Getting Unstuck: Identifying Needs and Creating Connection in Conflict

When we’re in conflict, we usually think it’s all the other person’s fault. 

Examples: there is a miscommunication with a colleague, or we’re pissed off at another leader for the way they went about a decision, or our partner isn’t doing what we think they should be doing. 

There are a few common reactions when this happens: 

  1. We say nothing and hold our frustration inside
  2. We let it out in a big way, or 
  3. We tip toe around to find a way to ‘solve’ the situation without really naming how big a thing it is for us

In conflict when we think we’re right, the reality is we kind of are. Whatever our experience is, it’s valid from where we stand. 

When we get attached to our point of view without being open to understanding the other, our connection with the other person is severed, no matter what we outwardly communicate. Without connection, everything from how we feel about interacting with this person next time, to the project timelines of our collaboration, to our ability to objectively hear their ideas and contributions or accept their help is adversely impacted. Forward movement suffers.

Using Nonviolent Communication (NVC), we’re going to walk through a way to get unstuck in communication, even when we’re at the height of those experiences where we’re convinced we’re right or that it’s all the other person’s fault. The goal is to create dialogue without defensiveness.  This is how we give ourselves the highest chance of moving forward.

What is Nonviolent Communication (NVC)?

Communication goes sideways when we unleash our emotions on others or when we try to stuff them away. In either case, we’re not in touch with what these emotions are really pointing us to at a deeper level. At their core, emotions are sign-posts of what we care most about: our values, our core human needs. 

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can help us navigate this challenge.

We often get stuck in conflict because we’re not clear on what underlying needs are not being satisfied. And I’m not talking about what you ‘need’ the other person to do or not do.

As humans, we all share a set of universal basic needs. Of course there are physiological needs like water, food, and oxygen. But we also all have emotional needs for things like safety, connection, support, and respect (here is a longer list of common needs, we have tons!).

Needs are what you are longing for at your core. They are the deep-seated values you most appreciate. We experience feelings when our needs are either satisfied (met) or not (unmet). For example, when you’re frustrated that someone arrived late to a meeting, you might have a need for collaboration or mutual understanding that wasn’t met when that happened. 

NVC, also called needs-based communication, is about getting in touch with our needs, and the needs of others, in service of creating win-win strategies that address as many collective needs as possible. 

What does it sound like to communicate based in needs?

Imagine there is a decision that has just been communicated to the team by a fellow leader (we'll call her Monica), and you're feeling stuck in a cloud of anger. You're angry about how Monica's decision process happened, but you're not sure how to talk about it.

If you're talking from that place of anger, you might want to say something like:

You asked for my input, then disregarded it,
and I’m the one with the most experience on this topic.
I guess you don’t care about my expertise. 

Now imagine a different scenario, where you say this instead:

I heard the decision you made yesterday about the new sales process
and it was different from the decision proposal I shared with you.
I notice I’m frustrated because I really appreciate when we collaborate on these things.
Would you be willing to include me in the discussion next time
before announcing your decision to the team?

You can clearly see the change in language between the two examples. The second example uses Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to increase the likelihood of listening and understanding between both people because it focuses on sharing a reflection on your own experience, rather than sharing judgment and assumptions about the other person.


Beyond the choice of words, it’s important to note that NVC is equally about the intention behind our words, and the mindset we are bringing to the communication. If we use needs-based and compassionate language without the willingness to truly be in connection and listen to the other person, the other person might experience the exchange as manipulation.

If two people are looking at the number 6 from different directions, each convinced that they are right, it's a losing battle for both of them until they can see the other person's perspective. The goal of NVC is to create connection and forward movement in service of meeting needs. This is a much more powerful alternative than staying in judgment, blame, or needing to be right. Because if we stay in that place,
communication is likely to break down.

So how do we shift our approach to focus on connection and forward movement?

Below are four steps:

  • Step #1: Identify observations about the situation
  • Step #2: Self reflect on feelings + needs
  • Step #3: Identify strategies to meet the unmet needs
  • Step #4: Use your reflection on needs + requests to engage with the other

Let’s use the same example from above when you're angry at Monica for communicating a decision you don't agree with.


What is happening that everyone could agree on? What everyone could agree on is an observation, not an evaluation. Here is the difference:

Example evaluation:
1) Monica asks for my input then disregards it and makes whatever decision she wants
2) Monica doesn’t care about my expertise

Example observation:
Monica’s final decisions are different from the decision proposals I share with her 

Finding an observation (not an evaluation) about the situation helps us get below our judgment and the stories we make up about the other person, and focus on the things we know all can see or acknowledge with minimal subjectivity


Next, identify what you’re feeling and needing related to the situation you identified above. Start with whichever is easier to identify first, then use that to figure out the other one

For inspiration:

Examples of ways to communicate your feelings + needs:

  • I notice I’m feeling frustrated....because I really value collaboration 
  • I have a need for mutual understanding, and I don’t feel that right now…..that’s pointing me toward how annoyed I feel
  • I notice I’m feeling worried....because I really appreciate being on the same page and I don't feel like we are



Reflect on whether you'd like to make a request to help you meet your needs. This is where taking action comes in: when we collaboratively devise strategies with the other to meet our needs.

Example requests:

  • Would you have the capacity to….walk me through what about my proposal didn’t work for you?
  • Would you be willing to….include me in the discussion next time before announcing your decision to the company?
  • Would you be open to….hearing my perspective on why I disagree with this decision?

The goal is to make requests as specific as possible, ideally with a 'by' when if the request isn't to be fulfilled in the moment.

Requests are distinctly not demands. The key difference is in how we ask and with what intention, knowing that with a request, receiving an answer of no is possible and acceptable. If we get a no, we’ll need to re-evaluate if there is another strategy or another request that could help us fulfill our need(s).

Sometimes, meeting our own needs may not actually be in the form of a request, but rather setting a boundary or saying no to something. 



Step #4 is when you bring steps 1-3 together and consider communicating a version of this reflection to the other person, including a request if you have one. By including a reference to your needs, you are giving them context about why you are asking for whatever it is you wish for them to do or help you wish. 

Stringing the pieces of this reflection together to communicate with the other person could sound something like:

I heard the decision you made yesterday about the new sales process
and it was different from the decision proposal I shared with you.
I notice I’m frustrated because I really appreciate when we collaborate on these things.
Would you be willing to include me in the discussion next time
before announcing your decision to the team?

If you get an answer of no in return, it doesn't mean that your needs are in conflict with the other persons'. It just means that your preferred strategy to meet your needs conflicts with their preferred strategy to meet theirs. If this happens, it's an opportunity to ask about what needs aren't met for them by what you proposed. There are no promises that you'll both walk away 100% happy, but the clearer you are on your needs, and theirs, the more information you have to co-create win-win strategies.

Okay, I think I get it…so is NVC just about being nice?

Glad you asked. No!

NVC is not about being nice or living in harmony at all costs. It also doesn’t mean that if someone else’s need isn’t met by something we did, and that we should immediately stop doing what we're doing or make a change.

NVC IS about taking responsibility for what we feel, what we do, and the impact of our actions on another person. When we communicate via NVC, we are inherently showing the other person that we are taking responsibility for our own emotions and behavior (via our needs), even if they were in reaction to someone else's actions.

When we stuff away our own feelings and needs in service of being ‘nice’ or generous, we are creating an unsustainable cycle where at some point, our unmet needs will prompt emotions that disconnect us - commonly resentment or anger. Communicating feelings and needs is the foundation for connecting, or re-connecting, even if the other person disagrees or denies our request.

Those emotions can fuel deep disconnection, which is the opposite of what we’re going for. The aim of NVC is to create connection in service of meeting needs for everyone. 

One thing to try

Next time you notice you’re frustrated or angry with someone, try walking through these reflection steps with yourself first. Then try bringing them a clear request, together with context about why you’re making that request. 

NVC is about communicating in a way that creates connection in service of meeting as many needs as possible. This can happen when we're candid about what we're feeling and needing and we make clear requests. That doesn't mean that the other person will necessarily enjoy hearing our candor, and they might even think we're not being nice along the way. But if we consider candor and clarity to be kind, NVC can be a powerful gift to our relationships.


“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there."
- Rumi


Additional Notes

  • NVC is usually taught in a formal way through a four-step process that includes identifying Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. Here is an overview of those steps in the classical NVC model.
  • I’ve focused on using NVC in conflict here, but a needs-based approach to relating can be used so much more widely as the intention behind how we move through the world, including expressing appreciation by sharing what needs of ours were met by whatever someone else did.
  • Using Nonviolent Communication at an expert level looks like learning to ask questions to the other to help you (and them) understand what needs aren’t met for them in the situation. This can empower co-creating win-win strategies based on everyone’s needs.

NVC is a big part of my coaching work in support of navigating big work and life questions, conflict, and moving toward goals. NVC has been a part of my life for 3+ years including having completed the Center for Nonviolent Communication's 10 day, in-person training program where I lived and learned alongside practioniers from 30 different countires.

Totally jazzed about this and want to learn more?