top of page

Part 4 in Our Leadership Series for Navigating Struggle, Uncertainty, and Crisis

Our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially when navigating struggle, uncertainty, and crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities.

Human Needs 9 Part Series Diagram.jpg
Part Four: Expression

People often think of food as our most basic need, but our need for expression is even more basic than our need for food.


Our need for expression is even more basic than our need for food, because expression empowers us to get food and fulfill our other physical needs. When we communicate through expression, we increase our capacity to cooperate, which increases our capacity to get food, water, and safety. Our need for expression also empowers us to fulfill our physical needs by allowing us to tell people, “I am hungry. I am cold. I am afraid. I don’t feel safe.” According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when people lack food, water, and safety, their only needs become food, water, and safety. But in every known culture, when people lack food, water, and safety, their need for expression doesn’t go away. It escalates.


When people lack food, water, and safety, they can express themselves through dialogue, shouting, voting, protesting, or rioting. The word “hangry” (which describes people expressing their hunger through being angry) conveys that our physical need for food and our non-physical need for expression are deeply intertwined. Hangry people can express themselves verbally through their words and tone of voice, or nonverbally through their body language.


As human beings, we can express ourselves in countless ways. We can express ourselves through language, laughter, crying, music, painting, drawing, dancing, cooking, sports, how we dress, tattoos, bumper stickers, rituals, passive aggression, social media, and even violence. Since facial expressions and body language are also forms of expression, we are constantly expressing ourselves when we are awake. We express ourselves far more than we eat.


We can consider expression to be our first need to activate. When we come out of our mother’s womb, before we have our first meal, we have the capacity to cry—a form of expression. Someone might say that when we come out of our mother’s womb, our need to breathe oxygen on our own is the first need to activate. However, babies can start crying as they take their first breaths of air. After leaving our mother’s womb, it is common for our need for breathing and our capacity for crying to activate at the same time. Babies cry so that adults will tend to their physical and non-physical needs (such as their need for nurturing). Yet our need for expression, which can be considered our first need to activate, is not listed anywhere in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


The most effective leaders understand that our need for expression is both primordial and powerful. This is why the most effective leaders listen well. Because expression is a basic human need that empowers us to survive and thrive, all human beings like to be listened to. In all of human history, nobody has ever seriously said, “I hate it when people listen to me! I can’t stand it when people listen to me!” Nobody ever says, “My spouse and I have to go to marriage counseling, because my spouse listens to me all the time and I can’t take it anymore!”


The difference between listening and eavesdropping is that listening involves the consent of the person being heard. People in our society are constantly wanting to be heard, yet most of us are never taught how to listen to them well. In fact, many of us are taught the opposite of what it means to listen well. To truly listen we must develop empathy. If we do not empathize with people we cannot really hear what they are saying. When we do not listen with empathy we hear only their words (and sometimes not even that). But when we listen with empathy we also hear the emotions, hopes, and fears they are expressing. We hear their humanity.


Imagine how much different our society could be if our education system put as much effort into teaching the critically important life-skill of listening well as it does into teaching math and reading/writing skills. Because listening well can improve every area of our life and build stronger communities, it is one of the foundational skills in our Peace Literacy curriculum.


As your exercise for this week, think of the many practical ways that a workplace (or virtual workplace) can improve if a leader helps people meet their need for expression by being very skilled at listening, which requires empathy. Exploring the following four questions can help you reflect.


1. When a leader helps people meet their need for expression by listening with empathy, in what ways can this benefit the employees in that workplace?


2. When a leader helps people meet their need for expression by listening with empathy, how can this make the leader more informed and aware? How can this make the leader more effective at problem-solving? How can this make the leader more effective at motivating people to work together toward a shared goal?


3. When we listen with empathy, we can help people meet their non-physical need for expression. When we listen with empathy, how can we also help people meet their non-physical need for purpose and meaning, along with their non-physical need for nurturing relationships (trust, attention, compassion, etc.)? How can listening with empathy lead to more accurate explanations?

4. Empathy is one of the muscles of our humanity discussed in our Peace Literacy curriculum. What does it mean to listen not only with empathy, but also with other muscles of our humanity such as appreciation, conscience, curiosity, reason, discipline (focus and concentration), and imagination? When working out, compound movements such as the bench press, squat, and deadlift require the cooperation of many muscles. Listening is a compound movement that requires the cooperation of many muscles of our humanity. Empathy is essential for listening, but empathy alone is not enough.


For this week’s exercise, you can explore these questions in the context of peers instead of leaders, and you can also apply these questions to your family, relationships, school, nation, or any community, including our global community.


The philosophy, strategies, and tactics of nonviolence – which we can also call waging peace – are a way to increase the well-being of our workplaces, families, relationships, schools, nations, and world, because nonviolence harnesses the power of our non-physical needs. Nonviolence is about our non-physical need for expression. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that voting, peaceful protests, rioting, and violent rebellions are all forms of expression. He also realized that if people don’t have healthy and peaceful ways to express their grievances through nonviolence, they will choose destructive ways.


Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If this philosophy [of nonviolence] had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. If [our] repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”


Especially during a crisis, we need to express ourselves loudly. King realized that the philosophy, strategies, and tactics of nonviolence are the most potent and powerful voice through which we can express ourselves, and there is abundant historical evidence that confirms his realization. Unfortunately, the full depth, power, and practicality of nonviolence is not widely taught in our society, which limits our options when dealing with struggle, uncertainty, and crisis. By teaching nonviolence in all of its depth, power, and practicality, Peace Literacy expands our options in all areas of life.


Nonviolence not only empowers us to meet our non-physical need for expression, but also our non-physical need for purpose and meaning, along with our non-physical need for nurturing relationships. There are many ways that nonviolence can help us achieve higher purpose in life. Nonviolence also builds the trust, attention, and compassion that are essential for nurturing relationships and strong communities.


As we will discuss in the rest of this series, nonviolence goes much further by empowering us to meet our non-physical needs for inspiration, belonging, self-worth, challenge, and transcendence in fulfilling and profound ways. Whenever there is a crisis, these non-physical needs become even more important, thereby making nonviolence even more important.

© 2021 Paul K. Chappell

To learn more about the importance of non-physical needs and how they can become tangled in trauma, check out this 23 min video and read this short essay.

help sustain our work

The Peace Literacy Institute designs curricular materials that anyone can download and use for free to support Peace Literacy in their schools and communities. We also provide education rates for our workshops so teachers can make the most effective use of the curriculum.

Donations make it possible for us to provide this public service.

Your contribution will sustain our work to spread Peace Literacy during a time when humanity needs it the most.

bottom of page