Needs vs. Strategies

December 18, 2019

One day, your child comes home from school and asks, “Mummy, Daddy, on Wednesday after I finish my exams can we go eat at Jewel? I want to try Shake Shack there! The whole family can come too. Please?”

Hmm. They’ve been wanting to go to Jewel for a while, but you’re very busy with work. Wednesday is the middle of the week, and Jewel is so far away. After work, you’d prefer to go home for a simple home-cooked dinner. You’re already taking your family on holiday in a few weeks! You can celebrate the end of exams then.

So you respond: “Wednesday? Jewel? So far… By the time we go there and back, it’ll be so late. How about we just have dinner at home, but I can buy McDonalds for you?”

An episode ensues.

“Not fair! Why can’t we go if my exams are over?”

“Your brother hasn’t finished his exams yet.”

“Shake Shack isn’t the same as McDonalds!”

“We’re going on holiday in December already.”

Hit pause! Let us walk you through what’s going on in this conversation, examining it through the lens of needs and strategies.

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In his book Living Nonviolent Communication (2012), Marshall Rosenberg uses the word “needs” to describe universal human needs. He writes that there are seven general basic needs: connection, physical well-being, honesty, play, peace, autonomy, and meaning. Strategies are ways that we fulfil our needs. Needs are often intangible and difficult to measure, while strategies refer to visible or doable actions or words.

Most of us have been brought up to speak in terms of strategies, since they are “actionable” and “practical”. This often results in parents viewing their children’s needs only through the lens of the solutions they can employ to meet them. At the same time, kids begin to think of their own needs in terms of solutions, leading them to suggest ideas to their parents instead of voicing their needs.

Combined, these form the basis of many parent-child disagreements, where families argue over the details of strategies rather than connecting to one another over their needs.

Revisiting the conversation at the beginning of this post, we can see that the child was proposing a strategy without explicitly stating their needs. Meanwhile, the parent’s needs were not being met by the suggestion, so they responded to the strategy without stating their own needs either. Everyone subconsciously brushed past the identification of needs and zoomed straight to the debate over strategies.

If we had a Strategies-to-Needs Google Translate, it might look something like this:

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When parents fail to separate the need and its strategy, they may end up dismissing or denying their kids’ needs in the process of disagreeing with their strategy. This could leave children feeling dejected or distressed, thinking that her parents cannot or will not help her fulfil her basic needs. Over time, it discourages kids from bringing their struggles to their parents at all because they believe that any time they try to, their ideas are shot down and their needs are neglected.

On the other hand, when two people come together and are able to communicate on the basis of each of their needs, because of the fact that all humans have the same basic needs, needs become a point of connection rather than alienation.

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Reflecting on your conversations with your kids recently, can you think of a time that you disagreed with their strategy without first addressing their needs? In those situations, what needs of yours were not being met by their strategy?

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