No, I'm not encouraging you to bring muscles to a gunfight, but the pun was too tempting. What I want to talk about is how we react when emotions meddle with a conversation. Whether it is ours, or our counterpart's, when emotions are involved, things get tricky. When people react in unexpected ways, it often has to do with their feeling of safety because it threatens one of their Core Needs.

I discovered the Core Needs in the book "Resilient Management," written by Lara Hogan, which made my day.

How our brains work

Usually, when someone is engaged in a discussion, their prefrontal cortex is speaking. That is the part of the brain responsible for rational and logical thinking. But when a physical threat is detected, the analytical thinking is bypassed by the amygdala. That's the "fight or flight" response. But here's the thing, the amygdala doesn't only take over by physical threats; it reacts to any change toward what makes us "safe and secure." You might have experienced heated discussions about seating plans in an office and wondered, "what the hell is going on?" The core needs must have been at play.

The Core Needs

There are a few variations on those core needs depending on the source and the context. The one I will describe here is the one Lara Hogan used in the book. It is based on the work of Management Trainer and Coach Paloma Medina and applies to the business context. You can remember the Core Needs via the acronym BICEPS:

  • Belonging
  • Improvement/Progress
  • Choice
  • Equality/Fairness
  • Predictability
  • Significance

Let's explore them one by one (I'm quoting this page):


  • Community: A feeling of friendship and closeness with a group, or being part of a tight community of any size.
  • Community well-being: People are cared for, the whole group feels happy and healthy.
  • Connection: Feeling kinship and mutual understanding with another person.

Improvement/ Progress

  • Progress towards purpose: You are helping make progress towards an important goal for the company, your team or your own career/ life.
  • Improving the lives of others: You see how your work helps improve things for others.
  • Personal growth: Learning/ seeing fast growth in yourself in skills that matter to you.


  • Choice: Having flexibility, the chance to have more control over key parts of your world.
  • Autonomy: Having clear ownership over a domain where you can do as you wish, without asking for permission.
  • Decision-making: The ability to make decisions about the things that matter to you.

Equality/ Fairness

  • Access to resources (money, time, space, etc) feels fair/ equitable.
  • Access to information feels fair: All groups/ people have access to information that is relevant to them.
  • Equal reciprocity: You support each other equally.
  • Decisions are fair and everyone is treated as equally important.


  • Resources: There's enough certainty about resources (money, personnel hours, space) so you can focus on your job or goals.
  • Time: There's certainty about when things will occur/ when you can prepare for them.
  • Future challenges: You can anticipate and thus can prepare for future challenges.
  • Direction: Goals, strategy, and direction stay consistent and don't change too often/fast.


  • Status: You hold a title/ role that honors your worth among your peers/ your industry.
  • Visibility: Your work is highly visible to people that matter.
  • Recognition: Your work is recognized and appreciated in ways that feel good.

Use the Core Needs to your advantage.

Lara Hogan recommends labeling those core needs as a strategy to understand and defuse tricky situations where emotions are involved.

Of course, before analyzing the core needs, you first have to realize that emotions are at play. In the heat of the moment, it might be tricky. I wrote an article about this a few days ago. It is called "How can you detect emotions earlier in conversations?" I'd recommend reading that one first. From now on, I will assume that we detected an emotional response in a conversation.

Instead of responding right away, take the time to go through the BICEPS core needs in your mind. Try to find one or more core needs which violation could explain the reaction you are observing.

If we go back to the example of a fight over a desk, what could be at play?

  • Belonging: if the new desk is farther away from their peers, they fear they will no longer belong?
  • Choice: if someone dictated the move, they might feel robbed of their ability to choose their fate.
  • Equality/Fairness: if the process isn't transparent, the employee might feel mistreated.
  • Predictability: if they have been working for years at the same place, they may feel threatened in their habits and routines.
  • Significance: if the desk had unspoken importance like a corner office, the change might impact the way people see themselves or think the organization sees themselves.

The first effect of rationalizing the reaction to those core needs is a valuable insight into why the discussion is taking this turn and how to solve it.

But most importantly, it activates our prefrontal cortex and pushes us NOT to react emotionally to this emotional response. The precious seconds we gain by rationalizing this might be just enough to avoid an escalation. And that is well worth it.

Finally, Paloma Medina shares a PDF to guide teams into exploring those Core Needs together. I haven't tried it with a team yet, but I love the pointers.

Did you know about the Core Needs? Have you used them before?