Tactic: Transforming the Pain of Unmet Needs

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I’m writing this during the coronavirus crisis. A lot of people are suffering. A lot of people are in emotional pain. So I thought I would share a powerful technique for reducing one’s suffering, called “Transforming the Pain of Unmet Needs into the Beauty of the Needs.” This is an advanced introspective technique, with very specific steps to guide you through distinct stages in the emotional transformation. Since this write-up may be a little advanced for a general audience, I have presented it in as accessible a form as possible and made it available to non-members of the Thinking Lab. I hope it — or parts of it — can help those who are suffering.

Regarding credit: This technique was created by Robert Gonzales and Susan Skye. My steps closely follow Jeff Brown’s handout on the method. He gave me permission to expand on it. These three teachers are certified trainers with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. The technique grows out of the work of Marshall Rosenberg. I am grateful to them for their creation. As always, the explanations and formulations are mine.


Step 1: Identify the painful situation

This method helps to bring inner peace to a painful situation. If you are feeling inner turmoil, a simple introspection technique may settle you and establish calm. However, if after you introspect, you feel more pain, “Transforming the Pain of Unmet Needs” can be helpful.

For example, I used this method after I was upset by a “flaming” email. At first, I tried giving myself an “empathy bath.” But I found that I was still in turmoil, angry and hurt by the injustice, and annoyed that I was distracted by it instead of moving on. That’s why I turned to a more powerful tool.

A “flaming” email may sound like a small issue relative to what you’re dealing with — job loss, illness, isolation. But in a crisis like this, you may be coping with the big issues, but without a lot of emotional reserves to deal with the little things. So, don’t be surprised if a “small” thing sets you off. If you can’t settle yourself easily, the small issue is only the tip of the iceberg. This method will help you deal with the deeper issue that is the real source of the problem.

Step 2: Write a neutral, factual description of the situation

Once you have identified the painful situation, you need to shift your attention to dealing with it. This is harder than it might seem, because the pain and suffering trigger negative thoughts, which aggravate the suffering. They create a self-reinforcing vicious cycle, sometimes with an obsessive quality. You need a series of small, easy steps to break that cycle.

For this, observation free of evaluation is a critical start. Because you are obsessing about the situation, you already have the facts of the matter at your fingertips. All you need to do is to write them down, shorn of opinion, evaluation, and self-criticism.

Often you need to edit your first description of the situation. “So-and-so sent me a flaming email” is not a neutral, factual description. “Flaming” expresses my negative evaluation in colorful language. Here’s how I would describe that situation neutrally:

I made some comments at a meeting. An associate wrote me an email expressing his negative opinion about what I said. I wrote back, “I’m sorry you were offended by my comments. This is a big issue that I suggest we talk about over drinks sometime.” He wrote back, expressing his negative opinion about my response, ending with, “We don’t need to discuss this any further.” I wrote back three words: “Then we won’t.”

Incidentally, I give myself a “C” for my response. Could be a lot worse. Could be a lot better!

Describing the situation neutrally, without evaluation, gives you emotional distance from it. You can see more objectively what happened. In this particular situation, I could see more clearly that my actions were triggering my associate’s actions, and vice versa.

Step 3: Express “jackal” thoughts

Now that you’ve established the objective facts, you get permission to express all of your negativity. These are called “jackal” thoughts in the Nonviolent Communication community — the jackal is the symbol of self-criticism, blame, and other judgmental thoughts.

Taking this small next step is crucial, because it helps you be objective. You are making an emotionally charged evaluation that may or may not be true. Seeing the step as expressing “jackal” thoughts helps you to separate facts from inferences and evaluation. So many of the misunderstandings between people come from a failure to separate facts from interpretation.

When you’re suffering, it’s easy to come up with people to blame, including yourself. You may be blaming someone without even knowing it. This step helps bring these evaluations into focus, where you can deal with them.

In my example, some of my “jackal” thoughts might be:

  • He shouldn’t send flaming emails.
  • I shouldn’t have emailed him back.
  • I shouldn’t be thinking about this anymore. It’s not important.
  • He should realize there are two points of view.

Seeing these in black and white helped me to see why I am in such turmoil. Both he and I were subject to my criticism. I am certain that this incident had emotional intensity for me, not so much because I disapproved of his behavior, but because I have been deeply frustrated for years by these kinds of situations — frustrated by the difficulty of turning them into constructive conversations. It’s why I studied nonviolent communication in the first place.

Step 4: Embrace your “jackal” thoughts

At this point, people often try to move too fast to resolve the issue. They evaluate their jackal thoughts — and maybe argue with them. Arguing with yourself will just reinforce the negative loop.

Instead, you need to take tiny, tiny steps to help make the transition to a constructive context. And the next tiny step involves a form of self-acceptance. You acknowledge your jackal thoughts, even the ones you are not proud of.

First, say each one of them out loud with emotional energy. Yes. Out loud. In private. It is amazing how emotionally satisfying that is. Writing them down doesn’t have the punch of shouting to an empty room, “HE SHOULDN’T SEND FLAMING EMAILS!!!!”

I think this step helps because it acknowledges the intensity of the emotions. You give yourself visibility. This situation, for whatever reason, has gotten you upset, and you are acknowledging it, with the power of your voice.

After you’ve shouted them all, the next step is to say each one again, in a calmer voice, beginning with this statement (or a similar one): “I am telling myself that… _____________________________________”

“I am telling myself that he shouldn’t send flaming emails.”

This is a process of differentiation. You get to test drive the “jackal” thought with both high emotional involvement, and emotional distance.

The fact that a thought occurs to you doesn’t mean it’s true. The fact that a thought triggers a lot of emotion doesn’t mean it’s important. All thoughts need to be judged objectively.

This simple little process of repeating the thoughts with two different emotional commitments helps make that clear to you. You will react differently both times. The result? You will be able to let go of these incendiary thoughts for a bit, to look at the situation from a new point of view. Getting some emotional distance from your original evaluation of the situation is critical to the process. The purpose of steps 2, 3, & 4 is to discharge some of the intensity that gets in the way of seeing the situation clearly.

Step 5: Identify unmet needs and the feelings implicit in the situation

Now that you have processed the “jackal” thoughts, you can go back to the original factual description of the situation to identify unmet needs. These are values that you can see were lacking in the circumstances, just by the logic of the situation.

When you’re extremely upset about a flaming email, it’s never about the concrete details. The distress is always about the deeper significance. Once you get a little emotional distance from the concrete situation, you can look at that deeper significance.

Recall my original factual description:

I made some comments at a meeting. An associate wrote me an email expressing his negative opinion about what I said. I wrote back, “I’m sorry you were offended by my comments. This is a big issue that I suggest we talk about over drinks sometime.” He wrote back, expressing his negative opinion about my response, ending with “We don’t need to discuss this any further.” I wrote back three words: “Then we won’t.”

Some values I see I was missing:

  • Camaraderie
  • Visibility
  • To be heard
  • Self-expression
  • Mutual Respect
  • Reciprocity
  • Civility

I named these as abstract values, with deep meaning. These are my unmet needs. Incidentally, I mostly cribbed these from the list of deep rational values I have shared in my Thinking Directions Starter Kit.

This process sounds a little bit dry and analytical as you read it on paper. But when you are actually in the state, identifying your own values, each one feels like a major insight. You get a flash of clarity as you name each value.

And each one packs a powerful emotional wallop.

The next step is to identify those emotions. For each unmet need, you ask yourself, “how do I feel about not getting this need met?” In brief, my answers would be:

  • Sadness
  • Despair
  • Frustration
  • Anger

These feelings will be more distinct than the all-encompassing negativity that you start with. The unmet needs will be clearer and more poignant. You are intellectually prepared for the next powerful step.

Step 6: Mourn unmet needs

Once you have identified the unmet needs, and have gotten in touch with your feelings about them, you can mourn the unmet needs. In Jeff Brown’s words:

“Contemplate the unmet needs. Fully give way to the sadness, grief, and regret that this need has not been met. Stay here until you feel a shift toward relaxation or relief.”

This is a relief that was not possible before.

When you are in a dark mindset, a standard introspection technique can reinforce the negativity. I mentioned that I had already given myself an “empathy bath” before starting this exercise. During that process, I was too focused on my angry “jackal” thoughts to get in touch with the loss that was at the root of all of my tumult.

Mourning is a necessary step in dealing with tragedy. It is a means of honoring the values — your values — even if you can’t have them right now. This contemplation of values is critical to actually changing your mindset.

You may need a little time in mourning, before there is a shift. But there will be a shift, eventually.

In this case, as I mourned the loss of each value, there was a shift. I quickly realized that this is part of a larger loss, directly related to the coronavirus crisis and the reactions to it. My reaction was in response to the state of the culture, not the “flaming” email. There was a heaviness that I have been bearing in the background, and this was the impetus that brought it to the foreground. I let myself pause to own that sadness.

Step 7: Contemplate the “beauty of the need”

After you have mourned, you are ready for perhaps the most profound step in the process — the step that makes you emotionally whole, so you can deal with the situation constructively again.

You “describe the beauty of the need,” meaning, you explain to yourself why this value is a value to you. Why is it beautiful to you? How has it been a value to you in the past? Why is this value so important to you? Why do you care about it? Why do you want to gain and keep it? And then, how does that make you feel?

If this is difficult, remember a time when the need was met and how wonderful that felt. What did it mean to you?

Remembering a time when this need was met is salve to the wound.

In my case, I thought about a particular friend of mine, and our conversations. We can talk about anything, including religion and politics, even when we disagree. I have had fascinating conversations with her on topics that are difficult to discuss with almost anyone else. In our most recent, she related something I was interested in to why the worship of icons is prohibited in her religion. Talking with her helps me understand where people with different belief systems are coming from. It helps me see the internal logic of views I disagree with. When I talk with her, I feel heard. She listens to my views, and is curious about them, even when she disagrees. We have mutual respect, reciprocity, camaraderie, visibility, and not just civility but deep friendship.

Once I remembered my conversations with my friend, the flaming email lost its sting. I may not have gained these values in this situation, with this associate, but I can gain them in others. I felt love for my friend, plus relieved and hopeful about the concrete situation.

Identifying the needs abstractly — in terms of deep rational values — is critical to making this shift. I may not have had camaraderie with my associate, but I can have it in this world. The world is still open to my achieving my values.

Step 8: Bring the “beauty of the needs” awareness to the original observation

The shift in outlook then lets you look at the situation with fresh eyes, and react to it differently. In this step, you re-read your original factual description, and notice and write down any feelings or needs that come alive.

In my case, when I went back to review the situation, I remembered some other things that had been said by other people at the meeting, that I was grateful for. My needs for mutual respect, camaraderie, and civility had been met in some other respects, by other people, in that situation.

I became curious about my associate. Something must be going on with him, for him to be so distressed by such a small incident. I was also a little sad at the missed opportunity to sort things out more constructively.

I could finally look at the situation without being triggered.

Step 9: Make a request (optional)

Sometimes it is enough to settle the emotions and get in touch with the values at stake.

Sometimes this will spur a desire for action.

There is no duty to take action at this point. But some idea for action may occur to you in response to the previous step. Jeff Brown, in his wisdom, says, to consider action, “if it arises — don’t wrack your brain for it.” When you’ve been dealing with an intensely emotional issue, you need to give yourself some space to settle.

Then, if you come up with an idea, formulate it as a request to yourself — ask yourself if you would be willing to take it.

At this stage, I asked myself if I would be willing to call my associate to clear the air. The hallmark of a request, rather than a demand, is that you can say, “no,” and I did. I preferred to spend my energy on other projects.

Two days later, I noticed that I was still slightly unsettled. But by then, I was emotionally settled. I could finally see the real issue. This particular incident might not be worth more effort, but my future performance is. As I mentioned, I gave myself a “C.” I asked myself, would I be willing to put more thought into how to avoid this kind of situation in the future? Yes. I made some specific plans to ensure I handle the next time a little better.

This marked the final transformation from distressed inaction to constructive action. That is what this sensitive 9-step process offers, if you are willing to go through it, step by step.

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