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|Equanimity and Prioritizing in Decision-Making:
Distinguishing Needs, Wants, and Interests
from Preferences, and Tastes
(c) 2011-15 by
Principal, Authentix Coaches
|Language (and cartoons!) can be a blunt or a delicate tool: it can have violent effects, or else its users
(whether emitting or receiving) can consciously seek to make the effects of language as non-violent yet
also as vitalizing as possible. Violent effects spring from receiver interpretations that the sender of a
message is either demanding unreasonably or insulting -- whether what is demanded or insulted is
physical or emotional, and also from articulators ignoring genuinely urgent needs. Language
including the word ‘need’ to imply that another must meet it conveys a demand, whereas language
requesting help in meeting a need that is genuinely necessary and urgent conveys respect for both one’s
own and another's humanity. Language that conflates the meanings of the words 'need', 'want',
'interest', 'preference or taste', and 'like' -- all of which are often thought of as comprising the continuous
spectrum of desires -- can instill, evoke or excite a huge array of social confusions, including violence.
In the international best seller “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”, the late clinical
psychologist, Director of Education for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and author Marshall
Rosenberg used the word ‘need’ often, which might raise for his readers, as it certainly did for me, the
question of what is a need and how is it different from a want, an interest, a preference, or a taste. Our
use of these words, whether in articulating or interpreting, seems to me often to be in want of
understanding of the value of accuracy to communication for thorough problem-solving. In other
words, lack of care for accurate usage of 'need language' will trigger irrational priorities, perhaps
dangerously so. I have therefore prepared, for clients of Eye-Zen English coaching, a table of the levels
of accuracy I sense is usual among the most commonly used of 'desire words':
The judgments in the table of the level of authenticity people usually exhibit when using these different
words are mine alone, and therefore subjective. You might well make different judgments for you have
had different experiences. Yet these distinctions themselves derive from a mixture of quite solid
etymological fact and an observation that follows logically from well-established human psychology.
The fact is that our English-speaking forbears were clear that the word 'want' implied a lack. A lack
may become a necessity in the future, or it may already be critical. That clarity allowed them to
distinguish a need as a lack assumed already to be critical -- from a want, which although also a
necessity, was not as immediate a necessity. I have chosen in the table to respect that ancient clarity
among English speakers because it is clearly essential to accurately equitable prioritizing.
We would do well as an English-speaking community to become more aware of the trouble we cause if
we either neglect or unethically exploit this ancient linguistic distinction. This follows from the reality
that we use the two most rarely used of the five words distinguished in the table -- 'preference' and 'like'
-- only when we are at least aware that our desire in that moment is not one we have any entitlement to
expect others to respect as a high priority. We cannot presume that we have any such entitlement. If,
however, we neglect to recognize this reality, we present a very big challenge to connected problem-
solving and thus to equitable and accurate prioritizing (in budgets, for example).
The distinctions of my table could be taken by some as hard and fast definitions that a team of
authoritative dictionary editors would make, and then used to demand that one’s conversational
partners comply with them. That could be a mistake for it might lead to an emotionally violent
argument. Instead a generous interpretation of another’s initial casual, rather than scrupulous, use of
the word ‘need’ empowers one to allow the psychological space of some conversational time in which
to clarify -- with the help of these distinctions of urgency, entitlement, and accuracy -- priorities.
Repeatedly unscrupulous use of the word 'need' could, of course, become abusive, so repeatedly
generous interpretations that are not met with reciprocal generosity are very unwise for they will lead
to what is known as a racket.
This brings me to three interrelated subjects: interpreting our own and others’ emotions, using our
senses of them to establish relative priorities, and the state of being known as equanimity. Researchers
in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy have established over the last few generations that our
emotions are valuable pointers to our needs. But they have also observed that our life experiences
lead us either to over- or under-value our own needs relative to those of others. These errors of
valuation can be very serious in problem-solving conversations whenever there is a gross difference
between the parties, conscious or unconscious, in two psycho-social factors:
How can unfortunate, even tragic, errors from such factors be averted or mediated? It seems to me that
errors from both these factors often, but not always, enter conversations without both parties being
aware of this happening. If so, I think they will usually manifest either as conflicts of which the
participants become aware through the strong experience of unpleasant emotions, or as outcomes in
which there will be less strong residual emotions for both those who feel they have 'lost' and those who
feel they have 'won'. If one has a feeling of loss, one will have settled for emotions that are at least
tolerable, while if one has emotions that are more pleasant one will have a feeling of having won.
Yet I think at least some people know that truly successful problem-solving only occurs when both
people feel they have won by their own, and different, senses of what constitutes success (or, in the
instance of a responsibly free (emotionally mature) person, well-being). This suggests to me that the
reaching of what each party understands as equanimity will be a sensible aim from the point of view of
the well-being of anyone likely to be seriously affected by the decisions taken, especially in the case of
decisions that are 'big' -- either from one's own point of view or of society's. Some may argue that if one
has emotions on the pleasant side of equanimity one will prefer to 'cut loose' and enjoy one's 'win' with
the supposition -- attractive to ego -- that our pleasant emotions will empower us to distribute to others
the benefits of our superior capacity to get our needs, wants, interests, interests, or preferences met.
But, if that should be so, then right before one will be others whose emotions indicate a greater need or
In short, leaving a problem-solving conversation in a state other than equanimity, whether feeling
oneself 'a winner' or as 'a loser', is likely to be presumptive. So the question to be answered before
leaving, either as a winner or a loser, is "What am I presuming?", or perhaps, to be linguistically
consistent with Eye-Zen English principles, "What presupposition has, unconsciously, been underlying my
thinking? (or, in Landmark Forum parlance, "What story have I been telling myself)". Which will, if pursued
diligently and accurately, lead one back to search for shared equanimity in the conversation one is
proposing to leave.
What was it that the Charles Dickens' character "Fagin" sang in the musical "Oliver!"? If you have ever
seen a performance of "Oliver!", can you remember the face of the actor who played "Fagin"when, as a
refrain to a collective narrative song of the petty thieving of the orphans he was, in effect, parenting, he
sang: "I think I'd better think it out again!"?
So much for the distinctions to which I suggest my clients refer when setting priorities along a path that
my experience tells me leads as close to equanimity for the parties in a purposeful conversation as they
are willing to devote to that aim. Leading a life that is, I confess, often far from equanimity, my
experience is that their application also leads to an exploration of what I think we are all leaning
unconsciously toward when we use the word 'interest'.
What do I mean by that? If I myself acknowledge an interest, it implies that my attention has swung
toward my recognizing that I have an incipient need, or want, and the question for me is "which of these
emotions (N/W) is the more accurate description?" At one end of the spectrum of the possibilities related to
my interest, I may think of myself as a stakeholder in the situation I feel -- or sense -- surrounds me. In
that case I would know that I won't be able easily to back out of answering this question rather
thoroughly. If, on the other hand I think of myself as merely an observer, then my realistically feasible
options would fall between the extremes of (a) 'moving on', much as I suppose the 'real speculators'
many of us tend to look on with askance in the financial world are constantly doing, or (b) taking the
kind of firm, and consciously deliberate, action that begins with an honest and accurate answer to that
|New Book! To follow, and possibly participate in, a book project reconciling 'canon NVC'
with Eye-Zen English, see Book menu item near the foot of this page.