Core Needs Exercise

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” -Stephen Covey

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[Core Needs Exercise adapted from The Gottman Institute • adapted by Don Elium, MA MFT]

 What is a Core Need?

A core need is something that you need to feel like yourself in any situation. When a core need is met you are able to be more present to what is actually happening, rather than being over-focused or desperate about that need. The desperation can be a symptom or a signal that a core need is not being met, and your mind is trying to address it by giving it your mental/emotional attention. 

Consider, for example, that you are taking a long hike in the hills and after a few miles you reach for your water bottle and it isn’t where you thought you put it. Your mind will be driven to search for it, because on this hike adequate hydration is a core need. If you can’t find the water bottle and the sun is bearing down on you, then most of your actions are going to be focused on getting that water to meet that core hydration need. It is going to bug you, compel you and drive you until you can address the water issue. Once the water core need is met, you will be able to continue the hike and be more present to the fuller experience of your surroundings.

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Here is another example: You work hard all day with mental problems and when you arrive home, your head is still mulling over those problems. There is an argument with family members soon after you arrive home. When you step back and look at what is actually happening, you discover your head is still in work mode from the day while you are trying to connect with your family members. 

Therefore, you might have the core need of “transition time". To address that core need, one option might be a 30 minute buffer time to change clothes, acclimate to being home, and allow your head to power down from the flow of mental problem-solving.

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Let us say you don’t get that buffer and you put yourself in the middle of the family. Most likely you will be pulled inside in two different directions: trying to disconnect mentally and emotionally from the work of the day and trying to connect in the present moment with the family. This often results in feelings of frustration and fights about things that usually are not stressful, because you are torn inside with competing interests. A 30-minute buffer and transition time--especially if the family understands your need and it makes sense to them--would make it more possible for you to “feel like yourself” at home and be more present to what is actually occurring there.

As you can see, core needs are by their nature inflexible: you NEED the water and you NEED your transition time or you will be hurting yourself physically and/or emotionally. 

So in working things out with others, it is best not to compromise a core need. You function best from where you are flexible. You may find that as you discuss the issue of work/home transitions with your family, that they each have a core need to be “greeted” when you arrive home. Since you would know you are going to get your transition time, you might be flexible to delay it a few minutes so you could check in on each member and say hello. If there is an agreement about your transition time—your family knows you need your 30 minutes and they are aware of the benefit when you have that time--they could encourage you and support you in taking that time after the greeting. Everybody wins with these agreements, and compromise does not sacrifice any core needs.

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NOTE: Core Needs are more possible to identify when you are applying this process to an actual situation, such as: when I get home in the afternoon from work I need a transition time, rather than a generalized core need say, to get “respect.” It is more effective to explore the core need of “ respect” IN the situation of when you arrive home from work. Be as specific about a circumstance as possible and avoid generalizations and “always” and “never” narratives. 


This is the format for discovering core needs and flexible needs for each person in a relationship or just for your own insight into yourself.


COMPROMISE happens in the FLEXIBLE NEEDS area of the circle. NOTE that there is a much larger circle for FLEXIBLE NEEDS than the CORE NEEDS. It is important to work to get the core needs circle as clear and accurate as possible.  CORE NEEDS content will be smaller than the flexible needs.  However, it may FEEL larger when trying to trick or convince someone to be flexible with a CORE NEED. This willR IVET attention to the smaller circle and create a gridlock. 

Understanding and discovery happens in the core needs. Not compromise. These are non-flexible. And if they are flexible and that is ok, then they are still important to you but are not core needs but flexible.

• Sometimes you think something is a core need and you may find upon discussion it is actually flexible. Sometimes you find a flexible need might be core as you get insight. Allow continuing understanding to happen as you work with this.

 It is often best to start learning this exercise using a very focused issue such as “where do we go on vacation’ or “what movie do we want to watch this weekend together.”  You can choose “our marriage,” as a focus but know that this is a broader focus and might need to be broken down into areas of the marriage such as ‘friendship” or “parent” and "sexuality" "affection" and other areas. It is ok to choose“the marriage” as the focus, just know that if you get bogged down to bring the target focus into a more specific topic about “the marriage.” Then this can be done with many conversations instead of one big one. Marriage is actually one life-long conversation.

Once you each have completed your two lists, set a time aside to each have a turn where you listen to your partner's circles, and only ask questions for your understanding THEIR point of view. Once both have had a turn WITHOUT criticism or commentary, THEN, move into a discussion and how a negotiation and agreements can be made with the flexible/adaptive areas.  This is to be done while valuing and protecting your partners core needs: the non-flexible areas. It is often amazing how many new options open up when a couple stops trying to change their own or their partner's core needs on an issue, and move to a discussion of the flexible areas.  Happy couples do more than that. They PROTECT and ADVOCATE for their partner's core needs. 

Use the GETTING TO YES questions A a guide to help come to a negotiated agreement regarding the issue or focus at hand:

Remember the principles of the Sound Relationship House below, especially avoiding the Four Horsemen! There are more instructive articles on the CORE NEEDS EXERCISE below.

Remember the principles of the Sound Relationship House below, especially avoiding the Four Horsemen! There are more instructive articles on the CORE NEEDS EXERCISE below.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” -Stephen Covey

"More than one thing can be true at the same time." -Don Elium

"There is nothing wrong with you, life it just far harder than you ever expected."-David Schnarch

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Manage Conflict:

The Art of Compromise

by Ellie Listsa

We’ve all been in the middle of an argument that we know we cannot win, understanding that our frustration has overwhelmed all sense of perspective. Spent and shattered, we would do well to remember the old saying: “It is better to bend than to break!” And this is just what Dr. Gottman’s countless research studies have shown.

When you are caught in the heat of an argument, you are in a state of crisis, which is defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” from the Greek krisis. In times where you experience crisis, what you yearn for most of all is to feel safe. If you do not feel safe (emotionally or physically), there is no way for you to reach a state of compromise with your partner.

Dr. Gottman’s further findings may not seem so intuitive: If your goal is to reach a state of compromise, you must first focus on yourself. Define your core needs in the area of your problems, do not relinquish anything that you feel is absolutely essential, and understand that you must be willing to accept influence.

His advice, based on more than four decades years of research, is the following:

Remember, you can only be influential if you accept influence. Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something. The important thing is feeling understood, respected, and honored in your dreams.

If you feel like this is an incredibly tall order, you are not alone. Luckily, the following exercise may be of comfort. Featured in the couples workshop that Dr. Gottman presents with his wife and collaborator, Dr. Julie Gottman, this exercise will help you and your partner to make headway into the perpetually gridlocked problems you face in your relationship. We hope that it will provide welcome relief in this critical first step towards easing the many stresses of conflict:

The Art of Compromise

Step 1: Consider an area of conflict in which you and your partner have been stuck in perpetual gridlock. Draw two ovals, one within the other. The one on the inside is yourInflexible Area, and the one on the outside is your Flexible Area.

Step 2: Think of the inside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values you absolutely cannot compromise on, and the outside oval containing the ideas, needs, and values that you feel more flexible with in this area. Make two lists.

Step 3: Discuss the following questions with your partner, in the way that feels most comfortable and natural for the two of you:

  • Can you help me to understand why your “inflexible” needs or values are so important to you?

  • What are your guiding feelings here?

  • What feelings and goals do we have in common? How might these goals be accomplished?

  • Help me to understand your flexible areas. Let’s see which ones we have in common.

  • How can I help you to meet your core needs?

  • What temporary compromise can we reach on this problem?

Designed as an activity for the two of you, this exercise should not be approached in the midst of a stressful discussion. It will be most helpful if undertaken in peacetime, perhaps in the evening or on a weekend. It should take you and your partner approximately thirty minutes. Remember, this activity is not a magical pill that the two of you can pop, causing your problems to disappear forever! It is the beginning of a series of what will likely prove to be long, honest, fruitful, and fulfilling discussions.

If this all still feels intimidating, don’t be discouraged. It probably means that this is important to you. And that is your greatest power – motivation to overcome these very real difficulties. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” The differences between us all are very real.

Remember, those of us who love someone have a real gift – having seen the unique beauty of the one we love, in all of its strengths and weaknesses, complexities and depths, we share the will to build bridges between our souls.


Why You Need To Accept Your Partner's Core Needs

By Heather Gray

The first time contempt showed up in my marriage it was quiet, condescending, and it came from me.

I’d made plans with my friends and was calling my husband to wish him a good day when he asked, “When will I hear from you?”

That one question rattled every independent bone in my body.

What did he mean “When would I hear from you?” He was hearing from me now. I was going to be with my friends later. That was the whole point of me calling!

I wasn’t expecting to talk to him again until the following day.

“What do you mean we’re not talking until tomorrow?” he asked. “I thought since we aren’t seeing each other later, we’d be talking tonight.”

And that’s when I said it. “Really?

I simply did not understand his notion of checking in, keeping in touch, or staying emotionally connected while apart. I was single for years before meeting him. I wasn’t used to staying in touch with someone and I didn’t see that as a reflection of how I felt about him.

I could be in love with him and still not need to talk to him multiple times per day.

However, that wasn’t his style. He needed to connect regularly.

Our core needs are not negotiable

Successful relationships come down to basic questions about our core needs:

  • What do I need in a relationship in order to feel loved, happy, fulfilled, and secure?

  • What do you need in a relationship to feel the same?

  • Are you willing to meet my needs in this relationship?

  • Am I willing to meet yours?

If our partners are unwilling to meet our needs, the relationship cannot thrive. If we are unwilling to meet our partner’s needs, the outcome remains the same.

It didn’t matter whether or not my husband’s need for regular connection challenged my sense of independence. It didn’t matter whether or not I believed it to be a worthwhile need. It only mattered whether or not I was willing to give him what he needed.

If his needs challenged my own, if I couldn’t give him what he needed, or if I simply didn’t want to give him what he needed, I needed to take the door.

I loved him more than I cared about having to check in.

At the end of the day, I loved him more than I was challenged by regular connection. I was willing to meet his need in order for our relationship to succeed.

How our needs get met is negotiable

When I met my husband and we were first working this stuff out, I was working a crazy job with crazy hours. I couldn’t guarantee much in terms of regular or consist contact. However, I was able to say:

I love you. You are important to me. I understand you hate feeling like my busy schedule keeps me from thinking of you. I don’t want you to feel that way. I am going to keep in touch and I need you to understand there’s no way I can promise when, for how long, or how often I’ll be able to do so.

Here is the recipe for success:

  • Communicate that you understand your partner’s need and why it’s important to them

  • Reiterate why tending to this is important to you

  • Be clear on your own boundaries and limits in meeting the need

  • Communicate what your partner can expect from you going forward

  • Check back with your partner that they understand your limits and are ok with them

This is taken from the Gottman-Rapoport Conflict Blueprint for managing conflict in committed relationships.

Lasting relationships require flexibility

Working together to meet each other’s needs is a dance that can create a meaningful and lasting relationship.

Successful relationships require a solid friendship, so it helps in the beginning when needs can be met consistently to build trust and security between partners.

When it comes to meeting needs, communication and compromise are a necessity.

While my job is lower key now and less demanding in many ways than when my husband and I first confronted this issue, I still need me time away from my partner.

Communication is crucial:

Babe, I know you like keeping in touch. I am having a “just get in my car and drive” kind of day. I need to clear my head and unplug from everything and everyone. I am heading out for a while but I will call once my head is clear and let you know when I’ll be back. Sound good?

The key here is to take your partner’s needs into account while expressing yours.

If you don’t communicate this, you run the risk of your partner thinking that you stopped caring, that their needs are only a priority when it’s convenient for you, or some other unintended message.

Sometimes, your needs will conflict with one another and you’re going to have to talk about it, negotiate it, and come to a compromise together.

Relationships thrive when needs are met and falter when they’re not. That fact, quite simply, is non-negotiable.