The Secret to Understanding Humans: Larry C. Rosen (Full Transcript)

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.

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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.”

I thought, “OK, that’s a good answer, but what about this Marshall? What are needs from a neurological perspective? What’s happening in the brain? How do they actually motivate us?”

And here, Marshall said, “Oh, that’s simple. Needs are life force, human life force.”

And I thought, “Whoa. That’s not science at all.”

And so, I spent the next two years meeting with neuropsychologists and speaking with evolutionary biologists and reading cognitive journals with footnotes, and I eventually concluded this needs stuff is grounded in solid science.

And because research shows that if you mention the word “neuroscience” or “brain” in a big talk, it’s a thousand times more likely to go viral, let me say, this is neuroscience. Brain science. Neuro and brain. Neuro-brain.

Now, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer, a mediator, and a writer. But being a layperson has allowed me to unravel this science, to translate it away from chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine and into what I believe is a useful narrative.

And so, here’s what I believe is going on in the human brain, with needs. The human unconscious evaluates the world, telling us whether it’s dangerous or friendly. That’s its job.

Once it reaches its conclusion, it’s got to motivate the whole system, including the conscious mind, to do something about it.


If it concludes that the world’s dangerous, we naturally feel fear or anxiety, and we try to get less of what caused it. If it concludes the world is friendly, we naturally feel happy or excited and we try to get more.

But, and this is the key, how does the unconscious determine what’s dangerous and what’s friendly?

It’s not just left up to each of us individually. Rather, the criteria upon which we evaluate the world is born into you and born into me and born into all of us. Those are the human needs. Those specific criteria were honed through evolution, because they allow us to survive, to relate to other people, and ultimately, to make more people.

“Am I being respected?” “Am I making a contribution in the world?” “Does she think I’m cute?”

If so, pleasure, get more of that! If not, pain, change the world. It took me several years to unravel the science in a way that made narrative sense to me.

And yet, in that time, I actually stopped caring so much about what was happening in the brain. I was using this and understanding people in a way that I didn’t think was possible. I was seeing their hearts, it worked, and really, that’s what counts.

I’d like to tie this together with a story. As I said, I’m a mediator. When people are at war, they come to me and I help them work it out. Not too long ago, I was visited by a couple that had already been divorced.

The ex-wife, Sophia, said a precious object had gone missing. What was it? Sophia had never met her father, and her mother died when she was a little girl. She was raised by her grandmother, and in her grandmother’s house hung this large painting, painted by Sophia’s grandmother, of Sophia’s mother.

Sophia used to look at this painting when she was a little girl and imagine herself holding her mom’s hand and kissing her mom’s cheek. Sophia’s grandmother, the painter, died a few weeks before the mediation, and in her final hours, she signed the picture.

Sophia described this with tears and finally looked to her ex-husband and she said, “Frank took the picture. Frank, when are you going to stop trying to punish me for the affair?”

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I looked to the guy, and his face was cold as stone, and I thought, “Whoa.” People come to see me because I can help solve their problems, but I’m kind of a one-trick pony.

The thing is I have this excellent trick, I can help them understand each other’s hidden motivations, and I knew something that Sophia didn’t. Frank wasn’t trying to punish her. People often think revenge is a human motive, but hurting another person is not a human need.

Now, how do I know?

Well, here’s a trick I developed a few years ago that I find very useful. If you ever think that somebody is motivated by something that doesn’t personally give you pleasure, you actually haven’t found their motivation; go deeper. I don’t get pleasure from hurting other people.

If it’s not in me, it’s not a common need, and if it’s not a common need, it’s not a human motivation. Go deeper. Revenge is pursued to fulfill another need.

But what? It varies, but very often, it’s a need for understanding. If I hurt you, you will understand, at the level of personal pain, at the level of intense personal suffering, what you did to me. You’ll finally get it. This wasn’t the case for Frank.

My theory that he had taken the picture in order to be understood for the pain of the affair was wrong. I often guess wrong. But as I was guessing and without blame convinced him to share something else, his eyes welled with tears and he looked over at his ex-wife Sophia and he said, “Soph, she had become my grandmother too! She was all that I had! You were all that I had.”

Frank was an orphan too, just like Sophia. He took the painting to fulfill a common human need of connection. Hurting Sophia was never the point. Sophia moved next to Frank on the couch and she wrapped her arms around him, and they sobbed together for ten minutes.

And I cried too. I had ten minutes. What was I going to do?

Frank ultimately returned the painting to Sophia, and she dug up a trove of old photos of Frank with her grandmother, so that he could remember his family.

Understand what happened here. We didn’t make the common and easy mistake thinking that revenge is a motive. Instead, we went to the source of all human motivation, to the common needs.

When Sophia understood that Frank had simply needed connection, human connection, and in particular, to her grandmother, she got it, she could feel it, and then the magic, and then solutions.

Now, many people, including some in this audience, are wary of understanding others, and especially during conflict. The thought goes like this, “If I understand the reasons you did what you did, I’m basically saying you were justified.”

Understanding seems like condoning, and for this reason, people often say, “Don’t go inside the mind of a terrorist, don’t get them. To get a terrorist is to legitimate terrorism. It’s to be an apologist.”

And for this reason, it was suggested to me that I dropped from my talk the piece about the Taliban teenager, because then people might think I condone terrorism.

Let me make something perfectly clear. Understanding reasons is different than condoning. I’ve learned through thousands of mediations understanding is a power to shape the world far greater than any sword or gun.

Understanding is exactly how you create the world that you want. I began this talk asking, “Is it possible to understand everyone at a deep and meaningful level, even those that are different from you?” And the answer is yes.

When your teenage daughter asks you for that hair straightener, and just one week after you bought her that hair crimper, and she’s standing at the top of the stairs with this crazy crimped hair, screaming, “You just don’t understand!”, this is how you understand: What is she needing?

She wants to be accepted, liked. The desire to be accepted, to be liked, is in you, is in me, is in everyone in this audience. And so you can understand exactly what she feels, and that alone will transform your relationship.

And then come the solutions, even if it’s only, “I see you, my beautiful little girl. I get you.”

There’s a formula for understanding why we do what we do, and once you get it, you get it. Human behavior is complex, but human motivation is simple. We seek the common needs, and nothing else. We seek the common needs, and nothing else.

The common needs are human motivation. Learn this language of the unconscious, this language of the heart, and you’ll improve every relationship in your life.

Thank you.

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