Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

The Power of Knowing Your Feelings and Needs

Peace Lily - Nonviolent Communication

“Violence in any form is a tragic expression of our unmet needs.”

– Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD

Everyone who feels pain – that means all of us – needs empathy.

I’m learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC), where you aim to look beyond the storyline into the underlying emotions and needs.  This is the basis for giving and receiving empathy in the NVC frame.

I just finished my third class.  I’m stunned by how off-track so much of my communication has been!

I’ve discovered that some of the words I use to describe feelings are not feelings at all.  For example, “pressured” is not a feeling.  It implies that someone is doing something to you.  Same with “abandoned”.

Here’s a NVC list of feelings and needs.  The lists aren’t definitive, but they are an excellent starting point to help you tune into your true feelings and needs.

I’m waking up to the fact that it takes some practice to know what I myself am genuinely feeling.  And there’s a reason for tuning into your feelings.

Distressing Feelings:  A Cover Up for Unmet Needs

I like the way my trainer describes challenging emotions as guideposts to underlying needs.  Danger!  There’s a need that’s not being met.  That’s when suffering can begin.

It reminds me of how the Dalai Lama says we all want to be happy and we all want to avoid suffering.  This is the common denominator among us all.

In the same way, we all have basic universal needs.

So uncomfortable feelings are really a cover up for unmet needs.  By following the emotional trail, you’re able to find the unmet need.

Some of us – or maybe many of us – are not comfortable with the idea of having needs.  It can feel like a primal resistance.  That’s how it feels for me.  But I see the intelligence in acknowledging my needs and joining the human race.

Getting Your Needs Met

Once we feel our emotions and needs have been heard, there’s often a sense of relief and release.  Then we can move on to finding the best strategy for meeting the identified need.

Often, our needs go unmet because we are relying on the wrong strategy.  For example, we rely on one person to meet a need and it becomes overwhelming for him or her.  So we start feeling angry, impatient, afraid, or another distressing emotion.

Empathy can help us recognize the messenger emotions and connect with the underlying need instead of getting stuck in the painful emotions. From there, we can chose a better strategy.  Maybe we need to reach out to others for support with this particular need instead of relying on a single person.

Not all needs can be need.  When that’s the case, instead of dwelling in the emotions, we can acknowledge the unmet need, mourn it, and move on.  Chances are we’ll have to do this more than once, but each time we do, we’ll find a little more freedom.


Every human being needs empathy when they are in pain.  But it’s difficult to give empathy if your own well is dry.  So it’s a good idea to receive empathy on a regular basis.

While there are different ways you can request empathy from others, a good place to begin is with self-empathy.  After all, you are immediate accessible 24 hours a day.  Self-empathy means listening inwardly to connect with your own feelings and needs.

The ultimate goal of non-violent communication is to care for everyone’s needs, but the process begins with honoring your own.

Do you take time to listen inwardly and connect with your own feelings and needs?  Do you feel you have enough empathy in your life? 

If you enjoyed this article, please share the link with your friends.  Thanks for your support!  You can also connect with me on Google+ or the Always Well Within Facebook Page.  With love, Sandra

Image:  Wikimedia Commons


October 2011 Review: Letting Go


Love or Fear?


  1. Hi Sandra,

    I agree. Everyone who feels pain needs empathy. I certainly know what it is like to feel pain so I can empathize when others go through the same thing.

    Hmm nonviolent communication certainly seems useful. The NVC list of feelings and needs are certainly helpful to understand myself better.

    I always believed that to truly listen well, I have to place myself in the shoes of the other person and see things through their eyes. Only when I understand the “why” behind their actions will I be able to fully empathize. Indeed what we see is rarely the full picture. This is why we always have to look deeper to understand people. The thing is not everyone is aware of themselves, if not there would be no need for NVC.

    It can be hard to admit we have needs. As a guy, I suppose there is some macho image I have to maintain so it can be hard at times. But I know resistance is futile and it will only lead to needless problems. It is wiser to address the issue, get my needs met and resolve the situation once and for all before it becomes a big problem.

    I remember having no control over my feelings when I was younger and I could literally overwhelm the friends I chose to rely on. It wasn’t a healthy way to live. In truth, no one can fully meet all our needs to the extent that we wish. We too have to be responsible and play our part in mastering ourselves. Only then can our friends provide the extra support we need. This is what I learned over the years and today I am like a cactus. I have needs, but not that much and I know who to turn to if my strength alone is not enough. This is the conclusion I came to myself and I am glad to see that NVC is somewhat similar.

    I have always been aware of my feelings and needs, but that does not mean I had the necessary control initially. I suppose this is the double-edged sword of being an INFJ. But over the years I learned to manage better. I made sure I kept a careful watch over how I nourished my mind with the kind of books I read and the things I listened to and watched. I knew how to inspire myself and change my thinking if need be. I also had an outlet with PC games to give vent to my anger and frustrations without hurting anyone. I formed friendships with people whom I could rely on when all the above approaches failed me. It is always useful to have a multi-prong approach to life. In the end, I have a certain level of mastery over myself so I do not require that much empathy because my self-empathy is enough.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! 🙂

    Irving the Vizier

    • Hello Irving the Vizier,

      There are several important points in your comment that resonate deeply for me. The first one is the way you speak about looking more deeply to understand people. I would say this is a core idea in NVC and really the heart of compassion.

      Yes, I’m with you on it being hard to admit having needs. I believe that as our spiritual practice strengthens, our needs become fewer. We have more self-mastery and are more self-reliant. I like your example of the cactus. I agree with your focus on self-empathy as the primary way of getting your needs met as we can never depend fully on external validation.

      However, as we are still walking the spiritual path, it serves us well to recognize our unmet needs otherwise they are projected outwardly in negative or distressing forms towards others or inwardly in a negative way towards ourselves. Some of this is happening at an unconscious level and can be wrecking havoc on our life. So in that way these are skillful tools for working on the relative level. Once we recognize our unmet needs,
      then we can make conscious choices about how to meet those needs, as
      you articulates so well.

      Thanks you for your thoughtful response!

  2. I liked this post so much I printed it for my files, along with the lists of feelings and needs. I learned so much, and I’m not even in the class. You must be learning tons.

    Some of what you said reminded me of when I lived and worked in Thailand. For much of my career I was a contract negotiator. In Thailand, I learned a critical skill of listening beneath the words. In Thai there is a word “sabaay” which means comfort, but more than physical comfort. In goes deeper to include emotional and spiritual comfort. The awareness of this comfort drives all communication; the words are secondary. If there is not a “sabaay” atmosphere, negotiations are going nowhere.

    This is so different in the West, where the words drive everything, but I found that when I returned to a Western negotiating environment, my heightened awareness of sabaay gave me added skill as a negotiator that led to success even in the most challenging negotiations.

    I think good communicators in any context have this sensitive awareness, whether they have vocabulary to describe it or not. You have put words to it and described steps to increasing our knowledge and skill so that we can use the concept more effectively.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if all leaders of any sort, whether political, military, business, whatever, went through the training you are going through?!

    PS–I’ve been away from blogging and commenting for a bit, so I just caught up on your blog. Very moving reflection about October, too. We are both in a reflective mood!

    • Galen,

      It sounds like you’ve already mastered the art of empathy. I love the sense of “sabbay” that you describe from your time as a contract negotiator in Thailand. What a different approach than the ones typically used in the West! Just talking about it feels comforting.

      You describe the essence of the process well with the phrase “listening beneath the words.” Yes, it would be wonderful if more leaders would go through this training. It seems that part of the aspiration of NVC.

      I’m glad you’ve been able to have a bit of a break. Autumn is a good time for refection!

  3. “But it’s difficult to give empathy if your own well is dry.”

    This is amazing stuff. I’ve bookmarked the site and will study it. I don’t think the people I need to use this communication with the most would be open to it, but if nothing else, it will help me deal!

    • Hi Meg,

      I’m delighted this has resonated for you. Yes, those people might not be open to it for sure. But if you are able to start hearing their needs and expressing empathy toward them, they might get curious! And it certainly will help you deal as you say. Good luck with it. I see that it takes a lot of practice to master this, but that’s why we’re here!

  4. I am somewhat familiar with NVC and started reading the book, er, quite some time ago and never finished. I know for a fact that I am acutely uncomfortable dealing with anything as squicky and inexact as emotions. I find it so hard to deal with things that are not rational, that cannot be proven, quantified, or critiqued — probably why I stopped reading the book in the first place! (I think Meg is right to say that the people who most need it are least likely to be open to it…)

    The friend who first introduced me to NVC has had good results using it with both her husband and her mother, though, so perhaps it’s time to give it another try.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      It seems like it’s almost impossible to avoid emotions. Even if we can avoid our own, others seem to be spouting them left and right. So maybe NVC or something like that might help you get more comfortable with emotions.

      The experience of your friend seems like a positive statement for NVC. It’s pretty difficult to change others. But when we get more skillful in our communication it can have a positive effect for our self and others too. In the end, they might start coming around.

      I realize now I have a lot to clean up in my communication and I’m glad to have this new tool.

  5. Wow! Thank you for a wonderful post and for introducing me to NVC. It offers a very new perspective to feelings and needs and the ownership of them. Is it any wonder that the list of feelings when needs are not satisfied is way longer than the list of when they are satisfied?

    I do believe that being aware of emotions and consciously responding to them is the key to peace, joy, and success as a being in this physical world. It does take much practice and it is a learning process.

    Just this past weekend, I totally surprised myself by reacting to something. It was calm and not emotional, but, I later realized, it was still a reaction and not a conscious response.

    Good to have another tool!

    • Hi Debbie,

      It is interesting how that list of unhappy feelings can grow so long. I agree with you that being conscious about our thoughts and emotions is the key to transformation and happiness too. It takes quite a lot of discipline. And there’s still the unconscious level that can pop up and catch us by surprise as you point out. I know I have much more to do. It seems like a lifelong journey, but it feels good we are heading in the right direction.

  6. Your post is powerful and clearly written. I have been in an NVC practice group for 13 years and had the good fortune to have several in person conversations with Dr. Rosenberg.
    My children’s Godmother is a certified NVC trainer and mediator and we truly put her talents and spiritual guidance to use with our teenagers.
    The thing about this communications practice is that the other person does not have to “get it” at all, but they still can benefit from having their needs met….My youngest child would scream and yell about how we were trying to control her….and in the end we would be communicating our wishes clearly and then letting go of her compliance and outcomes….now there is the hard part with those that you love…they have to be willing to do it without resentment and with an open heart.

    I am working on being better to myself ( self-talk empathy) and about finances…I have done a number of posts about NVC, but they were early on and they got few comments or readers – I am so excited to see all the comments your beautiful writing is receiving here…I celebrate getting the word out because I believe this kind of communications has the ability to end war…personal peace to outer peace
    Wow it is exciting work…Good for you

    • Thank you so much, Patricia, for your positive words. I just wanted to give people a little taste of NVC and will probably write a few follow up articles as I go along in the class.

      I’m glad you are pointing out that the other person doesn’t have to “get” it to benefit. Your specific examples are really helpful and your experience with NVC are a great testimony to back up the article. I appreciate your contribution.

      I plan to focus on self-empathy too. I realize it’s going to take awhile to get this down and simply to get in the habit of using it. It’s exciting to see the big vision you have about how NVC could help the world. That’s why I’m writing about it too.

  7. Hi Sandra,

    I think I need a piece of NVC from you as I learn how to replace violence in my handling of my own children. Don’t worry, it is not a case of abuse yet, it is just that we do practice the principle of spare the rod and spoil the child in our discipline.

    So if negative feelings mean unmet needs, what does anger and irritation amounts to that often trigger us to use the cane on our children? I can think of my need for authority and respect from the children. Will that be the process we are trying to follow? I am just trying to establish the right way of thinking so that I can better handle situations in the future.

    Your post is most unique, something I have not really heard of before.

    • Hi Jimmy,

      I know it’s not easy raising children. I appreciate the challenges you face.

      I think you have it perfectly in terms of feelings and need. In NVC, they might phase it like this:

      “When you (the child) does x I feel angry and irritated and my needs for respect and authority are not met.”

      Only you for sure know what the unmet needs are, but you seemed to express them quite clearly in your comment.

      I’m just a beginner at NVC. I don’t know you would precisely put it into action with your kinds. If you visit the link to the Center for Non Violent Communication in the article, you might be able to participate in forums there and get some constructive ideas.

      Thanks for asking. I appreciate your genuine care and wish to be a good parent.

  8. Sandra,
    I would like to stick my 2cents in here tonight…I have been thinking about these responses since they came into my e-mail box.
    I know I am fairly old school NVC and there is a lot more short hand now, but I think going back to my roots with this communication I would say that when rod meets child – we have child’s unmet need clashing with parental unmet needs

    There is a part called Protective USE of Force….but that is for the toddler touching the stove or running out into the road….and teenagers climbing out windows and going off with unsavory people one does not know…

    Let’s say it is the child not wanting to clear their dishes from the supper table:
    I would start with an observation and remove my emotions from the discussion – just for the time being

    “When I see you glaring at me and sighing loudly ” – observation
    ” I am wondering if you are feeling discouraged or annoyed?”
    “What are you feeling if I am guessing wrong?”

    response: YOU just want me to be your waiter! and do all the dirty work!

    “So you feel how, when you feel like a waiter?”

    I feel PO’d at you!

    ” I can feel your anger, I would like to remind you we do not use words like PO’d in our house. But anger or mad or upset are all good words and do not hurt my ears.

    Yah, well I feel very angry!

    “You would like us not not ask you to clear the table or would you like us to help you find a way to not feel angry about the task?”

    That’s it.

    request: ” so do you think we could find some new way to get this task taken care of? So that you could feel happy and enjoy being a part of the family?”

    When the child’s emotion and behaviors are all taken care of and there is good communication and idea sharing then – the parent begins to work on their unmet needs

    We do the adult behavior and reactions second because we are the adult…and we know more about our own unmet needs and can choose to act differently.


    ” When I see you glaring at me and sighing loudly. I feel discouraged and upset too.
    Because I am needing more harmony in our family and warmth in our communications.

    I sometimes feel saddened too because I am wanting you to be my child and I know I need to guide you into becoming your best self and towards being an adult.

    “Could you share what you heard me saying?”

    Thank you for sharing – now I am going to think about how I can increase harmony and warmth in our family. Do you have any suggestions?”

    there is a great deal of communication in between having one’s child learn trust in themselves and in their parent and then respect….but a spanking in anger can undo most good works…and words in an instant…and it builds more insecurity than autonomy…
    It takes practice but wow oh wow is it worth it. It is sometimes very scary being the parent but working until the child knows joy in communication and true connection – they will never go back to the old way – ever….

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience in this workshop. NVC is something we talk about in permaculture too, as conflict resolution is vital to living in community. I think this way of relating and interacting to others is very new to most people. It’s interesting that knowing yourself – your feelings and needs – are the key to knowing others and to forgiving them. I saw a cartoon illustrating the process of nonviolent conflict resolution. Basically, one person explains her story while the other stays silent and listens. Then, the listener repeats the first person’s story to make sure he has understood her perspective. Afterwards he explains his side of the story, while she stays silent and listens. Then she repeats his story and a discussion begins there. I think this exercise really speaks to the importance of deep listening and understanding the other person’s point of view.

    • Hi Lynn,

      I think you’ve captured the heart of NVC, empathy, and compassion in your description of the cartoon. “Listening” is not generally a skill that’s well developed in American culture at least. We are always wanting to speak our own peace. I’m glad you’ve brought that out here. I feel like I have a long way to go on the listening and NVC skill front, but I’m glad I’ve gotten started. Now that I’m connected, I’m surprised by how NVC is actually used quite widely, but still only by a fraction of people. One of my friends told me that everyone who works at the Oregon Country Fair goes through an NVC class. And here you mention it in permaculture communities too. It’s a move in a positive direction and it’s good to see it spreading. Thanks for sharing from the permaculture community.

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