I did my Ph.D. dissertation by videotaping 20 mother-toddler pairs and analyzing what happened when the mom offered an alternative to a problematic want (“not the chainsaw, sweetie, how about this red truck”). Hundreds of bleary eyed hours later, I found that offering alternatives reduced child negative emotion and increased cooperation with the parent.
Pretty interesting (at least to me, both as a new parent and as someone desperate to finish grad school). And there’s an even deeper lesson. Kids – and adults, too – obviously want to get what they want from others. But more fundamentally, we want to know that others understand our wants – and even more fundamentally, that they want to.
Consider any significant relationship: someone at work, or a friend, or a family member. How does it feel when they misinterpret what you want? Or worse, when they could care less about understanding what you want?
When you recognize the deeper wants of others, they feel seen and are less likely to be reactive. Plus you’ve gained lots of valuable information. And it becomes easier to ask them to do the same for you.
This approach also gradually reveals the profound desires at the center of being. Each person must come to know these in his or her own way. These quintessential leanings of the heart are beyond language. Diffidently and with respect, I could offer three words – fingers pointing at the moon but the not moon itself – that are suggestive: to be conscious, free, and loving.
For you, what are the deepest wants of all?
With a friend or a stranger, look deeper, behind the eyes, beneath the surface. You might sense a wish for pleasure, a commitment to others, a priority on security, a delight in life, a valuing of autonomy, or a need for love.
Look down into your own core of being and into its longings, and you’ll find many of the same wishes. They’re just as powerful and precious to the other person as they are to you.
Deep down, most wants are positive. The means to these ends may be misguided, but the fundamental ends themselves are usually good ones. Typically, even horrible behaviors are misguided efforts to gain positive things like pleasure, independence, recognition, control, or justice. Of course, this is not to justify these actions in any way. But grounding oneself in the truth, the whole truth, means seeing the whole picture, including the good intentions poignantly producing bad behavior.
Try applying this truth to yourself, regarding some act you regret. What positive aims did the act serve? What’s it like to recognize this? For me, opening to see the good aims underlying bad acts actually softens my defensiveness and helps move me to appropriate remorse, and to greater resolve to find better ways to pursue those aims. It also cuts through harsh self-criticism and encourages self-compassion.
Then, during an interaction with someone who is difficult for you – or while reflecting about the relationship as a whole – try to see the deeper wants in the other person, behind the acts of thought, word, or deed that have bothered or hurt you. (I suggest you don’t do this if you tend to blame yourself when others mistreat you.) You may not like how the other person is pursuing the deep want, but at least you can align with that want – all deep wants are positive – and if you like, try to figure out less harmful ways to fulfill it.
Last, on the fly or at particularly quiet moments, open to listen to the soft murmurs of your own most fundamental wants. In what ways are you sincerely trying to fulfill them?
Also: are there any of your deepest wants that it feels right to do more for? What would that look like, concretely, in everyday life?
Imagine your deepest wants like a soft warm current at your back, gently and powerfully carrying you forward along the long road ahead. How would this feel?
Where would this road lead?