Imagine you were Sue the boss, and you just received this expression. What might be coming up for you?
If I were Sue, I think I’d be kind of confused, tense, and possibly defensive. What exactly does this person want from me in this moment? What kind of a response are they looking for? What should I do or say?
To help Sue out (bosses are people, too!), let’s try it again, this time adding the request. Imagine you’re Sue, and notice if you sense any difference:
Sue, when I sense that you’re expecting me to stay at work until 9pm five nights a week, I feel really frustrated, because I really want to spend time with my family and get some rest. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to save any work for me until the following morning when it’s after 5pm(request)?
Because you made a concrete, specific, do-able request, now Sue knows exactly what you’re wanting, and now she has the opportunity to check in with herself to see if that strategy will work for her. If it does, she might say, “Sure.” If it doesn’t, she might say, “No,” and hopefully more dialogue will follow, ideally one that honors the needs of Sue-the-boss and the needs of Joe-the-employee.
So how do you handle it when someone says “no” to your request? Because, let’s be real here: just because we start making requests doesn’t mean we’re always going to get what we want. The purpose of NVC is not to make sure we always get our way, but to create relationships based on honesty and empathy, and to create a world where everyone’s needs matter.
An important distinction in NVC is between requests and demands, and people often get confused between the two. Here’s a tip to know the difference: you know you’re making a request when you are open to hearing, “No.” If “no” is unacceptable to you, then you’re making a demand. This comes up a lot in parenting, like when you ask your child to put on his shoes and he refuses, and then you put them on for him. It was a demand if your son putting on his shoes before leaving the house was non-negotiable for you.
It’s important to be clear whether we are making a request or making a demand, because acting as if it’s a request when “no” is not really an acceptable answer can get in the way of trust. It’s pretty off-putting when your boss asks at 11am, with gritted teeth and a disingenuous smile, “Would you be willing to get the report to me by noon today?” when you know full well that if you say “no,” you’ll likely get fired.
There’s so much to say on this topic, and I highly recommend reading Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg for more on the intricacies of requests. But before I end I’d like to share the aspect of requests that has been most meaningful for me.
There’s a certain kind of request that in NVC circles we call “connection requests,” and these are different from the type of request we made of Sue above, which we call “action requests.” Action requests are more common in our everyday lives: we want someone to take some action, and we ask them to do it. Connection requests are a bit less familiar to most people, and yet they are some of the most powerful tools I’ve come across for creating intimacy, deepening connection, and working through conflicts.
So what is a connection request? Let’s say I just shared with you that I’m feeling upset because every time we hang out, you’re texting, taking phone calls, and posting status updates to your Facebook page. I could end with an action request, which might sound like, “Would you be willing to turn your phone off while we’re hanging out?” That’s definitely an option. Another option, if what I’m going for is more intimacy, would be, “Would you be willing to tell me back what you’re hearing me share with you?” With this option, I’m asking my friend to reflect back what she heard me say, to make sure I was heard and understood. Another option could be, “Would you be willing to tell me how you feel hearing me say this?” This is a way to find out how my self-expression “landed” for my friend, and to find out what feelings and needs might be stirred in her after hearing that I don’t appreciate how she is using her phone when we’re together.
As with a lot of the NVC tools, connection requests are EXTREMELY helpful when things are heated and arguing is happening. Taking the time to request a reflection, taking the time to find out what’s going on for the other person and reflecting back to them what you’re hearing, has the power to transform an intense conflict into a surprisingly connected conversation.
My friend and colleague Newt Bailey and I co-developed a process that incorporates connection requests (among other aspects of NVC) called the “Connected Conversation Process.” If you want to learn more about it or see us demonstrating how to move from conflict to connection, you can watch us on youtube here:
Making connection requests is a way to facilitate your own difficult conversation, kind of like being your own couples therapist or mediator. Next time you want to work through a conflict or want to deepen intimacy, try integrating these two questions into your conversation:
1. Can you tell me what you’re hearing me say?
2. What comes up for you hearing what I said?
I’ll end with my own request: It really contributes to my sense of community, connection and contribution when people post comments on my blog. If you got anything out of reading any of my posts and would enjoy letting me know, would you be willing to write a comment below? Thanks for considering my request!
Ali Miller, MFT has offices in San Francisco and Berkeley where she provides psychotherapy, couples counseling, and facilitates women’s groups called “Authentic Connection.” She is also available for consultation and trainings to therapists who want to incorporate NVC into their therapeutic work. She can be reached at 415-820-1433.