Naming and identifying that unmet need is the first step out of the dark cycle of criticism, blame, and anger.
Criticism is always the expression of an unmet need.
When we feel a surge of judgment and criticism rise up in us, it is easy to focus all of our energy on the person or circumstance that appears to be the trigger.
This is a very frustrating and futile path to go down. Until we understand what the unmet need is that is triggering our criticism and resentment, we will fume and stress to no avail.
Only when we have accurately articulated our unmet need can we begin to ascend out of the darkness of our own creating. To do this, we have to be willing to do some inner-work and look at our circumstances objectively.
“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”
— Marshal Rosenberg
A Hypothetical Scenario
I think an example would be helpful to better illustrate this in action.
The Late Colleague
Let’s say you have a colleague who is late for every meeting. Over time, this really starts to grate on you and you start complaining to other coworkers about this person. Their tardiness often puts you on the spot in meetings because you have to cover their work for them. You feel like you are doing more than your fair share. Pretty soon, you start to find fault in just about everything they do. The relationship deteriorates and there’s no longer any semblance of a healthy camaraderie. You also feel a bit confused because no one else seems to be that bothered by this person’s behavior.
So whats going on here?
It is so normal and impulsive to focus on how another person’s actions provoke a negative response in us. It takes practice and discipline to turn your gaze inward and consider what unmet need their behavior is triggering in you. When you do, however, everything starts to change.
After doing some reflection and asking yourself what unmet need is underlying the building resentment toward this person, you realize that you have a strong need for psychological preparedness. You put a lot of work into preparing for meetings and structuring your day. So when you suddenly have to do more spontaneous work because of another person’s lateness, it makes you feel thrown-off and even embarrassed at times. You weren’t expecting to field questions intended for someone who wasn’t present and this all violates your need to be psychologically prepared to lead meetings and communicate with people.
Once you understand that this is the unmet need at play, you can start addressing it.
One step would be to delicately communicate to the late coworker to explain how their actions impact you. I have a write up on How to Deal with Conflict in the Workplace that you might find helpful.
You may find that they are late because they have a complex family situation at home, that they have to take the bus to work, or that they are dealing with some personal issues. Their life is full of reactions to their own unmet needs in life that they are trying to navigate as well.
A second step would be to figure out what a good response would be to those situations when you feel put on the spot — instead of just hoping it doesn’t happen again. Rather than feeling pressured to do this other person’s job with the same level of intention that you do your own with, you might just decide to provide a generic answer when confronted with questions.
Something like this might work: “I’m not that close to that project and I don’t want to speak for my colleague so I would reach out to them directly for a response on that.”
This is a nice confident reply that you can give that maintains your sense of psychological preparedness. It also puts the responsibility back on the person who should be present rather than continuing to do their work for them — which was also causing resentment.
So to summarize this hypothetical example, when you focused only on the persons actions it only led to frustration and division. When you focused on the underlying unmet need, you were able to arrive at some clear actionable steps that brought clarity and cohesiveness to the situation.
Listening for Unmet Needs In Others
So far, I’ve only addressed the feelings of judgment and criticism that rise up within ourselves. Listening for unmet needs in how others express their anger and criticism can help us communicate and problem-solve more effectively.
When a friend, coworker, spouse, or child expresses their frustration to us about something, we can listen carefully for the unmet need that is unconsciously being expressed. Our normal reaction is to either side with them and agree with their criticism, or to get defensive. Neither of these will help them get in touch with their unmet need so they can begin addressing it in a healthy manner.
Having kids has been a great way to practice this. My daughter recently lost a few teeth and also happens to be getting some orthodontic work done during this season of life. She’s been really tired of all the changes and things happening in her mouth. The other day she was sobbing a bit and said, “I just wish I didn’t have any teeth. I wish I just had gums and then I could just drink everything out of a straw!”
For her, it is really serious and frustrating that this is all happening. I realized that her unmet need is for things to not be painful, for people to stop poking around in her mouth, and to know that everything is going to be okay. Once I understood this, it was much easier to respond with compassion and tenderness — as opposed to rolling one’s eyes, laughing, or telling her to toughen up or something like that.
The more we can see past someone’s criticism, complaint, anger, frustration and into the unmet need that lies behind, we can act in a way that engages them in a productive and meaningful way.
You’ve Experienced This Right?
I’ve had encounters with professors, managers, spiritual directors, and friends who have been able to see through my criticism and identify my unmet need. I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well.
Usually, it goes something like this. I go through my complaint (sometimes about my self or about a circumstance) and then the person responds with, “It sounds like you are feeling __________”
Or, “It sounds like what you really need is ________.”
And their response hits me like a bright light.
“Yes! That is what I need. That is what I’m feeling. I didn’t think about that before, but now that you say it, that is exactly what is going on!”
What a breath of fresh air it is when someone can help you identify your unmet need when all you could previously see is your criticism.
I met with a spiritual director for over 5 years and I went into almost every meeting with some sort of burden or frustration that I felt stuck on. He never tried to answer my questions or resolve my tensions with some sort of solution. He would simply reflect back to me what I was saying but in a way that pushed me closer to the unmet need that was underneath everything.
I left every single one of those sessions cheerful and light as a feather simply because I was able to get more in touch with the unmet needs that were behind my burdens and frustrations.
What Is Your Unmet Need?
Stop for a minute and try this yourself.
Think about something that frustrates you. What would you just like to rant about? Who do you want to tell off?
Now, flip the focus back on yourself and ask, “What is the unmet need in my life that is behind this anger?”
Naming and identifying that unmet need is the first step out of the cycle of criticism, blame, and anger.
The more you practice this, the more you will be able to develop an authentic awareness of yourself and of others. From there, you can begin working to effectively solve problems instead of being victimized by their abstraction.