How Understanding Our Needs Can Prevent Conflict

We all have needs and the degree to which they are fulfilled determines how likely we will enter into conflict with others. This doesn’t mean we are always aware of them or whether or not they are fulfilled. When they are left unsatisfied, we often express this as frustration, sadness, anger, aggression or apathy. What we tend not to do in our everyday lives is articulate those emotions in such a way that conflict is avoided or ask for what we think might fulfil those needs.

Conflict, at its most basic analysis, is a collision of needs and interests between individuals, groups, countries or organisations. When one side feels that their needs and interests are being ignored and unfulfilled and they perceive that this is being orchestrated by the other side, that’s when the trouble starts. Often, it is fuelled by strong emotions that enliven perceptions based on previous experiences.

A basic model of human needs in order of their priorities is illustrated below.

Maslow’s Model Of Needs[1]


  1. Transcendence: Service to others, actions to benefit the wider community and humanity.
  2. Self-Actualisation: Personal development, striving to fulfil your potential.
  3. Aesthetic Needs: Appreciation of beauty, balance.
  4. Cognitive Needs: Search for meaning, wisdom, knowledge, pursuit of education.
  5. Psychological Image Needs: (a) Self-esteem, self-respect, self-worth, dignity; and (b) Respect from others, reputation within a sector; prestige.
  6. Need to belong: Intimacy, community, human connection.
  7. Safety Needs: Shelter, physical security.
  8. Basic Biological Needs: Food, sex, rest, water, air.

We strive to ensure that our needs at the lowest end of the pyramid are met first. Maslow theorised that if needs (6), (7), (8) are not fulfilled, needs (1) to (5) cannot be met. This is not a concrete model and a need may feel fulfilled even if not 100% satisfied. A person may also try to satisfy several needs at once.

How this Leads to Conflict

In commercial disputes, needs (7) and (8) are normally satisfied unless a company is on the brink of insolvency. If this is the case, then its directors may perceive that in consequence, need (8) will not be met. However, in this context, needs (5) and (6) are probably not being met; reputation, image and personal self-esteem.

In a divorce dispute or an inheritance dispute, needs (5) and (6) are usually unfulfilled or threatened. This explains why the pain of a divorce manifests in feelings of loss of a relationship, parental access or humiliation.

We can also apply this idea to gangland conflict and the current increase in knife crime between teenage gangs. By joining a gang, need (6) is satisfied because it encourages a sense of belonging and connection to others. It provides safety from a perceived or actual threat from rival gangs and wider society. Violence is used to fulfil need (5) because it is viewed as necessary to achieve power and respect which they believe, they otherwise would not have. Taking into consideration the socio-economic background of the members of gangs, needs (5) to (7) and possibly (8) are only satisfied by grouping together and cultivating a culture of violence against their rivals and the rest of society. This makes it hard to break out of that cycle of conflict.

Need Fulfilment and Conflict Resolution

If you are in conflict with another party, a resolution could involve need fulfilment. Looking at a typical office dispute, an employee may feel that their manager is preventing them from being promoted by stopping them from attending personal development sessions and technical lectures. They may have lost trust in their manager. A resolution will respond to the need to work on re-building trust and communication and it will recognise that the employee’s need to achieve self-actualisation and possibly transcendence, is linked to need (5).

Other factors are also important to consider, such as perceptions and emotions but exploring needs and interests are a vital part of any dialogue used to resolve conflict prior to devising durable, mutually beneficial solutions. As I often advise, communication is key to all of this. A non-judgemental, open conversation in which emotions and needs are explored in a safe space will lead to better solutions.

What are your thoughts? Let me know!

[1] Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (3rd edn., 1970, Reason Education)


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