The Problem With “What Do You Need?”

One of the biggest mistakes that therapists, coaches, leaders, and friends make is asking someone: What do you need right now?”  

You may be thinking “Wait! What? I was taught that I should regularly ask that question to people in my life, especially if they are struggling, upset, angry, or in need in some way!”  

Yup, most people have been taught this question but if you stick with me I think I can convince you that there’s a better option(s).

Here’s an example. 

I remember a particular occasion when I was in a training.  One trainer put their attention on me and I totally froze.  This particular trainer intimidated me a bit and with all the attention on me, I felt so afraid that I just couldn’t think.  I didn’t know what to say and I was certainly not in a place to do a piece of work on myself.  Sensing that something wasn’t right, he chose to check in with me. 

“What do you need right now?” He asked me softening both his voice and his gaze.  I just looked at him and I stammered.

“I…I…I don’t know.” 

With the increased attention and my failure to produce intelligent thought, I then started to feel embarrassed.  Eventually, I needed to excuse myself to the bathroom to ease my anxiety and find a way to come back to myself on my own without the intensity of that kind of open-ended attention.  

For people who are overwhelmed, in a trauma response, angry, really confused, stressed out, or grieving, this question doesn’t help and worse, can leave a false impression.  In those moments it often comes across as dropping your hands and saying, “I’m lost, please give me a solution to your uncomfortable feelings.” Or, “Can you just tell me what to do here?”

The reason it isn’t helpful in those moments is that underneath the surface of conversation, what I’m asking is this:

“Hey, I know that you’re stressed and doing a lot of work to just be in the room and regulate your nervous system. But now I want you to use your currently limited cognitive abilities to survey all of the universe’s possibilities for support, even though you actually can’t even contain or control your attention at this moment.  

And I want you to generate several possibilities. 

And then I want you to select one, have the wherewithal to identify what you want most that would most serve you, select it and then love and value yourself enough to speak for it out loud, believing in the possibility that the other person will be willing to give it to you, or in the case that they might not that you’ll be able to manage your nervous system and be okay even if they say “no.” 

Think back to the moment when my trainer asked me to generate what I needed in that moment.  I was lost, scared, and small, my cup was full. I wasn’t able to access that information.  

When we ask someone to do this psychological labor when they’re overwhelmed, ungrounded, or under-resourced, it’s like asking someone who just had a car accident to solve a math problem or adding a plate to a full sink instead of actually helping with the dishes.

So what kind of responses do these questions in those moments get? 

  • “No”
  • “I’m fine.” 
  • “It’s okay. I don’t need anything.”  
  • “I don’t know.” 

Most of the time, you’re going to get one of these responses if someone’s nervous system is too flooded, or if the thing they might ask for feels too unreasonable.

Let’s use the example of someone who is grieving.  Often they simply have no awareness of what they need, what they can ask for, or what would feel good.  They are in a world of pain, lost in the storm of emotions that are always painful and difficult to navigate. Even if they did know what they wanted, often it can feel like too much to ask for. 

“I want you to bring me dinner every Tuesday for a month.”  While this is a really common gesture of support, it’s also one most people don’t feel comfortable asking for, even when they know it would be helpful. People rarely ask for this, but many people receive it anyway and get deeply supported by it. 

Another thing that people who are grieving want is, “I want you to sit silently next to me for an hour and just feel really sad about whatever you feel sad about with me.”  Who feels okay asking for that?  Not very many people, but when I was grieving, that was my favorite thing.  I would go to a dance and just sit quietly next to a friend of mine whose mom had just died.  Those were some of my favorite moments, but at that time I wouldn’t have known how to ask for that.  

But I digress, often in those tough moments, most people either don’t know or don’t feel worthy of the things they want or need to be supported. 

So, what do/can we do instead? Check out the next article: How to Support Someone Who Is In Overwhelm

2 thoughts on “The Problem With “What Do You Need?””

  1. This is spot on! Thank you for articulating what we’re actually saying when we ask that of someone in overwhelm! Ive been on both sides of this situation and your insight into what underlies the awkwardness and frustration is profound. So helpful!

  2. Thank you for putting these in words, I completely agree. When going through the phase myself, I would not have answer to “what do you need” and instead I just wanted someone to sit silently beside me, trying to make it look that I was just not ready to solve it, because the emotions were taking its time. Thank you!

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