Going Deep: Understanding Your Own and Others’ Deeper Motivations

by Alan Seid

971 Words.
Approximate reading time less than 4 minutes

I use the exercise below in many of my Nonviolent CommunicationTM (NVC) workshops. I call it “Peeling the Layers of the Onion.”

It illustrates a process for uncovering the Universal Human Needs — the deeper motivations — that underly words and behaviors we may find disturbing or puzzling.

Introduction: Needs vs Strategies

One of the premises in NVC is that behind all behavior and expressions are Universal Human Needs as the deeper motivators.

And one of the key distinctions in NVC is that between Needs and Strategies.

Needs are universal; they never refer to a specific person performing any specific action. They are the conditions necessary for any person to thrive: love, connection, creative expression, choice as to our goals and the path to achieve them, intimacy, consideration, meaning, and so on.

Strategies are the ways we go about meeting Needs.

We get in trouble when we confuse the two.

For example, I have a need for safety and protection. My strategy might be to go out and meet all my neighbors. This strategy contributes to my need. One of my neighbors has the same need, but he goes out and buys an assault rifle. Same Need; totally different Strategy.

Strictly speaking I don’t “need” to get to know my neighbors, nor does my neighbor “need” a gun.

When we discover and identify the deeper need, possibilities open up with regard to strategies. For any one need there may be hundreds of strategies that could fulfill it. But if I think my strategy is my need, then I am more likely to experience scarcity (only one way to meet my Needs); I am more likely to get attached to that specific action; and I am more likely to encounter conflict regarding how that need or set of needs gets met.

Remember that Needs, as I’m defining them here, are an energy that wants to flow, not a hole to be filled.

Regarding Needs and Strategies, what we actually have is a spectrum.


On the very left of the chart we have THE NEED. Some call it God, or Spirit, or Reality or the Universe.

Then you have Universal Human Needs. The core human motivators that amount to the conditions necessary for each human life to thrive. Thrival Needs.

Then you have Values. These are still very deeply held and important, but they are no longer universal.

Then you have Interests, which represent something that is important and meaningful to us. They are guided by our values, and they go a little deeper than wants and desires.

Our Wants and Desires may still be important to us, but they don’t run as deep as Interests, Values, or Needs.

Our Strategies are the ways in which we fulfill our Needs. Hopefully, we can be flexible as to the Strategies we use. Sometimes we can develop a lot of attachment to them. And we definitely get in trouble if we mistake them for Needs, or if we think we “need” a specific person to take a specific action.

Positions are essentially Strategies around which our thinking has become rigid. A genuine Position is something we rarely have flexibility around, either because we’ve developed a lot of attachment, or because it’s the only way we know to meet a deeper Need.

So how do you know if you are at a want/desire or at a genuine Need?

How can we help ourselves and others surface what might be motivating us
(or others) at a deeper level?

Here’s how:

Ask yourself: “If I had that, then what would I have?”

Another variation is: “If I had that, then what would that give me?”

For example (JUST AN EXAMPLE!), I tell my partner, “I need you to make me lunch today.” Even though I used the word “need”, having her make me lunch is obviously a strategy and not a need (as previously defined). If all 7 billion of us needed her to make us lunch THEN it would be a Universal Human Need!

Let’s say she’s curious about my deeper needs. She might ask, “Well, Alan, if I made you lunch what would that do for you?” (…another variation of the question I’m suggesting.)

“Well,” I would answer, “it would meet my need for support.”

Here’s the key: she doesn’t stop there. She keeps going.

She continues: “If you had support, then what would that give you?”

Alan: “Well, I would be able to work uninterrupted.”

Her: “If you were able to work uninterrupted, what would that give you? What would you have then?”

Alan: “Well, I’d feel like I’d be able to stay focused longer and do a better job on this project.”

Her: “And if you were focused longer and did a better job, then what would you have?”

Alan: “I’d feel confident that I’m supporting my client and providing them value.”

Her: “So if you provided your client value, then what would you have?”

Alan: “I’d have reassurance that I’m being of service…”

Her: “So if you…”

Alan: “And if I’m being of service”, I interrupt her, “I trust that I’m walking my path and living my life’s purpose.”

(Keep in mind that the above is just an example to illustrate how these questions work.)


So I started with wanting support with my lunch, but I ended with service and life purpose.

And you can do this on your own. You can take anything you want, and ask yourself that set of questions.

Perhaps you want to learn how to play the saxophone, or you’d like to screw in a lightbulb, or maybe you want your mother to stop yelling at you.

The questions above, if done in a sincere spirit of curiosity and inquiry, will take you and others to deeper and deeper values and Universal Human Needs.

I coach and mentor positive change agents so that they can develop the skills to make the biggest difference they can.

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