Speaking to Core Needs

When talking to someone about change, the key is to help them connect to their own reasons to change. As described in the previous post, “Why before How“, the more we can connect to our reasons for making a change, the more likely we are to follow through with our plan.

It sounds simple, but is all to often neglected when someone asks for our advice. We are quick to jump to planning, giving advice that may be perfectly reasonable, but often not followed. Rather than getting frustrated with the person, accusing them of not listening to you, it might be helpful to take a step back and figure out what is driving their behavior at a core level. In short, this means speaking to their core psychological needs.

There are three basic psychological needs that need to be taken into consideration when talking to someone about change. Knowing them will help you focus the conversation, getting to the source of their motivation. As described by self determination theory, these three basic psychological needs are the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Competence consists of the sense that one has specific skills and is progressing in their abilities. For example, this might consist of a skillful welder who has the sense that they are gaining mastery over their craft. This can also be applied to more abstract skills like communication, compassion, or management.

Autonomy consists of feeling that one is in control of one’s own actions. For example, this might consist of feeling that you can be creative in your roles, taking initiative to offer your unique abilities. The opposite of autonomy is the sense that one’s actions are highly controlled by external conditions, such as a highly restrictive workplace.

Relatedness consists of the sense that one can depend on a close circle of other individuals. These others may include family, friends, or colleagues.

When each of these basic needs are fulfilled, our intrinsic motivation is strong. When these basic needs are lacking, we compensate by finding alternatives. We might get a false sense of competence by artificially inflating our ego through showy displays of dominance and superiority. We might get a false sense of autonomy through reckless behavior, going wild on frequent weekend benders. Lastly, we may get a false sense of relatedness through a codependent mutually-destructive romantic relationship.

When talking to someone about change, it is helpful to keep these three basic psychological needs in mind. Keeping them in mind may help us understand why someone is engaging in self-destructive behaviors. It can also help us talk to them more specifically about how they can fulfill these basic needs in a more productive way.

Putting the “why” before the “how” helps us better connect with someone’s core. When we connect on this level, the planning process becomes more meaningful to the individual, increasing their motivation. As stated by Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”


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