Having learned about making observations without evaluations and expressing our feelings and needs without blaming others, we move to step four of Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication (NVC): making requests of others in order to get our unfulfilled needs met. Sounds easy, right? We’re all used to asking for things. But making effective requests requires more mindfulness than most of us realize.
In NVC terms, requests have three characteristics:
- They’re stated in terms of clear, positive, concrete action, and they avoid asking someone to refrain from doing something.
- They’re specific enough to be doable in the present.
- They aren’t demands: the other person can say “no” without fear of retribution.
Use “Positive Action” Language
NVC suggests that we make requests using “positive action” language, positive in the sense that we request what we want the other person to do rather than what we want them not to do. Negative requests can create confusion as to what we’re asking for. In his book Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, Rosenberg explains, “We get to a different place with people when we are clear about what we want, rather than just telling them what we don’t want.” Also, negative requests are more likely to provoke resistance. (Just think about the last time someone told you to “stop doing that.”)
Make Specific Requests That Are Doable in the Present
In addition to using positive language, NVC requests avoid vague, abstract or ambiguous phrasing and take the form of concrete actions that others can undertake in the present. Nonspecific requests can hamper understanding and communication, and they’re sometimes used to mask interpersonal games (like telling people how we want them to feel or be). By making ourselves formulate doable requests, we’re also forced to become aware of what it is that we want from others. And the more clear we are as to what we need from the other person, the more likely we are to get our needs met.
Here’s an example from What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication of how to transform a non-specific request into an NVC request:
“It would not be a request to ask, ‘Would you show me that you love me?’ The problem is that it is not doable. How would either person in the conversation know that the ‘showing love’ request has been met? Showing love is not something a camera can take a picture of. A doable request might be reworded as, ‘Would you be willing to hug me now?’ or ‘Would you be willing to sit on the couch now and listen to me tell you about my day for 5 minutes without saying anything?’ These sentences are requests because not only are they referencing the present, but they ask for something that can actually be done, and in a sense measured, by the parties involved. Both people would know when the request had been met.”
Make Requests Instead of Demands
If we’ve expressed our feelings and needs in a way that doesn’t blame other people, our requests can be made in a context that sound less like demands. What’s the difference between a request and a demand? When we make a request, we’re open to hearing a response of “no.” Demands, on the other hand, implicitly or explicitly threaten people with blame or punishment if they fail to comply:
“We can help others trust that we are requesting, not demanding, by indicating that we would only want the person to comply if he or she can do so willingly. Thus we might ask, ‘Would you be willing to set the table?’ rather than ‘I would like you to set the table.’ However, the most powerful way to communicate that we are making a genuine request is to empathize with people when they don’t respond to the request. We demonstrate that we are making a request rather than a demand by how we respond when others don’t comply. If we are prepared to show an empathic understanding of what prevents someone from doing as we asked, then we have made a request, not a demand. Choosing to request rather than demand does not mean we give up when someone says ‘no’ to our request. It does mean that we don’t engage in persuasion until we have empathized with what’s preventing the other person from saying ‘yes.’”
As Rosenberg emphasizes, the underlying purpose of NVC — including making requests instead of demands — isn’t to get our way; it’s to build relationships based on honesty and empathy so that everyone’s needs can be met. In NVC Part 5, we’ll learn more about “The Power of Empathy.”