A Research Paper By Raphael Weninger, Life Coach, AUSTRIA
Life Events and Their Impact on Your Quality of Life
In 2021 over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs and the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ was coined. According to Cook (2021), this is not a new phenomenon but rather a continuation of a pre-pandemic trend, which employers will have to deal with for the years to come. The exodus is being driven by Millennials and Generation Z, who are more likely to be dissatisfied with their work. More than half of Gen Z reported planning to seek a new job within the next year.
This shift is not an American phenomenon but can be observed in different countries across the world such as China. There, a social protest movement is known as “tang ping” or ‘lying flat’ has emerged, which rejects the societal pressures to overwork, such as in the 996 working hour system (9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week), which emphasizes a life of hard work and sacrifice instead of satisfaction (Siqi et al., 2021).
For (younger)people the worries don’t stop there, increasing environmental problems and war but also increased cost of living, medical costs, housing prices, student debt, and more are on their minds.
The Covid-19 pandemic acted as an accelerating factor to already existing trends mentioned above.
The pandemic had us rethink our careers, working conditions, long-term goals, and what things are relevant to us.
It is important to note that the impact of the pandemic is not restricted to work, it has permeated many if not all aspects of our lives including our relationships, our finances, and our health. In short, it has an impact on people’s quality of life, and on the possibility of adequately satisfying their fundamental human needs.
These recent and not-so-recent events are my starting point to explore how we can improve our quality of life.
Since the scope of this paper is limited it will not be possible to pay tribute to all the intricacies that exist in different cultures, however by focusing on the most basic human needs that are very similar across the world this effect shall be somewhat mitigated.
Before looking at how coaching can help us to meet our needs and thus improve our quality of life, I would like to explore what ‘quality of life actually means and how needs are connected to it.
Quality of Life and the Role of Human Needs
“Quality of life” is defined by the World Health Organization (2020) as “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns” (WHO, 2020). Adding to that Max-Neef (1991, p. 16) highlights that “quality of life depends on the possibilities people have to adequately satisfy their fundamental human needs”.
For a long time, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita has been considered to be closely linked to the well-being of citizens. Only in 2009 did Eurostat (2020) recognizes that social, environmental, and economic progress does not always go hand-in-hand with an increase in GDP. It took until 2017 to establish a list of quality of life indicators, which still feel biased towards the economic rather than the human perspective.
Human needs are ontological facts of life and requirements that are always found when the behavior of human beings is analyzed, irrespective of culture, race, language, creed, color, sex, or age (Ekins & Max-Neef, 2006; Mallmann, 1973).
However, in economic literature, the concept of needs is quickly dismissed as mere wants or preferences, which are seen as insatiable and unlimited (McConnell, 1981; Anderton, 2000). Increased consumption is synonymous with an improved standard of living and thus a better quality of life. However, needs are different from wants and preferences in the sense that needs are a) non-negotiable and b) failure to satisfy our needs has a detrimental effect on the individual (Jackson, Jager & Stagl, 2004). Max-Neef (1991) adds to the critique that needs are falsely believed to be infinite, changing constantly and different in each culture and environment. In reality, it is the satisfiers that are changing and the needs stay the same, a distinction that will be discussed in the coming paragraphs.
Max-Neef subsequently highlights the shortcoming of some of the existing literature, that no differentiation is made between needs and satisfiers. Human needs are interrelated and with the exception of the need for subsistence, no hierarchy exists. This is in contrast to the well-known Maslow’s (1954) hierarchy of needs, where needs lower in the hierarchy have to be at least partially satisfied before needs further up the hierarchy can be satisfied. Maslow’s approach has been criticized as it denies access to the satisfaction of higher needs in less developed countries and overly focuses on the individualistic part of need-satisfaction, omitting the role of society, culture, and the environment by treating them as secondary to the individual motivation (Jackson, Jager & Stagl, 2004).
Other theories are attempting to improve on these deficiencies. Max-Neef (1991) came up with a useful framework that shows the interconnectedness of satisfiers and needs. He defined 9 fundamental human needs that are interrelated and interactive:
For example, food and shelter “must not be seen as needs but as satisfiers of the fundamental need for Subsistence. In much the same way, education (either formal or informal), study, investigation, early stimulation, and meditation are satisfiers of the need for Understanding“ (Max-Neef, 1991, p. 17). Education is not the only way to meet the need for Understanding and Education also helps to meet other needs such as Participation, Identity, and Freedom.
A need can be understood two-fold, as a ‘deprivation’, something being lacking, or as a ‘potential’ in the sense that it serves to motivate a person. A need can never be fully satisfied but rather satisfied to a greater or lesser extent.
Max-Neef (ibid.) describes satisfiers as things that contribute to the realization of human needs by representing forms of
- Being (personal or collective attributes)
- Having (institutions, norms, tools)
- Doing (personal or collective actions)
- Interacting (spaces or atmospheres)
These satisfiers can vary depending on cultural background, contexts, historical times as well as strategies that are pursued. For example, different types of housing (a hut, a flat, a mansion) can meet different people’s needs for protection in different countries. In that sense, the type of housing is satisfier.
Depending on the way that these satisfiers interact with human needs they can be classified as follows:
- Violators: seem to be satisfying needs, but in fact fail to meet the need they are directed towards
- Pseudo Satisfiers: seem to be satisfying a need, but generate a false sense of satisfaction with the need
- Inhibiting Satisfiers: satisfy one need to which they are directed but tend to inhibit the satisfaction of other needs
- Singular Satisfiers: satisfy one particular need only. These do not affect the satisfaction of other needs
- Synergistic Satisfiers: satisfy a given need, while simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs
An example of a violator would be censorship, which is supposed to meet the need for protection but prevents people from meeting their need for freedom and creation. An example of a synergistic satisfier would be medicine as it helps to meet the needs of protection, subsistence, understanding, and participation.
Fundamental human needs are finite, identifiable, and common to all humans but satisfiers can differ from one individual or group to another. People should be free to choose satisfiers that are in line with their values and aspirations (Cruz, 2006). A satisfier might help to meet different needs or one need may require several satisfiers to be met (Max-Neef, 1991). Elizalde (2003) highlights that goods are external objects that can increase the capacity of satisfiers to fulfill certain needs. It is important to note, that a satisfier is a means to an end, which is meeting one’s needs, and not an end in itself.
Needs are the most potent source of motivation and the driver of human behavior, which means that with all our activities we are trying to meet our needs.
Failure to satisfy those needs will lead to human malfunction, which will greatly impact our quality of life (Kamenetzky, 2006). Some ways that human malfunction shows up are violence in the form of physical violence, verbal violence, substance abuse, domestic violence, or emotional abuse.
Every criticism, judgement, diagnosis, and expression of anger is a tragic expression of an unmet need. – Marshall Rosenberg
As we can see from the previous paragraph, if our needs are not met, human behavior can take quite undesirable forms. This behavior can be directed towards ourselves or the people around us. Either way, what it tells us is that our quality of life is not at the level we would like it to be.
The Role of Coaching in Improving Your Quality of Life
Depending on the severity of the violence coaching might not be the right form of support rather a therapy approach might be suitable. If coaching is the right approach, it only works when the client is committed and has chosen to make a change or at least is curious about it. Thus, being talked into getting a coach by a friend or family member who notices our undesirable behavior rarely works. We can use our well-meaning environment to help us be more aware and more introspective to notice our behaviors.
In the following paragraphs, I have used Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication approach as a framework and combined it with coaching principles and examples to illustrate how it can be beneficial to improve someone’s quality of life.
A. Recognizing the Situation and Its Impact on Our Well-Being
In our life, there is constant change and we are in ongoing interaction with ourselves and the environment around us, which influences our behavior. As a result, we ‘go with the flow of life and might not always be aware of the changes that are going on. Thomas Lickona summarized this well in the following quote:
One’s character is one’s habitual way of behaving. We all have patterns of behavior or habits, and often we are quite unaware of them. When Socrates urged us to Know thyself, he clearly was directing us to come to know our habitual ways of responding to the world around us. Thomas Lickona
In order to improve our quality of life, we need to be aware that some of our needs are not met and how this is reflected in our behavior e.g. different forms of violence. Awareness is knowing the patterns in our everyday life, understanding our beliefs, our mind, our spirit, and our body (ICA, 2020a). By being aware and knowing yourself you can choose the life you want rather than settling for what comes your way.
Depending on how much awareness we have this might reach from recognizing that ‘something is not right to be able to identify concrete actions that are not serving us.
A client might share that they always feel bad at work and that it’s affecting him in various ways
This shows that the client has realized there is some sort of problem at work and has chosen to engage with a coach. However, the problem is still quite vague and we need to remember that what clients tell us, in the beginning, is rarely the real issue, as the awareness is missing. This means that we have to explore further what is going on.
A coach can inquire further by asking powerful questions that challenges the client and encourages them to explore beyond current thinking (ICA, 2020c). If we continue with our example of the work situation, we might ask questions like the following to find out more about the client’s situation:
- What does feeling bad at work mean for you?
- How else is the situation at work affecting you?
- What emotions are coming up when you think about work?
Another way to create more awareness for the client is by giving feedback or sharing an observation. Here, it is important to suspend judgment during the feedback process and just play back the observation. Rosenberg (2015) calls it the separation of observation from evaluation. When we evaluate we decrease the chances that others will hear our intended message and instead hear criticism and thus resist what we are saying. Effective feedback creates new awareness that can help the client to see things from another perspective and get the insight they might need to start the process of change.
An important element here is the language we use. If words like always, never, frequently, etc., are used as exaggerations it provokes defensiveness or even anger. For example, an evaluation would be: ‘I notice that you never stand up for yourself at work, compared to an observation that is specific about time and context: ‘I notice that during your last conversation with your manager you did not express how you felt.
After sharing their observation, the coach can also invite the client to comment on the feedback through a question like this – “What do you think?”. The differentiation between evaluation and observation is also helpful for the client to keep in mind when they are having an internal dialogue, as self-judgment can occur, which is not beneficial to resolving the situation.
With increased awareness, the client can look at how they feel in relation to what they become aware of or observe.
B. Identifying and Expressing Our Feelings
Society tends to discourage being in touch with our feelings. We learn to be up in our head, thinking “What is it that others think is right for me to say or do?”. We hold back what is really going on. This is particularly common among lawyers, engineers, corporate managers, and military personnel, whose professional codes discourage them from expressing emotions (Rosenberg, 2015).
There is also a misconception that when we use the word ‘feel’ we are expressing our feelings. However, we need to distinguish between words that express an actual feeling from those that describe what we think we are.
- If we say ‘I feel I am a bad manager’, we assess our ability as a manager rather than expressing our feelings.
- An expression of our actual feeling would look like this: ‘I feel disappointed/frustrated/impatient with myself as a manager.
To express our feelings, it is best to use words that refer to specific emotions rather than words that are general and ambiguous. In order to be able to do that we need to develop a vocabulary of feelings that helps us to clearly and specifically identify our emotions, which then makes it easier to resolve conflicts with ourselves and with others. Here a coach could use the Feelings Inventory from the Center for Non-Violent Communication – https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/feelings-inventory – as a tool to help the client with identifying their feelings and practicing to express them in the right way.
As this will be a new situation for many clients, sharing things with the coach that they have never shared with anyone before, it is important that the coach creates a trustful relationship from the beginning. To enable this vulnerability, a strong connection and high level of trust between client and coach are essential.
This can be achieved by displaying vulnerability verbally (i.e. tone of voice, a story – if beneficial for the client and permission is obtained) or non-verbally (i.e. body language, demeanor) to encourage the client to open up (ICA, 2020b).
Another way to support the client in their vulnerable state is to show empathy for the client’s feelings. This means to set aside one’s own perception of things in order to think the way the other person thinks or feel the way they feel (Bumard, 1988). Empathy also involves recognizing and understanding the client’s emotions and communicating this understanding to validate their feelings and experience.
This will give the client the confidence to explore their needs.
C. Connecting Our Feelings to Our Needs
Most people have never been taught to think in terms of needs, instead, we think about what is wrong with other people when our needs are not being met. For example, we judge our co-workers as irresponsible when they don’t go about their tasks the way we would like them to. What others say or do may be the stimulus for, but never the cause of, our feelings. Our feelings depend on how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as on our particular needs and expectations at that particular moment (Rosenberg, 2015).
If we look at the initial example with the client feeling bad at work, we see that multiple needs are potentially not being met such as the need for
- Participation – if they don’t feel like they really are part of the organization; conflict with colleagues
- Creation – if they cannot contribute and use their skills at work
- Identity – if their sense of belonging and their self-esteem is impaired through the events at work
- Subsistence – if the person is afraid of being fired or having to leave the job as a result of a conflict at work
- Protection – if the person might not be able to pay the rent when they don’t have a job
However, many people find it difficult to express their needs as there is a lack of literacy when it comes to this topic. What comes up when we ask people to talk about their needs is an intellectual analysis and blaming of ourselves and others. This strategy is not helping us to get our needs met as people hear criticism and use their energy for self-defense or counterattack (ibid.).
- Blame ourselves – We accept the other person’s judgment and blame ourselves, which has a negative impact on our self-esteem and leads us to feelings of guilt and shame.
Person A: “You are the worst manager I ever had”
Client thinking to themselves: “Oh, I did a terrible job with my team”
- Blame others – We fault the other person and are likely to feel anger.
Person A: “You are the worst manager I ever had”
Client: “Take that back! You are the one who is not pulling their weight!”
Instead, we can connect our feelings to our needs and take responsibility for what we do to generate our own feelings. This also makes it easier for others to respond to us in a compassionate way.
- Given our own feelings and needs–Rosenberg (2015) suggests the following phrase: “I feel…because I… “to put us in touch with our own feelings and needs while taking responsibility for our feelings
Person A: “You are the worst manager I ever had”
Client: “I feel upset when you say that because I want some respect and I hear your words as an insult”
- Since other’s feelings and needs – If we accept the premise that every message no matter its form or content is an expression of a need, we can attempt to sense what needs might be at the core of a particular message. Thus, we connect to another person’s feelings and needs and help them to clarify their needs despite how they might be expressing themselves. A phrase to help with that is the following: “You feel…because of you…”
Person A: “You are the worst manager I ever had”
Client: “You feel angry because you need more support with your tasks at work”
Once we find out more about the situation at work from the client we get a sense of which needs might not be met. Perhaps the needs for Participation, Creation, and Identity are compromised through the situation at work, and once resolved the needs for Subsistence and Protection are not a problem anymore. However, if the situation at work escalates and the client decides to leave the company or is fired, the needs for Subsistence and Protection are in danger of not being met. As the conversation with the client is developing it is beneficial to ask the client which need(s) feel most important and what they would like to focus on.
A coach can help the client to develop emotional responsibility by tuning into what they are really feeling and needing. Using the ‘Feelings Inventory’ mentioned earlier, as well as the phrases suggested by Marshall Rosenberg along with other coaching skills such as showing empathy, active listening, and asking powerful questions, amongst others, we can help our clients increase their awareness and understanding of the situation they are in. This will lead to insights on what an alternative perspective for the situation can look like and how the client might get there.
Once the needs are clear, we can inquire what the client has been doing so far to try and meet their needs, which will tell us which satisfiers have been employed to meet the needs. The coach might sense that the client employed a pseudo satisfier that generated a false sense of satisfaction with the need, so they might encourage the client to think of other satisfiers to meet their need. For example, a coach might ask, “What else comes to mind when you think about resolving the situation with your employee?” or “What strategies might you use to improve the relationship with your employee?”. What Max-Neef calls satisfiers is similar to what Rosenberg (2015, p. 165) describes as strategies, which are specific actions that specific people may take “which may appear in the form of requests, desires, wants, and solutions”.
Now that we have connected our feelings to our needs and communicated our needs, it is time to ask for actions that might fulfill our needs.
D. Requesting Actions to Enrich Our Life
In this part of the journey, the client has already gained an understanding of what their problem really is, how they are feeling about it, and what their needs are. In order to improve the sticky situation, the client is in, actions need to be taken by the client and by others. This aligns with the action planning part of the coaching process where the coach partners with the client to look at the learnings so far and find actions to improve the client’s situation.
It is important that we express our request in a way that others are willing to respond to it in a compassionate way. Rosenberg (2015) suggests, that it is important to use positive action language, in other words to state what we want to happen rather than what we don’t want to happen. Furthermore, it is helpful to avoid vague and abstract requests as it leads to confusion and rather request clear and specific actions.
Vague request with negative action language: “I don’t want you to do all the tasks yourself”
A specific request with positive action language: “I am worried that you are not getting enough support, I want you to focus on 5 tasks a day and delegate all other daily tasks to your colleague John”
When requests are not paired with the person’s feelings and needs, they might be interpreted as a demand. When demand is heard, others believe they will be blamed or punished if they don’t comply. This leaves the other person two options, to submit or to rebel. However, the aim is not to change people to get our way but for others to willingly and compassionately choose to follow our request. Relationships are a cornerstone of our human existence and crucial to our quality of life as so many of our needs are connected to them. Therefore, the objective is for our relationships to be based on honesty and empathy with the goal to fulfill everyone’s needs (ibid.).
One caveat is that even though we are careful to express our requests the right way, people might still hear a demand. This is especially true when we occupy positions of authority or the people we are speaking with have past experiences with us in an authoritative fashion. Whether we made a request or a demand shows how we react when the other person does not comply with our request. Here it is important to show empathy toward the other person’s needs and build that relationship of trust from the ground up.
The coach can further help the client by enquiring what support structures (e.g. reminders to have the conversation, notes when he talks to the co-worker, etc.) might be needed and what obstacles might prevent the client from taking action.
Our Quality of Life Is Affected in a Variety of Ways by Larger Social Changes
Global events of the past few years (Covid 19, Ukraine war) but also wider societal developments have impacted us in various ways and affected our quality of life. In order to improve our quality of life, we need to know what quality of life actually means and what role our human needs play. Max-Neef and Rosenberg did a lot of work around human needs and how connecting with them can help us to improve our quality of life.
It is important to understand that with all our activities we are trying to meet our needs, while unfulfilled needs lead to undesirable behavior and also a decrease in quality of life. In order to improve our quality of life, we need to be aware that some of our needs are not met and how this is reflected in our behavior. To gain more awareness a coach can help by asking powerful questions and giving the client feedback in the form of observations.
The next step is for the client to identify and express their feelings in relation to the situation and behaviors they have become aware of. For this, a strong connection and trust with the client are crucial, which can be facilitated through showing vulnerability and giving empathy.
Once we have identified how we feel, we can connect these feelings to our needs. Most people have never been taught to think in terms of needs, instead, we resort to intellectual analysis and blaming.
Thus, a coach can help the client by building emotional responsibility and sensing one’s own and other people’s needs.
Finally, after having gained an understanding of the problem as well as feelings and needs, the client goes on to formulate an action request with the aim to fulfill their needs and thus improve their situation, which in turn affects their quality of life positively.
The needs-focused coaching approach keeps the needs of the client at the center of exploration at all times and helps to improve the quality of life by addressing the needs that are unfulfilled and improving undesirable behaviors.
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