Relationships and Needs

A 15-year-old boy robs a liquor store at gunpoint. That’s the boy’s behavior. What’s his need?  It can’t be for alcohol, because alcohol is not a universal need.  “For the rush?”    Maybe.  It could be that; you know, excitement. But what I might guess, for a 15-year-old boy, is Acceptance. He wants to be seen as cool by his peers, by his gang, by his clique. He wants some Recognition or Acceptance. That’s a really common need, particularly for a boy at 15. Another possibility is to get money to buy food for himself and his siblings.   That’s a need.  Does that make sense?   Interestingly, money isn’t a need. I think most of us, if we had a sugar daddy or sugar mom or we wouldn’t care about money, as long as we were getting fed and housed. Money, also, isn’t universal.  Not every culture uses money.  It turns out that money is a behavior to get our needs met, our needs for comfort, safety, and security.  I want to see a time when our judicial system searches out the needs underneath the criminal behaviors and helps those people find healthier, legal ways to meet their needs.  Currently, we punish behaviors and don’t even consider the underlying needs.

I was giving a lecture at a high school and I’m standing there with the teacher. Kids were coming in and in walks a boy wearing a gray fedora hat.  And the teacher doesn’t like it. The teacher scolds the boy for wearing a hat in the classroom and the boy is defensive and they get into a clash, into a power struggle. And it’s uncomfortable because they’re kind of yelling at each other.

But if we analyze that event, based on our new understanding of needs, we see the teacher is scolding the boy for wearing a hat. That’s the teacher’s behavior. What could be the teacher’s need?  I would guess Respect.

Now. Some people will guess control.  In fact, out of every group of 15 I teach, at least one guesses Control. But it turns out, as I survey people, not everybody believes they have much control.

Some of us realize we have very little control.  And we don’t want or need control over other people. We seldom have very little control over our thoughts and emotions.  So Control is not universal, hence, not a need at all.  But, because it so often comes up as a guess,  I had to wonder what Control is about.  And what I came to is that Control seems to be a behavior. Control is an action. And, when does control come up (what is the need?)  When a person doesn’t feel Safe.  Remember the movie As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson?  Jack’s character has OCD and doesn’t feel safe in the world.  So he is doing all of these controlling behaviors in an attempt to create a feeling of Safety.  He behaviors of counting 5 times he locks the door; of bringing his own plastic ware to the café, of sitting at the same table every time; these are components of trying to control his environment; to feel Safe.  

So the teacher might not have been feeling safe about allowing the boy to wear a hat because it might create chaos in the classroom.  So yeah, I think Respect for the rules is the Need.   

Why do we create rules?  Nobody needs a black box hanging in the sky that’s got red and yellow and green lights. That’s not a need. But we have them everywhere. What’s the purpose of the box? Safety. Safety on the highways? Exactly. So the people are taking turns on the road.  It turns out that everything that you see, all these actions, all these things we create, all revolve around getting needs met.

This becomes kind of fascinating. What comes up for me is curiosity. Anytime I see someone doing something, you know, I don’t understand or agree with, I get really curious about what the Need is. Because another person’s behavior is never about me. What’s it about? It’s about their needs. Exactly. And sometimes when their needs are up, they don’t much pay attention or care about your needs.

If you’re at home and the school calls and says that your baby fell on the swing set and is on the way to the hospital with a broken arm, you’re going to get in the car and you’re going to drive like crazy to  get to the hospital and you don’t much care about stop signs and red lights. Often we forgo rules when our needs are up. We kind of put blinders on and we just go for it. I’ve taken this a little bit further. So when I saw someone weaving or swerving in traffic, I got to wondering what could their need be? And I came up with several. One is the McDonald’s Dance. I remember when a woman sued McDonald’s because the coffee was too hot. And I had then I remembered spilling coffee in my lap when I was driving. And if you’ve ever done that. But when I got hot coffee on my lap, I started holding my pant legs away from my skin because it’s scalding. But if I’m holding my pant legs, I’m not holding the wheel. It’s out of control. And the likelihood of the car drifting increases. Another one is the Bee Maneuver. You’re deathly allergic to bees, right? So there’s one in the back seat of your car and you get your newspaper and you lean over the seat, rolling down the window, trying to shoo the bee out of the car as your car drifts across there lanes of traffic. Again, survival, you’re interested in your survival. You’d don’t think about other people’s needs at a time like that.

You see someone’s speeding down the highway. There’s a funny little thing that they say that if someone is driving slower than you, they’re stupid. And if they’re driving faster than you, they’re crazy. And it doesn’t matter what speed you’re going.  That’s Relativity.  If they’re not doing your speed, then there’s something wrong with them. And so I got to thinking, why would a person be driving fast? Well, it’s not because they’re crazy. It’s because they have some Need. Maybe they’ve been late to work three times this month and they were told that they’re late to work again, they’re getting fired. So they’re trying to get to work before they are late. They perceive this as a need for them at the time. Now, the interesting thing is that I’m not justifying their behavior. I’m just pointing out that it’s not about me.  It’s about the person’s perceived need at the moment.  I am using empathetic guesses to wonder about their needs.  Because I know it isn’t about me. Another person’s behavior is never about me, it’s about their needs.

The boy robbing the liquor store. That behavior is not okay.  But it’s his need of acceptance; Completely normal because we all have it. The teacher, scolding the boy with the hat. I’m not necessarily OK with the teacher’s behavior, but his need for safety in the classroom. I’m completely on board. So I will always defend the need, but not always defend the behavior. By the way, how about that boy wearing a hat? The grey fedora hat, in the classroom? That was his behavior. What was his need?

My guess is Autonomy, individuality.  He wants to be seen as cool. Nobody else in the school is wearing a gray fedora and he is, so he’s a little different. He’s a little cool.  We’ve probably all been there and bought a car or a purse or a T-shirt or something that is unique,  different, that would stand out. It’s human nature.

OK, so a true confession now. When I was in high school, and all my friends were smoking cigarettes, I started smoking a pipe. I was the only kid in my high school smoking a pipe. That’s autonomy, right? Well, I’m also a Leo, so I had two pipes.  I had a Sherlock Holmes pipe, it was kind of an S-shaped pipe with a leather wrap around the handle. And then I had an English country squire pipe with a little tiny bowl and a foot-long stem. I remember when I put the bowl in my shirt pocket, the stem would arch over my shoulder. That’s some serious autonomy needs, right? I was seeking some attention. A way to be different.

Does it make sense?  That four-year-old standing in front of you, saying “you’re not the boss of me” is not wanting a fight. It’s not about arguing.   You need is to get your daughter to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and she is resisting. It’s not about rebellion and it’s not about being confrontive. It’s about having a sense of autonomy, independence.  And if you understand that, you can say to the four-year-old, “honey, you can’t stay up till midnight just because your older brother is up until midnight.  I don’t feel safe. But I’ll tell you what. Because I know it’s important that you.  Tomorrow morning you get to choose what you’re going to wear, what socks you’re going to wear, what dress you’re going to wear to daycare. You get to choose what you want to have for lunch. And I’ll make whatever you say if you want to have banana nut muffins or if you want peanut butter and jelly or if you want to have pizza, you tell me.  You’re in charge of what’s for lunch and what you’re going to wear.”

I’ve given her some autonomy, some sense of power in her life, some sense of self-direction. That teenage boy wearing the hat is another example. All the teacher would have had to do when the boy entered the classroom was to say, “Wow, that’s a cool hat.  And you look really good in that. That’s a real styling hat.” Validate, validate, validate.  Acknowledge in front of the whole class how cool he looks.  And he’s gotten his autonomy needs met. 

And then talk about his needs. “I love the hat. And I would like to request that you take it off while you’re in the classroom because we kind of have a rule that revolves around respect for the classroom and not creating chaos, by not having a lot of different kinds of hats coming in. So would you be willing to take it off? But it’s a nice hat. So put it over there by the door. Hang on the pencil sharpener where you won’t forget it when you leave.”

 So, again, validating his needs and also expressing your needs, the chance of an argument would have dropped dramatically.   If we just begin to realize that it’s not about me, we can look for and validate people’s needs.

The teacher probably was taking the hat personally and felt like it was an affront to his control over the classroom, his classroom management, when it had nothing to do with the teacher, had all everything to do with the kid wanting to be cool. Make sense?

So what happens is we begin to think in terms of other than ourselves and begin to get curious about why people do what they do. And you begin to be curious about the underlying Needs when you observe people’s behaviors.

Published by Jim Hussey

I am a licensed professional counselor, working in a hospital setting. I have been a meditator and teacher for 47 years, a therapist for 28 years and married for 29 years. My secret vice is golf.

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