- Discusses the concept of needs as fluid and contextual, rather than universal
- Outlines Miki Kashtan's approach to identifying shared needs in groups
- Describes the Convergent Facilitation method for group decision-making
- Emphasizes the importance of identifying non-controversial essences to unify groups
- Shifts the focus to basic psychological needs that are fundamental and universal
- Identifies three basic psychological needs: belonging, self-determination, and self-efficacy
- Argues that meeting these needs is essential for a healthy human self and a world that works for all
Seeing needs as fluid and context specific
Let's begin with a fluid, context specific perspective on needs. In her various books and community activities, Miki Kashtan has articulated a pragmatic, effective and elegant solution for helping groups come to a shared view of what really matters. She first constructs a continuum between 'strategies' that are more focused on HOW something is done in a context and 'needs' which are deeper, more stable and context independent. Critically, from my perspective, what is a HOW (strategy) in one context can be thought of as a WHY (need) in another. For example, I might say I have a need for 'financial security' for which an appropriate strategy is 'getting a job'. But in another context, I could just as easily say I have a need for 'safety' for which gaining 'financial security' is a strategy. The important thing is not the forms of the words, it is the continuum on which they exist. FOR ANY GIVEN CONTEXT, strategies represent more context specific, operational events while needs represent more context general, abstracted reasons for action.
Kashtan emphasises another difference that is extremely useful for groups trying to come to agreement. *Strategies are usually more controversial than needs*. While all members of a group may readily agree that they need to increase their financial security, they may vary widely in HOW they think that aim should be achieved. Thus if there is disagreement in a group, there is value in identifying 'deeper' needs that unify the group. This insight comes from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) approach from which Kashtan draws.
Kashtan's method for coming to group agreement about action is known as "Convergent Facilitation". Convergent facilitation involves 5 broad steps:
a) coming to agreement about the decision to be made (the decision question)
b) agreeing on a set of 'non-controversial essences' of what matters most about the decision
c) developing proposals for action (strategies)
d) evaluating whether the proposals satisfy the 'non-controversial essences', and prioritising proposals accordingly
e) consenting to action.
The reader can consult Kashtan's wonderful book "The Highest Common Denominator" for more detail regarding the convergent facilitation method, but here I want to focus on the idea of a 'non-controversial essence.' For many years NVC practitioners have focused on creating greater harmony and collaboration through shifting conversations from a focus on strategies to a focus on needs. Typically in NVC, needs are framed as single words. The figure below is a typical list of NVC needs a person might have.
FIGURE: One example of an NVC needs list. © 2005 Peaceworks Jim and Jori Manske.
As an NVC practitioner of nearly 25 years, I can say that I have gained enormous value from making the effort to think about what needs I and others might have in a given context. But trying to reframe those needs as single words has always felt artificial and kind of silly to me. One of the things I most love about Kashtan's work is that she recognises the value of framing needs in more complex, situationally specific terms.
Let me give you a concrete example. Imagine the situation where a group of school staff are trying to decide how to bring students back to school after the COVID pandemic. The decision question is "When and how should we have kids return to school?" Having agreed on this broad question, the group then discusses criteria for good solutions - what Kashtan calls non-controversial essences (NCE's). One participant says "They should return immediately because we know kids are missing out on their education at home." Another violently disagrees: "But if they return now, there is a real risk of spreading COVID and jeopardising the health of us all. We should insist that return to school is contingent on completing two negative RAT tests." Recognising that this debate is unlikely to be resolved at the level of these strategies, the skilled convergent facilitator might reframe the first argument to be a slightly more abstracted statement like this "So if I am understanding you correctly, what is most important to you is that the **students should be able to keep up with their education**. Have I got that?" And the second statement might be reframed something like "And for you it is most important that any solution we come up with **supports the health and wellbeing of the school community**. Is that right?" Framed this way, both group members agree with the noncontroversial essence of the other's point and both are able to start looking for solutions that meet both criteria - such as convening lessons outside on school grounds, or installing air circulation systems that minimise risks to students.
So in this approach to meeting human needs, needs are understood as context bound and fluid. The aim is not to uncover basic fundamental needs, but rather to abstract away from strategies *just enough* to reach agreement so that the group can work back toward concrete proposals for action that take into account everyone's needs.
In the ProSocial approach, one of our most foundational principles is finding "Shared Purpose and Identity" (which we call Core Design Principle 1). To do that, I often use a derivative of the convergent facilitation approach, combined with techniques from Contextual Behavioral Science to help people adopt a larger, more balanced approach to experiencing difficult emotions.
This dynamic, context responsive approach to working with what really matters works well for small groups. I believe that universal education in this technique would also scale to wholesale change in international affairs.
That said, there is another approach to needs that I think can help us not only understand our predicament as a species, but also provides practical guidance for action. Lets shift our attention from how we differ to how we are all the same.
Seeing needs as fundamental and universal
We all have a sense of self constructed in language. From a behavioral, relational perspective, the self is a very real process of constructing again and again a 'me' that helps 'my' actions be understood, predicted and influenced. Children take years to learn to appropriately use the words "I" and "you". If you ask a young child what you ate for breakfast, they are just as likely to tell you what they ate. The child learns to construct a sense of self to make it easier for them to cooperate with others. Learning to say "I like broccoli" and "I hate meat" helps a parent put food in front of a child that they are likely to eat. Skinner put it thus: "SKINNER QUOTE".
Now back to needs. It turns out that this process of constructing and maintaining a sense of self, common to all members of humanity, has dynamics that we can express in terms of three universal basic psychological needs. These are not my idea, they are the foundation of a body of literature on basic psychological needs that now includes literally tens of thousands of studies demonstrating that humans feel better, live longer and are more successful when these needs are met by their social circumstances [citation to SDT book]. We all need to see ourselves as:
1. Belonging - feeling a sense of being valued and connected to others
2. Self-determining - seeing our actions as freely chosen, not coerced by others (aka "autonomy")
3. Self-efficacious - able to act upon our choices to achieve our goals (aka "competent")
Let me unpack these. A person's need for belonging is satisfied when they see themselves as having warm, loving, meaningful connections to others. Human beings have evolved in the context of small groups of support. Steve Hayes likes to say a lone monkey is a dead monkey. We rely upon social support not only to survive but to thrive from our birth to our death. Having high quality connections to other human beings not only makes people feel better, it makes them less likely to contract disease and die. The self is socially constructed. A minimal requirement of a healthy self is that others value it. From the perspective of multi-level selection theory, we have evolved to experience greater wellbeing when we are part of a group than when we are not. This seems like the simplest and most unequivocal basic psychological need for human beings.
The second basic psychological need is self-determination. This is the need to be able to endorse ones actions as having been freely chosen. Coercive environments do not support self-determination. But coercive environments are relatively recent inventions of humans, arising with the advent of property and differential valuing of rich over poor since the agricultural revolution just 10,000 years ago. For the vast bulk of human evolution, humans lived in highly self-determination-supportive environments, egalitarian small groups where attempts by one person to coerce another were discouraged with graded sanctions from gossip to expulsion or even death.
A fundamental evolutionary requirement of an organism is the freedom to act in ways that maintain and enhance its own functioning. In humans, with language, our capacity to reflect upon our own functioning makes the appraisal of self-determination a more complex one. But our constructed sense of self still relies upon having the autonomy to act on one's own behalf. It is impossible to imagine a healthy sense of self emerging under highly coercive circumstances.
Making claims about fundamental human needs common to all humanity is risky business in our post-post-modernist age. Words like 'self-determination' have been used to denote political independence in an Indian context for example, and alternatives like 'autonomy' (which literally means "choosing for oneself") sound to some like an expression of Western individualism. Reader - please try to see beyond the particular word that I am using so we can agree that that few humans value being coerced into action and the vast majority value knowing that they are free to choose their own actions.
The needs for belonging and self-determination make for a kind of multi-level set. Humans are both parts and wholes. We rely upon BOTH being parts of groups and being whole and authentic in our own right. The ideal of the well adjusted human is one who freely chooses for themselves (autonomy) to belong and be of service to others (belonging). The need to belong protects the need for self-determination from becoming selfish individualism. While the need for self-determination protects the need to belong from becoming slavish obeyance of others.
Having the freedom to choose ones own actions is of little use if one does not have the capability to act upon those choices. The need for competence is satisfied when a person believes they are capable of acting effectively to achieve their goals. This is known as self-efficacy. Together self-determination AND self-efficacy make up the idea of agency. We must be both free to choose, and capable of acting, in order to shape our worlds as we desire. People who feel a sense of choice and competence in a context are more likely to enjoy and thrive within that context.
These needs are not arbitrary. They are emergent properties of having a self. To have a healthy human self, it is essential that we are valued by others, free to choose and capable of pursuing our chosen goals.
It is not my aim to say that these are the ONLY universal, basic psychological needs. Other candidate psychological needs that can be argued to be just as universal include the need for coherent meaning or being of service to others. There may well be circumstances where these three needs are necessary but not sufficient.
Integrating Convergent Facilitation and Self-Determination Theory perspectives on needs
ProSocial World seeks to consciously evolve a world that works more effectively for all. I hope this article shows that there are two ways we can unpack the idea of 'works for all'. The first way is a dynamic, embodied approach that seeks to find language to describe 'what really matters' in terms that are close enough to the context to be actionable, but abstract enough that they can be agreed by all. The second is in terms of universal, basic psychological needs common to all.
I find both approaches useful in different contexts. When I am facilitating, I rely most heavily upon listening closely to the needs being expressed in the room in fluid, contextual ways. I have found that sometimes awareness of basic needs common to all humanity provides a kind of pointer to what might be alive in the room. For example, to use the school example earlier, I might explore whether getting back to formal lessons is seen as a means to an end of creating greater belonging or competence. But I must admit that more often than not, I am served better by an attitude in facilitation of deep listening rather than arriving with a pre-existing framework.
Where I find the idea of basic psychological needs more useful is in justifying the use of Ostrom's Core Design Principles in our ProSocial method. Taken together, the CDP's provide support for the purposeful pursuit of collective, self-determined action. Understanding basic psychological needs provides an explanatory mechanism for why these particular principles are so important. They work *because* they create contexts that tend to be need supportive. When we say 'works for all', we mean a world that minimally supports a sense of belonging, self-determination and self-efficacy. These needs are the golden thread running through Ostrom's Core Design Principles.
And this is sorely needed right now. Robert Styles and I will claim in a piece we are writing now that modern Western society and corporate cultures fail to satisfy exactly these three needs with its focus on individualism (rather than belonging), coercion (rather than self-determination) and scarcity/competition (rather than self-efficacy to realise one's goals.
ProSocial exists to help build individual and collective capacity to create situations that satisfy human needs.
I began this article by saying that all humans need food, water and shelter. The self-determination theory approach argues that all humans also need to experience themselves as belonging, self-determining and self-efficacious. ProSocial provides a suite of ideas and approaches to help groups evolve greater trust and collaboration. One important part of ProSocial is working with groups to uncover Shared Identity and Purpose (CDP1). To that end, the convergent facilitation approach, informed by a practical understanding of basic human needs across all contexts, provides a practical tool for contacting and using 'what really matters' to inform collective decision-making.