Needs are strong motivators that move individuals towards action and self-realisation. From the most basic and necessary related to survival, to the more subtle ones related with self-realization and transcendence, needs form an essential part of our life journey. Meeting needs, in turn, often depends on the collective, the social environment, as most of our needs cannot be satisfied in isolation.

Attempts have been made to classify and explain human needs from different psycho-social perspectives. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as well as other theories, provides a practical framework for understanding different needs as well as the relationship between them.

One way of understanding personal needs is the following four categories:

  • Freedom and trust – creating safe spaces
  • Belonging and acceptance – love and relationships
  • Recognition and influence – participation, meaning, and empowerment
  • Personal fulfillment

Needs, whether consciously perceived or not, are often at the center of conflicts and strong emotions. In fact, emotions often indicate whether a person’s needs are met or not. Unmet needs can for example give rise to anger, sadness, confusion and isolation. Often, they also lead to a stronger focus on “I”, the individual, and can push people to lose their trust in or care for the group. Finding the need behind any emotion is a good way to bridge conflict and find understanding and common ground for moving forward together. A mature, skillful and responsible way of dealing with emotions, individually and collectively, is a very important factor for living or working in community.

Working with needs skillfully, it helps to consider these different levels:

  • Internal: The ability to acknowledge personal needs, without hiding from oneself or others. Being willing to meet them as much as possible, but not at any cost.
  • Inter-Relational: Sensibility towards the needs of other people, without judging or measuring them according to personal standards. Accepting the diversity of needs that can be present in different stages of life or in special circumstances. Welcoming these needs as an invitation, not a demand.
  • Group: Capacity to integrate needs and shift from the personal to the group in order to satisfy both personal needs as well as those of the others and those which are shared by the whole group.

Moving into a more collective or communal situation requires an individual to develop skills on each level, and learn how to find mutually beneficial ways of meeting their own needs and the needs of others and the group.

When someone starts to live and/or work together with other people, they tend to delegate parts of the satisfaction of their individual needs to the collective. For instance, instead of all having a separate house and way of making sure food is on the table, they can share spaces and resources in order to meet the same needs. Living in community also means that many needs that otherwise would be met only by the closest family or friends can be met by a larger and more diverse group of people.

Caring for each other in this way is also one of the three basic Permaculture ethics: people care”. By giving attention to needs from a broad and collective perspective, focusing on the abundance of giving and receiving, groups can create a social reality where everyone can take care of themselves, the others, the group and the project in mutually supportive and beneficial ways. This might sound desirable or even beautiful, but it is not always easy. Meeting needs in collective ways is the opposite of what many people have learned growing up in individualist cultures, telling them to compete for what they need, fighting against each other, led by a belief in scarcity of resources, security, affection, and recognition. Embracing a more collaborative approach to meeting needs in mutual ways requires degree of trust and confidence which is not always present at the beginning of a project, and that can be challenged by conflicts along the way.

In order to create or transition to a culture of sharing, mutual support, care and collaboration, each person in a project is likely to sometimes need support in understanding and experiencing that caring for their own and other people’s needs is often the same thing. This process requires introspection, questioning implicit and explicit beliefs, and opening the mind and heart to new experiences. Going through it in community makes it easier and allows people to grow through mutual support and actual experiences of a different way of being together.

Of course, it also requires individual willingness to change, take responsibility and examine needs and emotions from new angles. How a person perceives their needs, their strategies for meeting them, and their reactions to not having them met often depend on their background, habits and attitudes. In well-functioning groups, people do not let go of the responsibility for themselves, but learn to share and communicate skillfully and open up to the possibility that seemingly contradictory needs can actually be complementary and met at the same time.