find a "soulmate" we are 100% compatible with?

No. The surface issues in the conflicts did not cause the disputes. Without even realizing it, most were fighting over the failure to connect emotionally.

Gottman and his team realized couples' real arguments were about how one partner may not pay attention to the other's concerns or may not show much interest in the things that their partner cares about.

Underneath all fights for control are deeper questions of:

“Can I really trust that we are a team? That you will stand up for me to the rest of the world above all else? Do you really, truly GET me? Will you still love me, even if I completely disagree?”

Let's revisit our basic needs analogy. Getting food, clothing, and shelter is not just a matter of standing in line. But for most of us, these aren't complicated issues. To acquire the means to buy the things we need, we find work. Then we buy and maintain them. It's not rocket science.

Can we put our relationship needs in such simple terms?

What do we need for our relationships to thrive?

Almost immediately after publishing last week's post, I had an epiphany. We recognize and assert our need for two things from the time we are very young:

  1. We need to belong.
  2. We need control over our environment.

As I was preparing this week's article the idea came to me to compare these two needs with what we most need in a job or career.See my article on the subject for the results of a meta-study involving 15,000 nurses. The question was: What factors are most strongly linked to job satisfaction?

The article this week is a continuation of my research from the previous week, so I will draw heavily from articles found on John Gottman's website.Or more accurately, The Gottman Institute website. I highly recommend the article The Secret to a Meaningful Life is Meaningful Relationships, by Emily Esfahani Smith. The brief story she tells of a man who buys a newspaper from a street vendor demonstrates well how bids for connection affect every relationship we have, from life partners to momentary daily interactions with strangers.

However, what really struck me about the article is that it answered a question I've had for a long time: What does it mean to have a sense of belonging?

According to Smith, people feel like they belong when they are valued by each other. If others think you matter and treat you like you matter, then you believe you matter, too. Also, it means you have frequent pleasant interactions with people.

Let's go back to the list of the most important things we need from a job: Organizational commitment (the worker's feeling of attachment to the organization), communication with supervisor, autonomy, recognition, routinization (how routine the work is), communication with peers, fairness, and locus of control.

Let's look at how they relate to the two basic needs I mentioned above. Organizational commitment, communication with supervisors and peers, recognition, and fairness are all related to a sense of belonging, that is, being treated as if we matter. Autonomy and locus of control are both related to being in control of our environment.We also need variety so things don't get boring. How does this fit into our basic needs? First, I made a stop at Wikipedia and found: "There are three types of boredom, all of which involve problems of engagement of attention. These include times when humans are prevented from engaging in wanted activity, when humans are forced to engage in unwanted activity, or when people are simply unable for some other reason to maintain engagement in an activity." In all three cases, the word engagement appears in some form. What does engagement entail? Investopedia says, "Engaged employees care about their work and about the performance of the company, and feel that their efforts make a difference." Aha, we get bored when we feel like nothing we do is making a difference. That seems to me to be connected with both the need to belong and the need for control. What do you think? This strengthens my conviction that all of our relationship needs are based on these two basic requirements.

Whenever we find ourselves at odds with another individual, it is most likely because we both feel one or both of those needs aren't being met.

What is the best way to deal with the situation?

Perhaps the best approach is simply to ask ourselves which underlying need is at issue. We might even try asking the other person this question.A few years ago, a therapist introduced me to a very effective way of asking this question. She suggested phrasing it like this: "How can I care for you?"

There are times when the simplest way does not work. That's why we're going to look at two frameworks that can help resolve and reduce conflicts.

Two frameworks for conflict resolution

I call this one the Gottman framework:

  1. Consider the possibility that both of you are right. You can probably work out a way to get what you both want out of the situation.
  2. Try to trace the roots of the problem. There must be something important that you both feel so strongly about and that usually stems from your childhood. Discuss what old traumas have resurfaced.
  3. Don't feel the conflict needs to be resolved immediately. During this time, agree to disagree while reaffirming the relationship's importance in other ways.
  4. Take the first step toward showing vulnerability. Let your guard down a little and talk about what you find difficult. Be gentle when the other person follows your lead.
  5. Look for similarities and build on them.
  6. Stop pushing your own solution and watch other solutions slowly emerge.
  7. Return to step one and make sure you keep talking and listen even more. Once you both feel that you understand one another, you will be ready to move forward.

In the past week, I discovered Peter Bregman and his new book. It begins with an intriguing premise. Bregman says:

“You can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.” It’s a truism. Only it’s not true.

Even though we can't force a person to change, we can help them make changes, especially if we help them see the benefits of making the changes.

The following is my interpretation of Bregman's framework for dealing with difficult interpersonal issues:

  1. Ask for their permission and let them control where, when, and how you communicate.
  2. Approach the person as an ally. Share ownership of the problem with them instead of offering solutions. 
  3. Show empathy. Validate their feelings. Seek to understand what bothers them about the issue and offer to assist in finding a solution.
  4. Show confidence in their ability to resolve the issue.
  5. Look for outcomes that you both will be satisfied with. Focus on what could be better, and dwell on the benefits of getting there.
  6. You might be able to identify something in the undesirable behavior that you can focus on to move you in the direction of the desired outcome.
  7. Focus on finding creative and unexpected ways to get from the problem to the desired outcome.
  8. Work with both sides to plan a strategy you can both follow through on.
  9. Don't rush them. Provide the conditions in which they feel safe enough to challenge themselves, then stand back. When it’s about you, and not them - they’ll know it and you’ll stop being effective.

I'm excited about the similarities and complementary features that each of these frameworks offers. Both appeal to the basic needs of belonging and control.

Beliefs that make it difficult to resolve conflicts

  • I should never ever feel hurt by someone who cares about me.
  • It is my duty to be brutally honest. ("Brutal honesty is almost always 90% brutal and 10% honest." - Peter Bregman)
  • I shouldn't talk about how I feel. It will only make things worse. (Criticism often erupts when people avoid dealing with negative emotions.)
  • Unless I get my way, the world will end. (There's almost always a way for both parties to get what they need from a situation.)
  • I can predict what's going to happen. (Dire predictions are almost always wrong. Most of our greatest fears do not come to pass.)
  • I know exactly why I want this. (Probably not. There are probably many unconscious reasons, including past influences, experiences, and traumas.)

Next week we'll talk about how we can put everything we've learned to good use.