Emotional Needs vs. Factual Needs

Every now and then, my girlfriend and I have a discussion about some topic that, on the surface, seems to be just a to-do list item related to organizing, admin, or other everyday matters. It could be deciding on a budget for a vacation, researching for a new piece of furniture, or figuring out some paperwork.

When you look at the timing of the discussion, however, you might wonder: Why are they talking about this now? We might be thinking about a problem months in advance or debate a matter for which, at this point, we don’t really have sufficient information to make a good decision. That’s because not all of our brainstorming happens to address the surface-level, factual needs you can see. Some talks we hold mainly to manage our emotions. Of course, we rarely realize that’s what we are doing.

Have you ever felt the pressing need to resolve an issue, even though, objectively, there was no urgency just yet? Then the need was emotional, not factual — and that, too, is valid. Similarly, whenever you wonder why a partner, friend, or family member is so bent on talking about something right now, chances are, they need emotional reassurance. It will barely matter what you say nor what you agree on, as long as you agree on something that allows their emotions to subside.

It takes a lot of awareness to spot this pattern in the moment, but when you do, you are free to either move on or help your loved one reach a calmer state. The stakes drop a lot instantly because you realize the issue at hand doesn’t really matter — what matters is being there for one another.

Separating your and other people’s emotional needs from reality-based ones is a lifelong task. You won’t succeed at it in each discussion, and sometimes, tempers will raise before coming back down — but it is a most noble, unmistakably human service you’ll perform, and that is its own greatest reward.