We all know people who always make sure their own ducks are in a row, regardless of the fallout for anyone else. In German we have an expression for that, roughly translatable as “After I’m done, Armageddon can come.” Ethical and relationship-minded people don’t want to be like that. But what’s the alternative? That is, how can we ask for what we need without jeopardizing our relationships? Many of us learned a different way: Don’t express your needs at all. That’s the “polite” thing to do. The problem with this of course are legend– resentment, passive aggression.
Some feel disappointment that others can’t guess their needs. Others develop Spock-like detachment from even knowing what it is they need, let alone desire. The opposite of this is learning how to communicate what you need without being unreasonable. I call this being relationally assertive.
This usually involves the following:
1. Describe the situation and the facts as you understand them, and without including judgments or assumptions of motives.
“It seems you’ve been late for the majority of our meetings.” “We haven’t spent much time together lately, maybe 2 nights in the past 2 weeks.” “I will arrive late at the airport, around 11pm.”
2. When dealing with friends or family, briefly describe how it makes you feel. Use statements that start with “I” as opposed to “you”:
“I’ve been feeling sad about us.” “I feel disrespected when spoken to like that.” “I worry that I won’t get this done.”
3. Describe what you want to happen. Ask for a change on the behavioral level, and ask for one thing at a time that can be changed right now. Be specific.
“Could you make dinner tonight?” “Would you make time to watch a movie with me tonight?” “I would like to discuss our vacation plans this week.”
4. This one is optional, but you may want to tell the other person what you’ll do to take care of yourself if they cannot meet your request. This is neither intended as a threat nor a punishment, and it shouldn’t be used that way.
“If you can’t leave in time for the party, I’ll take my own car.” “If you can’t help with cleaning, I’ll hire a maid, and we’ll split the cost.” “If you don’t get a chance to make dinner tonight, I can order a pizza.”
Here are two examples of how I would put the 4 steps together:
“I’ve been working against a deadline and haven’t had time to cook dinner (#1). I’m worried I might not get this done in time (#2). Could you throw something together so I can keep going (#3)? If that doesn’t work for you, I can order a pizza (#4). or: “We haven’t been spending much time together this week (#1). I’ve been really missing you (#2). Could we go out to dinner today or tomorrow (#3)? If not, let me know your ideas of what we can do (or: If you really don’t have time for me this week, I will try and go out with a friend, so I’m not sitting around moping) (#4).
This is easy enough to do and so much more effective than the way many of us tend to communicate our needs:
“What do you mean, ‘what’s for dinner?’ ! I’m working here, too, you know! How come I’m the only one always having to make dinner!”
“How come you don’t want to spend time with me anymore? When we were first dating, you acted like you cared, but now you take me for granted… Are you seeing someone else?”
Play around with the principles and formulations so they feel natural to you, and try these out in situations where you find it difficult to express your needs and ask for things. The process of thinking through this itself can even help you to understand the “vague frustration” that can arise in certain situations, helping you to put a finger on your underlying feelings, and what it is you actually want. And once you know, asking for it is so much easier!
Julia Flood, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in San Francisco’s Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood. She has been working in the mental health field since 1996 and specializes in couples therapy/marriage counseling, helping partners in crisis to break out of the vicious cycle of hurting and being hurt. You can find out more about Julia on her website: www.newstarttherapy.com, or by calling (415) 820-3210 to arrange an initial phone consultation. She is bilingual in English and German.