Needs vs. Strategies exercise

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A core aspect of this exercise is to have participants discover NVC principles for themselves, through their own experience.


To explore deeply why we want things, and the relationship between those deep reasons and the specific things that might satisfy those reasons. Also gives many participants a quick taste of empathy without having to first explain it.

(segues well into Eliciting needs list exercise)


Working in pairs

1. Think of something specific you want a specific person to do, and write down what you want to ask them.

Facilitator: Share an example from your own life, preferably something that is actually alive for you in the moment. The example that I first used was that I was staying in different places in Colombo and had too much stuff to carry around. A friend offered her place to store my extra things for six months, then after two months wanted me to move them out, offering another friend's house, outside Colombo.

I wrote, "I want you to continue keeping my things at your house."

2. Now, consider why do you want it? This is not an intellectual question, but about sensing inside - what will you get out of having it, why does it matter to you?

Facilitator: Invite people to turn to the person next to them and share their situation, discover an answer to this question and write it down.

I wrote, "I will have easier access to my things."

3. Now try for an even deeper reason. Forget what you wrote down for number 1 - why do you want what you wrote for number 2? Again, this is about sensing inside - what would you get, why does it matter to you?

This time also make sure you find something you feel good about. For my example, I might say, "because I'm lazy" but I don't feel good about that, so I would keep looking for something else.

Facilitator: Again invite people to turn to the person next to them and explore this question until they can write something down. (If people get stuck, it might help to think about what would happen if they don't get what they are wanting.)

I wrote, "So that i'll have time for more meaningful activities. Also, I would know that I'm cared for."


Below are some questions to elicit their learning from the exercise. For each one, go through several people's situations. If someone did not get to a need (or deep enough for some shift to occur) in their step 3, give them some verbal empathy until they do get some shift.

In parentheses are some key points you might bring up if people don't come to them on their own. But keep in mind that their learning will be much more powerful if they discover and share among themselves. If you notice yourself starting to talk at length, find a way to wrap up and go back to inviting their learning. See if you can come up with additional questions that help people learn things that you would share if you were lecturing. Be willing to be surprised, and follow where they lead.

If people are stimulated by some of the resulting learnings, remember to offer empathy first. Once there is some connection, you might ask others what they think of the stimulating idea, or offer your own understandings or experiences.


A. Does anyone feel differently about their situation now than you did before this exercise? How?

(Being connected to why we want something can be valuable whether needs are being met or not - e.g. peace of mind, understanding ourselves/others. In this context, also might ask the empathizers what it what it's like to listen, to be in that role.)

B. How do you think the other person would respond if you told them your reasons (2 & 3) as well as the specific thing you want them to do (1)?

(We are generally more moved to help when we understand why someone is asking.)

C. Imagine you had to choose between 1 and 3. Which would you want?

(Make sure the choice is painfully obvious - i.e., 3 is a need, or nearly so. If they haven't reached that depth yet, offer verbal empathy until they get there.)

D. Other than 1, come up with several other ways that you could satisfy 3?

(There's always more than one strategy to meet a need. Use one person's situation as an example - preferably one in which they've come to a need themselves - come up with three different strategies that would also meet that need.)

E. Is there anything else you noticed or learned from doing this?

Notes and possibilities

As i keep doing this, i find it often leads organically into many of the other important elements of NVC - explicitly talking about empathy, the spiritual aspects of NVC, and more. One direction some have suggested is to continue the exercise as described below ("What causes our reactions/emotions?") --John Abbe 21:28, 28 September 2008 (CEST)

What are your experiences offering (or receiving, or reading) this approach?

What causes our reactions/emotions

Something to explore relating to what causes our reactions/emotions:

Get back into pairs and spend some time with these questions:

  • How would it be for you if the person said no?
  • How would it be if they said yes?

Then back in the whole group explore how that was, and at some point ask, "What is the cause of those reactions?" Allow the conversation to go where it will for a while. If it doesn't go to this by itself, ask how it is to imagine the cause is 1. And ask how it is to imagine the cause is 3. Especially, how powerful do you feel imagining it's 1 vs. 3?

Offering it about social change

Change the initial question to be about something that relates to social change.

See also