Understand Your--and Others'--Fundamental Human Needs

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

October, 2017, Updated Dec. 2019

Security and identity are fundamental human needs that people won't compromise. If these needs are attacked or denied, people will fight-- long and hard.

So if you want someone's cooperation, understand their needs and protect them. And since most needs are win-win--you'll be protecting your own needs as well!

Other things you can do to help.

The things people want in conflicts can be one of two things--they can be interests or they can be needs.  Although these are often thought of as synonymous, needs are very powerful interests that are different from "regular interests" because they are not negotiated or compromised--they are simply too important to give up. That means that when one's needs are threatened or denied, serious conflict is likely to result. 

Needs that are often threatened in conflict include security and identity.  If someone's sense of security is threatened, they will fight until they feel secure.  If their identity is denigrated, they will fight until they feel respected.  Other fundamental needs include a sense of belongingness and love, self esteem, personal fulfillment, cultural security, freedom, and the ability to actively participate in civil society.  When one or more of these is threatened or withheld, conflict is likely to result. 

So what can YOU do about that? 

Quite simply, identify your own needs--and the needs of your "opponent" -- and protect them.

Make sure both you and your opponent feel secure--don't threaten them physically, or emotionally. When you fundamentally oppose their beliefs, still acknowledge those beliefs and then respectfully suggest another way of seeing things.  Simply calling people out as stupid or racist or evil just makes them angry, and more intent on clinging to their own beliefs.  Try to avoid putting people in groups and relying on stereotypes to decide what you think of them.  See them as individuals, not as a "lesser" identity group.

Things You Can Do To Help
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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


New York Times columnist David Brooks had an excellent article on November 13, 2017, explaining how Trump voters in America were feeling "under siege," which made them more entrenched in their support of Trump and willing to forgive all manner of behavior that they would not normally accept. According to Brooks "The siege mentality starts with a sense of collective victimhood.  It's not just that our group has opponents.  The whole "culture" or the whole world is irredeemably hostile."  That clearly is the sense that many Trump voters have of the liberal left and even of "establishment Republicans."  So rather than persuading people, liberals who double down on their progressive values without considering the concerns of the other side are likely just making things worse for everyone, rather than better. (I am now re-reading this in December, 2019, and thinking about the Democratic candidates running for the 2020 Presidential election.  The candidates who are trying to consider the needs of the other side are not making headway at all.  The leading candidates are, indeed, doubling down on progressive values and policies.  This is most likely going to enflame the conservatives' siege mentality and make it all the more likely that 2020 will be a repeat of 2016.)

The interesting thing about needs is that they are not zero-sum or win-lose.  There isn't a fixed amount of security to go around, and the less you have, the more I have.  Actually, the more secure one side feels, the less they will need to attack the other side, so the more secure the other side will feel.  The more one side's identity feels respected, the less they will feel a need to attack the other sides' identity. So needs are actually positive sum or win-win.  The more you have, the more I have.  So working to protect your opponents' needs, is often working to protect your own as well.

For more information about these ideas, see:  

Question for you:

HD12: Siege Mentality: What can you (or any individual person) do to diminish the sense of siege mentality--on "the other side" and--on one's own side if that is a problem for a group you are in?  (Answer below in an email and we will post your answer here!)