The Four Needs Framework

The stories we tell ourselves shape how we see the world around us. Sometimes, these stories are incomplete, lopsided in ways that aren’t obvious to us. A world viewed through the lens of such stories contains the suffering of inescapable traps, impossible choices, and paralyzing ambivalence. I want to share a framework with you that I found useful for adding a bit more depth to the stories, revealing more choices, and gaining a sense of direction. I developed it through my effort to discern the forces within myself, and have since applied it to help other people and organizations map their stories. I was inspired to see the framework resonate with others, and heartened to see them use it for wrangling with their challenges, helping refine the framework in the process.

This framework is more of a “feels like, seems like” tool rather than a rigorous scientific instrument. I think of it as a lightweight navigation aid for making sense of confounding situations. 

At the core of the framework, there is a four-quadrant coordinate space, formed by four needs in a pairwise tension with each other. The opposing needs that form the horizontal axis are Belonging (right) and Agency (left). The opposing needs that form the vertical axis are Safety (bottom) and Purpose (top).

These four quadrants are where the character’s story unfolds. At any given moment, the character is a point in this space. This character can be a person, a team, an organization, a family, or any social structure. Axes supply the coordinates within the space.

The coordinates reflect the tension between each of the paired needs. For a point that’s at the center–that is, equidistant between the extremes, the needs are perfectly balanced with each other. Points closer to either extreme reflect the imbalance: one need is dominating the other.

The farther to the extremes is the character, the more polarized the story becomes. At these extremes, needs are vastly outbalanced, becoming stark and existential. On the fringes of the coordinate space, there are drastic actions, emotional turmoil, sharp edges, spikes, and suffering. Everything is super high-contrast and feels like the matter of life and death. Needs turn into fears and impulsive drives. Safety becomes the literal matter of survival. Belonging — the terror of becoming invisible to others. Purpose transmutes into the horror of rotting alive. The need for Agency explodes into panic of dissolving into the mass of others.

The closer to the center, the more balanced and nuanced the story. The tugs of the needs become subtle, needing more care to discern. Things may seem “normal” or “business as usual”, yet there’s usually a nagging feeling of ambivalence, something being off. 

At the center, all needs are balanced in perfect harmony with each other. No need is heard stronger than others, and the character is at peace. Here, all needs are still present and are just as forceful, yet the character is able to see them and masterfully maintain the delicate balance.

The neat effect of this arrangement of the coordinate space is that the framework becomes directional: there is a clear destination, something to move toward. There’s a built-in compass of sorts. Getting to center is the nature of the character’s journey.

In practice, the journey rarely ends up looking like a direct line. Like in an endless tug of war, each of the four needs competes for the character’s attention and usurps it when the attention is granted. Instead of arriving at center, the shift in the balance tends to “overshoot” the character over to the adjacent quadrants.

And so the journey ends up looking like a chaotic meandering from one quadrant from another, an enduring quest for peace.

To reach the center, the character must transform. They must learn to have simultaneous attention on all four needs, to gently balance them in the moment. The character needs to become aware of the needs, learn to see them and the tension between them.

This is the basic setup of the framework. For me, its value has been in having a structured way of looking at a situation, finding the story that is being told and revealing new ways to see that story. Who is the character in the story? What words do I use to describe the character’s needs? What do these words tell me about the character’s position in the coordinate space? What led to them being there? What are the hopes and aspirations of the character for each quadrant? What are the fears? What does being at center feel like?

My experience is that with each answer, the story gains a bit more depth, more subtlety, and allows me to see more choices, more opportunities and clarity of direction. I hope you’ll find it useful in your character’s journey toward the center.