Categorizing Needs

I'm a big fan of nonviolent communication (NVC). For me, one of the most difficult parts of the practice is understanding our human needs. There are a variety of frameworks that break these needs down. I'd like to summarize and synthesize them here.

Needs from NVC

Given it's non-academic founding, NVC doesn't prescribe a clear categorization of needs. i.e. There are many differing views on how needs should be categorized in NVC. My favorite categorization is something like the one below:

There are 4 meta-categories: subsistence and security, freedom, connection, and meaning. These (mostly) make sense to me, though I might want to combine freedom and meaning (they both feel like individualist framings).

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is another well-known framework. There are two ways to meta-categorize Maslow's hierarchy. In the 1st, you create 3 buckets: basic needs, psychological needs, and self-fulfillment needs:

In an alternative framing, you can create two meta-buckets: deficiency needs and growth needs:

Deficiency needs are like sticks, and growth needs are like carrots.

Manfred Max-Neef's Fundamental human needs

However, Maslow's model has been criticized for being too individualistic (self-actualization is the top!). In contrast, Manfred Max-Neef's created (a more collectivist) framework for Fundamental human needs. Although the collectivist vs. individualist framing resonates with me, I don't personally find this framework clear/compelling, but here it is:

One part of Max-Neef's framework that I like is the concept of satisfiers, especially a "synergistic satisfier": satisfy a given need, while simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs. (i.e. A Pareto improvement with a strict > instead of a ≥.)

Other Need Frameworks

Strangely enough, I couldn't find many other needs frameworks. I like this one ("Universal Human Needs") that buckets needs into well-being, connection, and self-expression (similar to the NVC bucketing from above). I also really like this Nautilus diagram from Simon Hertnon:

It does a great job of meta-categorizing other vs. self (blue/left vs. yellow/right) and survival vs betterment (the inner circle vs. the outer circle).


When taking all of these into account, I'm most convinced by the following ideas:

  • We should differentiate basic/survival needs vs. actualization/betterment needs.
  • We should differentiate individual/meaning needs vs. collective/connection needs.

When I think about meeting these needs in my own life (and the lives of others), I'm likely to think of it as something like this:

One final note here: although I've kept most of this article focused on need frameworks in the context of relationships, we can also apply this to our macro systemic context more generally. At the frontier, the primary macro trend that we're seeing is a shift in the job-to-be-done from one of happiness to one of meaning. In other words, we're seeing prosumers shift their JTBD from purely happiness-/money-optimized work to meaning-optimized work (as the 1st JTBD of happiness is fulfilled). See Chapman's Meaningness and Danco's Emergent Layers as explorations of this idea.

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  • Bentoism is roughly equal to this, but with Future Us added as a collective need (different from a connection need).
  • ERG is also roughly equal to this. Existence, relatedness, growth (maps onto basic needs, connection, and meaning).