|Let me give you an example of what I mean. I often
work with groups of married couples. In these groups, I identify
the couple with the most long-standing conflict, and I make a
rather startling prediction to the group. I predict that we will
be able to resolve this long-standing conflict within twenty
minutes from the point at which both sides can tell me what the
other side needs.
Once when I was doing this with a group, we identified a couple
married for thirty-nine years. They had a conflict about money.
Six months into the marriage the wife had twice overdrawn the
checkbook, and the husband had taken control of the checkbook and
wouldn't let her write checks from that point on. They had been
arguing about this for thirty-nine years.
When the wife heard my prediction she said "Marshall, I
can tell you this, that's not going to happen. I mean, we have a
good marriage, we communicate quite well, but in this conflict, we
just have different needs about money. I don't see how it can
possibly be resolved in twenty minutes."
I corrected her by saying that I hadn't predicted we'd resolve
it in twenty minutes. "I predicted resolution within twenty
minutes after both of you tell me what the other person
needs." She said, "But Marshall, we communicate very
well, and when you have been talking about something for
thirty-nine years, you certainly understand what the other side
I responded, "Well, I've been wrong before, I certainly
could be wrong in this situation, but let's explore. Tell me then,
if you know what his needs are, what are they?"
She said, "It's very obvious, Marshall, he doesn't want me
to spend any money."
The husband immediately reacted by saying, "That's
It was clear that she and I had a different definition of
needs. When she said he didn't want her to spend any money, she
was identifying what I call a strategy. Even if she was right, she
would have been accurate about his desired strategy, not
about his need. As I define needs, a need contains no
reference to specific actions such as spending money or not
I told her that all human beings have the same needs, and I was
certain that if she could get clear what her husband's needs were,
and if he were clear about her needs, we could resolve this. I
said. "Can you try again? What do you think his need
And she said. "Well, let me explain, Marshall. You see,
he's just like his own father." And then she told me how his
father was reluctant to spend money. I stopped her and said:
"Hold on now. You're giving me an analysis of why he is the
way he is. What I am asking is to simply tell me what need of his
is involved in this situation. You're giving me an intellectual
analysis of what has gone on in his life."
It was very clear that she didn't know how to identify his
need. Even after thirty-nine years of talking, she still didn't
have an idea what his needs were. She had diagnoses of him, she
had an intellectual awareness of what his reasons might be for not
wanting her to have the checkbook, but she didn't really
understand his needs in this situation.
So I asked the husband. "Well, since your wife is not in
touch with what your needs are, why don't you tell her? What are
your needs that are being met by keeping the checkbook
He said, "Marshall, she's a wonderful wife, a wonderful
mother. But when it comes to money, she's totally
Now again, notice the difference between the question I asked
him, "What are your needs in this situation," and his
response. Instead of telling me what his needs were, he gave me a
diagnosis that she was irresponsible. It's that kind of language
that I believe gets in the way of resolving conflicts peacefully.
At the point where either party hears themselves criticized,
diagnosed, or intellectually interpreted, I predict their energy
will turn toward self-defense and counter-accusations rather than
toward resolutions that meet everyone's needs.
I pointed out to him that he was not really in touch with what
his needs were and I showed that he was giving me a diagnosis of
his wife instead. Then I again asked him, "What are your
needs in this situation?" He couldn't identify them.
So even after thirty-nine years of discussion, neither person
was really aware of the other person's needs. Here was a situation
where my ability to sense needs could help them out of conflict. I
used Nonviolent Communication skills to guess the needs
that the husband and wife were expressing as judgments.
I reminded him that he had said his wife was totally
irresponsible about money (a judgment), and then I asked,
"Are you feeling scared in this situation because you have a
need to protect the family economically?" When I said this,
he looked at me and said, "That's exactly what I'm
saying," Of course he didn't say exactly that! But when
we sense what a person needs, I believe that we're getting closer
to the truth, closer to what people are trying to say. I believe
that all analysis that implies wrongness is basically a tragic
expression of unmet needs. If we can hear what a person needs,
it's a great gift to them because it helps them to get connected
Now, I happened to guess right in this situation, but it didn't
require that I guess right. If I had been off, at least I
was focusing his attention on needs, and that helps people get
more in touch with their needs. It takes them out of the analysis
and gets them more connected to life.
Checking to See that Needs are Accurately Received
Once he had expressed his need, the next step was to be sure
that the other person heard it. This is a crucial skill in
conflict resolution. We can't assume that, just because a message
is expressed, the other person receives it accurately. Whenever I
am mediating a conflict if I am not sure that the person hearing
the message has accurately received it, I ask them to repeat it
I asked his wife, "Could you tell me back what you heard
your husband's needs are in this situation?"
And she said. "Well, just became I overdrew the bank
account a couple of times when we got married, that doesn't mean
I'm going to continue doing it."
Her response was not atypical in my experience. When people
have pain built up over many years, even when the other person
says clearly what they need, it doesn't mean the first person can
hear it. Often they're so filled with their own pain that it gets
in the way of their hearing another.
I asked her if she could possibly repeat back what the husband
said, but it was clear that she really hadn't heard it, that she
was in too much pain. I said to her. "I would like to tell
you what I heard your husband say, and I would like you to repeat
it back," and I repeated it for her. I said: "I heard
that your husband says he has a need to protect the family. He's
scared because he really wants to be sure that the family is
Providing Empathy to Heal the Pain (That Prevents People
from Hearing Each Other)
Because she still couldn't hear it, I used another skill that
is often necessary in conflict resolution. I shifted. Instead of
trying to get her to repeat what he'd said I tried to understand
the pain that she felt.
I said, "I sense that you're feeling really hurt, and you
need to be trusted that you can learn from past experience,"
You could tell from her eyes that she really needed that
understanding, and she said, "Yes, exactly."
Having received this understanding, I hoped that she would now
be able to hear her husband, so once again I repeated what I
understood his needs to be. He needed to protect the family. I
asked her to repeat back what she heard. She replied, "So he
thinks I'm spending too much money."