Full transcript of mediator and author Larry C. Rosen’s TEDx Talk: The Secret to Understanding Humans @ TEDxsalinas conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The Secret to Understanding Humans by Larry C. Rosen @ TEDxsalinas
Larry C. Rosen – Mediator/Attorney
Is it possible to understand everyone at a deep and meaningful level, to get what really matters to people, no matter how different they are from you? That proposition sounds a little absurd.
After all, human psychology is really complex. Some people are abused as children, others are loved and supported.
The brain of an 18-year-old girl who sleeps with her cell phone is different than an 80-year-old man who can’t remember the names of his children.
There’s no one way to understand everyone, no broad operating principle. That’s the conventional wisdom, it makes perfect sense, and yet, it’s a myth.
A few years ago, I was watching TV, scenes from Afghanistan. A group of teenage boys was standing in the back of a dusty pickup, waving rifles, and one boy wrapped in a white cloth, with dazzling blue-green eyes, was staring directly into the camera.
He looked intent, menacing, and that was the point of the piece: we should be afraid because young men were passionate about killing Americans.
Let me tell you about another boy: my nephew, Rory. At the time I saw this piece, Rory was a freshman in college, at Harvard. But Rory is not full of himself. In a word, he’s sweet. He’s not a hugger, but he’ll always hug me because he knows that I am.
He bakes brownies with his young cousins. He wants to be a doctor one day. I’m proud of Rory, and I can’t imagine a kid more different than that one from Afghanistan, except, at a fundamental level, these two boys are exactly the same.
They’ve chosen their respective paths, join the Taliban, go to Harvard, for the same internal reasons: they both would like respect.
Everyone knows that when you go to Harvard, people look up to you for the rest of your life, and when you join the Taliban, little kids look on in awe as you drive by in that dusty vehicle. They also want community belonging.
Rory’s got close friends, the men of Harvard, but no closer, I’d bet, than the men of the Taliban.
And lastly and probably most important to both, they want to make a difference in their worlds, they want to help those they love.
What’s amazing and horrifying is that one will learn to be a doctor and the other will learn to kill. It’s true that human behavior is amazingly varied and complex, but at the level of motivation, at the level of what drives us to do all those different things, we’re actually identical.
There’s a formula for understanding why we do what we do, and once you get it, you get it.
There are 30 basic human motivations. Let me give you a quick primer.
There’s the obvious, the physical. We want to survive: we need air, food and water. There’s a second category, of relational needs, that help us understand how to balance our self-interest and that of the community.
We all want to receive care, understanding, love, but at the same time, we want to give our love, to help others in our lives.
Then there’s a third category of needs you’d call aspirational, or spiritual. We want to grow, we all crave adventure and beauty. I’m not going to go through the whole list because everything on the list you’re already familiar with.
But don’t then mistake this for that old high school sociology lesson, where the teacher says, “Human beings have needs; if they’re not fulfilled, unhappiness and war.”
That’s all true, but I’m not here to make that macro sociological point. I’m here to help you understand the micro, the human individual, in any given moment, what drives your mother, your spouse, your boss.
Human behavior, no matter how seemingly bizarre or mundane, is designed internally to fulfill one or some of the common needs. If you want to understand what really matters to a person at the level of deep motivation, ask: which of the common needs have they been pursuing?
Here’s a story from my personal life.
My wife Shelly sometimes gets upset with me for not cleaning the dishes to her exacting standard. I can see her there, as I’m cleaning, over my left shoulder, pretending to read the mail, watching me.
Now, I could easily conclude, “That’s a little weird. She might be OCD.”
But these brilliant observations don’t get me very far. If I want to understand my wife, and I do, I ask a basic question: what needs are driving her?
Shelly’s a busy woman. She teaches high school full-time, she drives our kids everywhere, she calls my mom to say hi and “I love you.”
Excuse me. I got a little emotional with that. She calls my mom to say hi and “I love you.” Clean dishes, neatly stacked and put away, fulfill in her the common needs for order and rest.
Finally some peace of mind. And there’s one more huge need motivating her dishwash spine: when I leave stuff on the dishes, like that big piece of vermicelli hanging off the back, that’s so super obvious to her, after she’s said, “Larry, do a good job this time; this time, please, do a good job,” she concludes I don’t care about her.
If you want to understand everyone, including Shelly, the outside world matters to us only because we’re trying to fulfill needs internally. She doesn’t really care about clean dishes. At depth, she, like everyone else, wants respect, to be loved.
Human behavior is complex, but human motivation is actually simple. We seek these common needs, and nothing else.
Now, I didn’t myself discover that common needs drive human behavior. The idea was proposed around 50 years ago by the psychologist Carl Rogers and then further developed by the extraordinary peacemaker Marshall Rosenberg.
I came across their concepts around 15 years ago, and they made good sense to me. So, I began to implement them in my personal life, to decode family and friends.
And I was understanding people. I was intrigued, but I was also skeptical. I asked Marshall Rosenberg, “Why 30 needs, and not 755?”
And he said, “Oh, it could be 30 or 755. The need to survive, for example, could be further broken down into the needs to not walk off a cliff, or to not be eaten by predators. Thirty is just a useful level of aggregation.”