The Six Needs of Conflict

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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May  2005

In over 1,100 mediations and peacemaking assignments, I have seen six needs expressed repeatedly.  These needs have been frustrated by the conflict and have driven people to litigation, anger, and hostility.  Interestingly, the court system does not satisfy many of these needs, yet people persist in seeking legal redress.  Even more interesting, many people do not see mediation or peacemaking as processes that satisfy these needs, even though they are the only processes that can do so.

The six needs are:  Sense of voice, Validation, Vindication, Procedural Justice, Wanting to Make a Difference, and Safety.  These needs all exist to some degree in every conflict.  They sometimes are contradictory, which leads to the common paradox that people often do not know what they want from resolution.  Let’s look at these needs a little more closely.

Sense of Voice.  If people sense a dispute arising, they need to voice their concerns.  Having voice means being listened to by others.  Thus, sense of voice requires the listener to hear with understanding. This is why the earliest indication of conflict escalation is a lack of empathy.  When people can no longer hear and understand each other, they lose their sense of voice.  Thus, people shout in argument because they are trying vainly to be heard.

Validation.  Everyone has an opinion and a perspective, especially in conflict.  Each person believes he or she holds a monopoly on truth and the other side is wrong.  Thus, people need to be told and hear that their perspective is valid and understandable.  We all are finely tuned to detect insincerity, exploitation, and manipulation in others.  Therefore, validation does not occur from condescending, pop psychological active listening, but from authentic desire by others to understand.  Of course, in conflict, this ability for many deteriorates rapidly and validation becomes a difficult need to fulfill.

Vindication. Vindication is simply the need to feel right.  At an extreme, vindication translates to “I win; you lose.”  This is an identity-based need and relates to face-saving.  Because threats to identity and loss of face evoke a powerful pre-conscious neuropsychological response in the human brain, being proven right can be a consuming drive.  In my previous life as a trial lawyer, most of my clients sought litigation for the purpose of vindication.  If I was retained to defend clients, they were more interested in vindication (“I did nothing wrong.”), than anything else.  As a peacemaker, I often hear people put principle in front of settlement, saying “I would rather pay my lawyer than pay that (expletive) one penny,” or “It’s the principle of the thing.”  These are clear statements of the need for vindication.

Procedural Justice.  Telling one’s story to a respected, impartial, and neutral authority figure turns out to be an important need in conflict.  Sense of voice, validation, and vindication are supported when a third party listens. Social psychological research in the procedural justice field demonstrates that substantive outcome is far less important than a feeling that the process has fairly and impartially allowed stories to be told.  This is a personal need; consequently, many people feel frustrated by a court system that does not allow them to tell their stories in their way.

Want to Make a Difference.  If you read last month’s column, you will recall that I wrote about the need to make a difference.  This need arises from a deeper need to create meaning in life.  Many people pursue disputes so that “others will not have to go through what I did” or because “I want to make a difference.”  In essence, the need to make a difference defines the conflict in terms beyond the individual, giving the conflict a transcendent value.  When taken to extremes, this need leads to highly escalated, ideological conflicts.  The public debate over the last days of Terry Schiavo’s life illustrates a private and intensely personal conflict driven by the need to create meaning.

Safety.  People want to feel safe.  Conflict creates anxiety, which is the emotional warning signal to pay attention because the situation is potentially dangerous.  In many cases, physical and financial safety is at issue.  Safety also concerns personal control over one’s life and environment.  Because conflict is a dance between two or more people, loss of control and a loss of personal safety is common. One of the reasons people feel great relief when a conflict is resolved through mediation or peacemaking is relief from anxiety and restoration of personal control.

If you are in conflict, ask yourself which of these needs are active.  Write down the needs in order of importance.  Under each need, write down why the need exists, how it could be satisfied, and what good things would happen to you if the need were satisfied.  Then ask yourself what resolution process might best meet these needs.  This simple exercise will give you clarity in finding peace.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm,  Noll Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2005, Douglas E. Noll