I was reading a text on meditation this morning and something stood out to me. Lawrence Freeman, the author was quoting Evagrius, the 4th century ascetic monk who went to live in the Egyptian desert, who said: “The most important task we have is to ‘watch our thoughts’ and become aware of the connections and associations between them” He was “concerned about the deep thoughts that are the expressions of our unmet needs, coming from our deeper spiritual nature. We need to pay these significant thoughts and their associations the attention they deserve. They are the only indicators we have of what really motivates us for good or for ill.” The words “expressions of our unmet needs” jolted me! I was surprised by such “modern” words of wisdom coming to us from so long ago!

The expression of unmet needs; As a mediator I am very familiar with the term, especially having studied Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent-Communication. I was, however, surprised and intrigued by finding those words in the mouth of a fourth century ascetic monk. It was as a proof, if I needed one, that human deeper needs have not just been discovered in the 21st or even 20th century. It is obvious that the wise men of old knew in depth about human emotions.

I am keenly interested in human behaviour, what is underneath the anger, the different triggers and how to deal with it. In her blog “Unmet needs and negative behaviour”, Angela Lunde, expresses it this way – (her study is primarily on dementia patients but it applies to all human behaviour)

“It is important to see challenging behaviours as symptoms instead of problems. Think about this analogy: You have an infection and develop a fever. The fever is a symptom of the infection. If we simply see your fever as the problem, we will only treat the fever. While this might reduce some of your discomfort for a time, the fever will eventually return and you will get worse because nothing was done for the real problem — the infection. Similarly, to better manage behaviour symptoms ……..we need to uncover and address the real source of the problem.”

When dealing with conflict, we typically have an expression of anger, at various degrees. Sometimes this simply stems from frustration at not being heard. I recall an incident I witnessed at the airport while waiting for my flight. A French elderly couple was quite agitated and speaking very loud to the airline attendant at the registration desk. They were about to miss their flight to their daughter’s wedding in the USA, had bought their tickets in France, but there seemed to be a paper missing and the attendant just kept repeating the same line: “You didn’t provide us with this paper so we can’t let you on the plane”.  The elderly Frenchman, in his 70’s, whose English was very poor, kept saying and repeating the same thing, only LOUDER! This is common when people don’t feel heard, but it caused the lady at the desk to feel  threatened and so, she called security.

The security man arrived and in English, ORDERED THEM TO CALM DOWN!!! He threatened to have them expelled out of the airport – much of which they couldn’t understand.

That is when I approached them, offering my help, wanting to avoid an unnecessary consequence for these elderly compatriots.  Since when had anyone who was upset calmed down when ordered to do so, all the more in a language they didn’t understand! All they could hear is the tone of voice used. To be fair to him, the security man was probably overwhelmed by the task in front of him, and the fact he couldn’t communicate with them. I recognised he was just trying to have his own needs to met, and that the situation had the potential to end in a negative outcome for the couple.

I am happy to say that my intervention was useful in allowing the French couple to vent to me in French and it helped them feel understood and get some clarity as to what was happening. In the end, they realised that there had been a missing paper which was not difficult for them to obtain. By helping all the parties to express their needs in a way they could understand, there was a happy ending, and the elderly couple was able to make it to their daughter’s wedding.

We can see from this incident that this couple needed above all to feel heard and understood in order to diffuse their anxiety. All three parties, the couple, the security man and the lady at the check-in desk all were able to get their needs met. All the situation needed was a simple empathic intervention. An important point however is that I didn’t just translate French to English, but demands into needs, and this is crucial when it comes to intercultural interactions.

Anger is an interesting topic. Naturally I shy away from angry people – I don’t like conflict. I am by nature much more of an Owl or Teddy bear (See the graph below) Some cultures – such as the English – are more prone to a distaste of emotional displays than others.

I recall a little story my old English teacher told us that brought much amusement to the class: two Englishmen had a small accident with their cars, they both came out of the car and said, in a cordial tone:” Good morning, what happened here?” We all laughed at the story, knowing well what a typical Frenchman reaction would have been (to yell and blame each other). This Englishman’s comparison story came back to mind during my first week in Lebanon, when I saw a brawl in the street. Concerned about my safety, I looked on from afar. Two men had a small accident with their cars, nothing serious, but there they were, with their chests out in a posturing manner, ready to come to blows with each other, lashing out in abusive language and having to be held back by passers-by so they didn’t come to actually hitting each other. This incident reinforced my understanding of how much “culture” affects basic human behaviour.

Similar incident, totally different reactions, is one preferable above the other? If we look at anger as an expression of unmet needs, they are similar, just people crying out for what they need, albeit in different way. The way anger is expressed in different cultural settings will differ greatly from one to another but they amount to the same basic need.  In Mediterranean countries, it is considered healthy and “normal” to show a strong emotional response. In English society, it is seen as a lack of restraint. The response of the security man at the airport was a normal, educated response, to a strong display of emotion, in an English setting.

When dealing with speakers of a foreign language and an emotive foreign culture, using compassionate communication will bring in the recognition of “unmet needs”, which can then be expressed in such a way that the other party will be able to “hear” it.

In my view, so much heartache would be saved if training for those types of situation included cultural awareness.

Had you previously thought about your reactions?                                                             In the words of Abraham Maslow: “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”

Below is a learning tool, which animal do think represents the way you handle conflict?

Conflict Strategies

The Turtle – the avoider: Tends to avoid conflict and confrontations.

Teddy Bear – the accommodator: The bear tends to focus on relationship rather than issues.

Shark – the competitor:

Fox – the compromiser: Foxes looks for the compromise.

Owl – the collaborator:  Searches for the win-win in each situation.

Do you recognise your normal response? Would you want to learn more on getting your needs met safely? If you do, feel free to contact us, we provide training.