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Exploring Needs and Values

By Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg,
Richard Michaels & Sharon Brown

Coaching for Transformation
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Personal leadership is the process of keeping your vision and values before you and
aligning your life to be congruent with them.
— Stephen Covey

Exploring Needs and Values is a powerful way to support clients in “coming home” to themselves. It takes them into their core aliveness, so they can effortlessly connect to what matters most. This in turn enables them to take more aligned action, which brings about greater fulfillment, energy and passion. When you explore their unique expression of needs and values, expect to find more than what is on the surface.

Universal Needs and Values

Everyone is driven by universal needs and values. Even though the language used to describe them varies, and some resonate more strongly than others in different parts of the world, they are still commonly shared across cultures and history. According to psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, everything we do or say is an attempt to meet our needs. We hold values long-term, but our needs are the immediate driving force in our lives.

Deepening Awareness of Needs

Exploring the relationship between feelings and needs

Emotions are intimately related to needs. Our feelings serve as indicators of needs met or unmet. Too frequently people ignore how they feel or want to change how they feel, without recognizing the needs that are not being met. Others try to push emotions away to avoid being perceived as “needy.”

Instead of colluding with clients and treating emotions as something to get over, we can acknowledge the gift of their emotions. By encouraging emotional awareness, they can open to the life force of their current needs. This simultaneously supports increased awareness and acceptance of the inner world, yielding a greater sense of wholeness.

To support a client in making the connection between their feelings and needs, we can acknowledge emotions and then ask curious questions that uncover the need underneath. Sometimes clients acknowledge an emotion themselves and other times we may name the emotion and follow it with a clarifying question. We can pay particular attention to anything we hear twice, which is usually a sign that the client wants to be heard.

Below are examples of how you might acknowledge emotions and follow up with a curious question that links feelings to needs. For example, your client says, “I can’t wait to get out of here!”

It sounds like you are deeply disappointed—what are you longing for?

I’m getting a sense that you’re really thrilled! What needs are alive in you?

You sound absolutely furious! What is going on in your heart?

If the client’s response includes a focus on what another person is doing or not doing, use it as an invitation to dive deeper. For example, if they respond, “I hate that she left me and caused me so much pain.” You can say, “And what’s the longing behind that?” Or “What is missing for you?”

By engaging with needs, we help clients develop a close relationship with their inner world. Th is can include looking at their self-criticism, which we can help them understand in a new light as unmet needs. For example, if a client says, “I’m not smart enough or dedicated enough to realize my vision,” we can ask, “So what need is connected to your frustration?” Another empowering question might be, “What need is your inner critic trying to meet by telling you you’re not smart enough?”

Universal Needs and Values

We can repeatedly connect feelings to needs until the client shifts to a new awareness and experience of needs. Sometimes clients are stunned and need a moment to take in their needs. As coaches, we listen for the silence that precedes the shift. Sometimes we hear the transformation as a sigh of relief, an energetic thunk, a burst of emotion, an “ah” or slowing down.

As clients come into greater awareness and alignment, we can support them by anchoring their new insights about feelings and needs with supportive action. Actions can be anything from wearing a piece of jewelry as a reminder of a deep need or making a career change that honors needs more fully.

Identifying needs

Another way to deepen awareness is to ask open-ended questions that help clients more fully experience, understand and articulate their needs. This approach directly asks about the need, because the client is already connected to their emotions. Let’s look at an example, “My partner is driving me crazy!”

You might ask these simple, empowering questions that look beneath the surface of

  • What is happening:
  • What do you need?
  • What do you really want in this partnership?
  • What motivates you?
  • What is even more important that stops you from creating what you want?
  • You want something else… What?

Both this approach and exploring the relationship between feelings and needs are intended to help clients experientially discover more about what matters to them and what brings them alive.

Differentiating between needs and strategies

It can be a seduction, especially for a new coach, to prematurely go for the satisfaction of fi nding strategies to solve the issues presented rather than first exploring underlying needs. Th at however may lead a client to action that is not grounded in what matters most to them. By fi rst exploring needs, you can get to what’s underneath a presenting issue for a client, so they can then eventually take action that is informed by a deeper sense of what’s important to them.

For example, when a client says, “I need a new job,” a novice coach, eager to contribute, might ask questions to elicit strategies for finding work, and soon the client has a plan to search the job market, network with colleagues, go back to school and interview for jobs. An experienced coach will slow down the process and dig for what’s underneath the desire for a new job, which can surface a deeper agenda with needs that may be served by a very different set of actions.

Here’s how it plays out in practice: Jori wanted a new job. By exploring her needs, it became clear she was outraged that her proposal was rejected by her boss and she wanted respect for her ideas. Digging a little deeper, the need for understanding, freedom of expression and the desire to make a contribution became evident and even more important than an action plan to find a new job.

Once she became aware how much she wanted to contribute, many strategies surfaced to meet that need. She decided to discuss her ideas with her boss, take a course to learn to write more influentially and join the board of directors for a social justice organization. She may still decide to get a new job, but she’s doing so with an awareness that her primary need is to make a meaningful contribution.

Finding a new job is a strategy to fulfill a particular need. Our clients’ success in getting their needs met is directly related to how clearly they recognize what they are. Diff erentiating between strategies and needs helps clients make life-serving choices.


Possible Underlying Need

I need a new career.

To contribute, inspiration, sustainability

I need him to listen to me.

Respect, to matter, connection

I need her to get out of my life.

Protection from pain, independence, safety

I need him to finish the report.

Support, shared understanding, responsibility

I need to go on vacation.

Rest, relaxation, fun, adventure, protection

Even when clients have a lot of clarity about their strategies, when they understand what motivates them (their needs), we can support them to detach from the specific strategy and move more toward a conscious and balanced fulfillment of their needs. By continuously helping them connect to needs, they become aware of what’s alive in the moment and what would make life more fulfi lling. Often this begins with needs that are not met, because they come to their attention through powerful feelings. Choosing effective strategies also requires awareness of needs that are already met, so we don’t sacrifice those when we address unmet needs.

Another way to dive deeper into needs, as opposed to staying at the level of strategies, is through metaphors, dreams or poetry. For people who have little or no access to the felt emotions in their bodies, nor a sense of their needs, imagery can serve as an entryway.

Our needs connect us to our deepest yearning

Needs are part of our core energy. When we feel low and disconnected, this is a sign that needs are awaiting fulfillment. Recognizing needs supports us in reconnecting and moving into alignment, thereby restoring our experience of wholeness.

Our human needs, for things like safety, shelter and rest, provide the foundation for a well-lived life. Our heart-based needs for service, love, creativity and community point us to some of our deepest and most enlivening yearnings. These yearnings are in the DNA of life, which moves powerfully through each of us. As coaches, we see that these needs, human and heart, are not in conflict. Only our strategies for meeting them are in conflict. Knowing this enables us to look for a new horizon of strategies that can hold the space for all our needs.

Living a full, authentic, compassionate life requires that we allow all parts of life, including our feelings and needs, to live in and move through us. This spiritual practice connects us to our deepest essential self and is vital to our well-being.

Excerpt from the book Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal & Social Change by Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg, Richard Michaels and Sharon Brown. As faculty at Leadership that Works, they certify coaches who offer personal, organization and community transformation. Check out the free Power of Coaching teleclass.

Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

Leadership that Works

Transforming the world.
One heart at a time.

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