A woman complained for years that her husband did not give her an anniversary card. One day a friend inquired if she had ever asked for one, and she said no. And so the woman mustered up the will to ask and from that point onwards her husband always gave her an anniversary card.
A simple story, a true one, and one full of meaning.
If only we’d just ask!
A complaint is an unspoken request. Otherwise said, when we don’t ask for what we want we tend to complain about our needs not getting met.
Given how much humans love to complain, we can safely say that asking for what we want is not easy. And why should it be? It’s vulnerable to put ourselves out there at the risk of being denied or responded to with impatience and judgment. Especially if our request has been turned down numerous times. Why ask again?
But there is more to this. We don’t ask because we don’t believe we deserve to have what we want. Similarly, we may believe that it is bad to put ourselves first. It’s therefore easier and safer to hide out in being a life-long complainer, one who believes that needs cannot, or must not, be met.
Given that most of us grew up in households and went to schools where we didn’t have our voices heard and honoured in the way we would have liked and deserved, it only makes sense that at some point we believed that our needs didn’t matter. Their needs, those of the big adults, did because they kept telling us what they wanted from us, and we had to obey—behave, grow up, stay silent, sit still, pay attention, get good grades, study more, don’t get dirty, etc. They knew what was best. Not us. They knew what mattered.
People are generally much better at listening to themselves than others.
As more people imposed their agendas, filling us with information and tasks, and fewer cared to know what we really felt and needed, regularly failing to respond with kindness and empathy, we learned to stuff our needs away.
What percentage of your life have people told you what to think and do, versus ask you what you feel, what you dream of, what you want or need?
And so we became good at complaining (because what else is there to do?), often without knowing what we were complaining about, or that we were complaining at all. It became that normal; and besides, everyone else was doing it! We’d judge and condemn and gossip, yet all the while we’d still be hiding our needs away. Silently we’d keep ourselves in check, frustrated and angry for having to do so. Our pent up emotions would eventually spill into our complaints that “John never helps me out in the kitchen”, and “Tammy is always late”, and “Steve never listens and always cuts me off”, and “You are never there for me!”
This pattern is pervasive in the West—to summarize:
- To deny our basic instinct to speak our truth, to ask like children do, without shame or reservation: “I want that!”
- To not know what we are feeling and needing, and how to express those needs.
- To feel unsafe to express our needs to someone leading us to complain about this person behind their back.
- To feel unsafe to express our needs to someone leading us to complain to them about our needs not being met.
- To react without care and compassion to those trying their best to express their needs; to react to their complaint with a complaint.
Why do you keep nagging me about this?
What’s the big deal?
Ahh, you’re such a whiner!
You’re so sensitive!
You’re always going on about this!
I don’t get why this is so important to you!
I don’t have time for this!
Why can’t you just forget about it and move on?
This creates much of the atmosphere in our homes, personal relationships, workplaces, schools… pretty much most places. We’re a society of complainers afraid—afraid of being vulnerable to our needs and the needs of others, of feeling deeply into them, of being assertive in our power, of looking incompetent, of putting our needs at the front of the line, of entering conflict, of what may happen if we don’t get our needs met … or if we do, then what?
Maybe I may actually have to do something I don’t want to do, like be even more vulnerable! I may have to change! Maybe I’m actually more comfortable not having my needs met.
We are so numb to our fears and complaints, and ignorant of how much we have stuffed down our needs, that we have forgotten that there is another way. We’ve become so inured to being a victim and living in a world of victims that we don’t know what it means to take full responsibility for our lives.
Responsibility – your ability to respond
Complaining is a reaction, not a response. When we react we literally re-enact the past. Our past disappointments, our old fears of being judged or made incompetent, our old ideas of not being worthy, our old beliefs of having to tend to others first, all come out in our complaints. We act these fears out again and again in our victimhood, our complaints.
Responding, however, is more about the present moment than the past. It is an empowered response to what is felt and needed here and now, an act of clearly speaking your truth given your self-respect and self-worth. We don’t belittle the other person, make them wrong in any way. We do what we have control over—making the request.
We cannot control the other person’s response. We can, however, control how we deliver our request. That’s the best we can do!
Simple steps to asking for what you want
Here are four steps that will help you ask for what you want. Scroll down further for some examples and more helpful hints.
- State what you notice happening. Here you clarify the situation at hand causing you to make the request in the first place.
- Tell them how you feel when your need is not being met. Use words such as uncomfortable, upset, overwhelmed, sad, hurt, unheard. Yes, technically these are not all emotions, but in my experience of communication it does not have to be a perfect science. The words I have listed here are chosen for a reason: they are less likely to create defensiveness in the other person, an emotional charge of sorts, than would emotions such as angry, frustrated, pissed off
You are trying to keep the other person open to you—connected. That is vital! As soon as they become defensive, or close down in any way, the conversation stumbles, and maybe ends. Therefore, your words, as well as your tone (gentle, calm, clear) and body language (open), are essential.
- Tell them what you want/need more of, not less of. Telling people what you want less of is a complaint. Could you stop being so lazy around the house? Asking for what you want more of is more useful and empowering. The other person gets clear on what you value, on what’s important to you. He or she is educated. And also, you get out of victim mode and into deserving mode.
Tammy, you are not supposed to be standing on your chair!
Tammy, both feet on the floor, please!
- Tell them how you would feel if you had this need met. Use words like appreciative, calm, peaceful, relaxed, engaged, happy. Remember, here you are saying what you would feel more of, not less of. This communication skill of making requests is the practice of adding, not subtracting.
Expressing feelings as you do in parts 2 and 4 are essential because it is the feeling state that people must taste if they are to truly empathize with your need. If you ask for the house to be clean without saying what it would mean to you—how it would make you feel—this has less power, less capacity to reach the other person’s heart. It’s the heart that you want to reach, for in the heart the person feels a desire to help meet your need.
Help them feel into the human being you are, not the human doing!
A few examples for you:
Sandy, I notice that when I come home the laundry tends to not be done. It would mean a lot to me if you could help me with this because when the responsibilities are not shared I feel overwhelmed. Would you be willing to do this for me? It would make me feel much more relaxed and able to focus on the things that are meaningful to the two of us.
Pat, I’m noticing that when I speak you tend to cut me off, as though you are not really listening to me. When this happens I feel like I don’t matter to you, which hurts. I need more presence from you, for you to care about me, and what I have to share. Giving me this would mean a lot to me, and help me open more vulnerably to you.
Sam, I’m noticing that you have increasingly been late to pick me up. I feel like my time is not being respected, and therefore I don’t feel respected. I know you have a lot going on, and if you cannot arrive on time I ask that you let me know in advance. That would make me feel more appreciated.
Bold, eh? Direct. Straight into the fire of fierce conversations!
You can see why we don’t ask. It takes courage to have these sorts of honest, raw conversations. It takes skill and awareness. It takes willingness for things to get uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than things already are. Again, it’s not easy if we have not been taught and encouraged to speak our truth, and if we were not modeled how to communicate in healthy and respectful ways, which is the case for most.
It’s not easy if we were raised in a passive aggressive household that shied away from conflict, from honest, direct conversations!
- Use tentative language. You’ll notice that I don’t use black and white, or absolutist, language. Pat, I’m noticing that when I speak you always cut me off. This is much different than tend to or often. Remember, we are trying to maintain a connection with the other person. Black and white / absolutist language quickly kills it!
- If you ask someone to help you around the house, give examples. Tell them what helping looks like. If you just ask for help you may get far less than if you say, “And what help looks like to me is washing the dishes every second night, sweeping the carport on the weekend…” Requesting is educating. Specifics are important, and people are more likely to act on your request if they know what they need to do.
- Give examples of where the other person is meeting this need you are asking to be met. If you request that the other person listen more, you may find it helpful to also say, “And there are times when you do listen to me, like the other day when I came home from work frustrated and…” This will take them off what can feel like the hot seat, again, helping them stay open and connected to you. Also, this is why black and white / absolutist language doesn’t work. It does not create room for the times when the person has shown they can meet your need.
- Set an appropriate time and place to have the conversation. Rather than telling people what is going on for you without their consent, first ask if it is a good time, and if they say it’s not, ask for a time and location that would work. Choosing a location away from work is always helpful, maybe while walking in nature, sitting on a park bench, or even while having a drink at your local. (Yes, sometimes a bit of liquid magic can help!)
- Clarify your needs in advance (if necessary). Know what you want before you ask for it. This will help you avoid asking for what you don’t want. We ask for the opposite in large part because we are a society lacking emotional intelligence—unaware of our feelings, needs and desires—because of all the other things I’ve mentioned. If it helps, write down your complaint and turn it around. He never listens – I want to be heard. He’s always late – I want to be respected. Then ask for the latter.
- Try to get to the root of what you need, the core need. He’s regularly late – I want you to arrive on time, versus I want to be respected. She’s demanding – I want you to let me have a say, versus I want my ideas to be valued, versus I want to feel valued. See the difference? When you get to the core the conversations are more vulnerable, yet powerful. It is where the magic happens, where truths are conveyed. Vulnerability and Power are two sides of the same coin!
- Practice in a safe environment (if necessary). Pretend your cat is your boss or stuffed tiger is your spouse. Practicing making your request to them. They won’t judge, I promise! Or practice in the mirror, or with a safe, third party human being. Take your time getting acquainted with this new language so that it gets stuck in your bones!
Wishing you well on your path to response-ability!
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults