Making Clear Requests
I know we often look to volunteering with organizations, offering our time and energy to support a particular cause, or serving in some other way that contributes to society. This practice is of great value to both the giver and the receiver. Yet what often goes unnoticed are the opportunities to serve those who are in our immediate circle, the ones we are closest to, the ones who put up with us during those years of recovery, the ones who cross our path every day.
Often what inhibits and prevents us from giving or sharing freely with others is a kind of stinginess. This is not the stinginess that makes you give a $1 tip when you know you really should give more. It’s not the kind of Ebenezer Scrooge stinginess that causes you to ignore the circumstances of others. Rather, it is a type of stinginess born out of a need to hide and protect ourselves and to preserve a sense of control. Where does this type of stinginess come from in the first place, how does it most often show up, and how can we break free of it?
Human beings are funny creatures. We crave interaction and relationship, yet often behave in ways that directly counter this need. The main thing that gets in the way of us authentically interacting and forming relationships with others is our need to look good! How many times have we been in a conversation, and we have no idea what the person is talking about? Yet we nod and agree as if we are also a scholar on Far Eastern spices. When we almost trip and fall on the sidewalk, our first response isn’t “ Thank goodness I didn’t get hurt” but rather “Did anyone see me fall?” More significantly, we are struggling through a divorce but refuse to tell any of our friends, because we don’t want them to think we are a failure.
For survivors, this need to look good is often exacerbated by an experience in our past that made hiding the safest way to keep our abuser(s) away or unable to get at us. Additionally, many of us suffered in silence and worked to keep up appearances to the outside world; looking good was a way to shield ourselves from revealing the truth.
Our egos are important and our need to protect them is also functionally appropriate in many circumstances. However, if we never risk ego by giving up looking good, then we miss key opportunities to share and learn from others, to give others a chance to share genuinely with us, and, perhaps most tragically, to really be seen and known by others. We have to stop hiding.
Another way that stinginess shows up is in our amazing ability to make choices for other people. I am sure we have all experienced the following sort of invitation, “Hey, there’s a party this weekend, I’m sure you’re too busy to go and wouldn’t be interested, but I think it will be a lot of fun—you should come.” What in the world is that?!
This sort of non-invitation is used as a defense mechanism to protect our egos from disappointment and rejection. This type of exchange allows us to believe that the person is rejecting the party (because they are busy) rather than rejecting us. The error is in thinking that a “no” to an invitation means the person is saying “no” to you personally. If we can recognize that a person may refuse an invitation for any number of reasons (granted, one of those may be because you aren’t their cup of tea), then we can give up the need to protect ourselves by offering these sorts of non-invitations.
Instead, make a clear request: “Would you like to help me on this project?” instead of “I have this project that I would like your help on, but I understand you’re probably too busy.” Then, accept the person’s answer (which, by the way, will often include an explanation such as “Sorry, I already have too many projects”) without taking it personally. By making clear requests, you avoid inserting a negative influence that would rob the other person of the opportunity to choose for him- or herself.
Additionally, not asking others for support (e.g., keeping the fact that you are going through a divorce to yourself ) is also a type of choosing for others. The people in our lives want to give their support. It is an act of stinginess to deny them the opportunity to love and care for us. So, how do we counter this tendency to choose for others? It may seem simplistic, but when you extend an invitation, filter out anything that is not the clear request. When you need support, ask. Stop choosing for others!
It is a gift to those with whom we are interacting to give up looking good rather than deceptively nodding to avoid acknowledging that we do not understand. It is a gift to let others choose for themselves by making clear requests rather than using non-invitations. It is a gift to others to ask them to support us rather than hiding behind excuses for not doing so (e.g., “I don’t want to impose”). It is a gift to those we love to risk our ego in order to build a more intimate relationship.
We will discover that our relationships become more genuine and the ones we are with will appreciate our openness. So, stop being stingy! As we search for ways to contribute to the broader society, keep in mind those who are close to us. Embrace the opportunities to serve them as well.
Steps for making a clear request:
Step 1: Get clear about what you want. What specific type of support do you want or need?
Example: I would like to talk by phone; I want to meet in person.
Step 2: Get even more specific: How often? What day? What time?
Example: I would like to talk by phone once a week on Tuesdays at 12p.
Step 3: Ask for confirmation or agreement.
Example: How does that sound? Would that work for you?
Step 4: Negotiate. Based on the person’s response, you may need to adjust the details or you may have to hear them say “No, I can’t do that” and not fall into meaning making as a result.
Oh, and the bad news is…
Once we adopt and become skilled at clear requests, we have to give up the notion that others should just “get it.” To be sure, we may think that our partner of twenty years should know by now exactly what we want. To some extent, I am sure she or he does. However, last I checked, the power of mind-reading still eludes most of us. So, even if we have a tuned-in partner or friends or co-workers who understand us quite well, there will be times when they will need a clear request from us to know exactly what we need.
Keep in mind, when we see someone with a broken leg, most of us know exactly what needs to be done in almost every single case—scream like hell and call 911. When someone close to us needs attention, support, or comfort—well, things get a little fuzzy. Moreover, being the wiggly creatures we are, what worked yesterday may not work today.
So, give up the belief that others should just “get it” and, instead, be responsible for asking for what you need and being clear about it.
But, the good news is…
By using clear requests, we get in touch with what we really need and take the guesswork away for the person we are interacting with. Additionally, we can objectively determine if the person is following through or not. If we ask someone to “stay in touch,” how will we measure that? How will we know if it is happening? If we ask the person to call once a week, that is a concrete, measurable request that can be tracked. This reduces the frustration in communication and allows us to go back to the person to check in on things without it becoming a disagreement about what “stay in touch” really means.