Communication, conflict resolution and leadership, at times, resemble working as a lifeguard. In all these situations, you can, like a lifeguard, be in the position of approaching someone else when they are under distress because their needs are not being met.

Picture a drowning man. He is flailing in the water. He is grasping at everything and everyone within reach. He has little or no visible concern for others. He may, at other times, be a kind, loving, considerate person. While he is in the process of drowning, he thrashes, lunges and swings his arms and legs wildly.

If you get in the way of a drowning man, you just might get hurt. He won’t necessarily hurt you because he is unkind, rude or inconsiderate. He might hurt you in his effort to get air.

What has all of that got to do with communication, conflict resolution and leadership? Well, everything.

Picture a person who really needs to feel some control over their choices and environment. If they don’t get this control, they will fight against the organization, people or person who they perceive is limiting their ability to control their own environment. In a different situation, they might be a really nice person. Catch them in the moment that they are fighting for their emotional needs, and they look just like a drowning man. They are fighting to get their needs met.

Emotional needs are no different from physical needs. They are needs. They are not wishes, wants or desires. They are needs. When they go unmet, people lash out.

Here’s a challenge: Not everyone has the same blend of emotional needs. Some people really need control, challenges and a feeling of being respected. Other people need fun, excitement and to feel liked. A significant portion of the population, though not all people, need to feel supported, encouraged and appreciated. Another segment of the population needs to understand the reason behind decisions, what data entered into the decision, and to be valued.

The person who needs respect may not totally understand the idea of appreciating someone. The person who needs to have fun may not understand the importance of verifiable facts. The person who needs support may not see the need to move quickly and to create a feeling of forward momentum. The person who needs to be valued may not understand the need to be liked. All of us have certain emotional needs. There are some commonalities between us, and their are some differences. Often, we just don’t “get” why someone else needs something that we don’t need.

When we fail to understand, validate, and, to the best of our abilities, meet the needs of other people, we can put them in the state of the drowning man. When we do that, they really don’t (or can’t?) care about us.

We can change this dynamic when we throw people a life preserver by working to understand and feed their needs. When we do that, we help them get to a place where they can also hear and understand us. We communicate, resolve conflict and lead more effectively when we meet needs rather than challenge them.

For more great leadership advice, check out my Talk Like a Leader Podcast, a weekly podcast that explores the mindset, skillset, and habit set of leadership communication. Using his tips, techniques, and tactics, you’ll be able to Talk Like a Leader to build better relationships and get more done.

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