Q: So many of my clients avoid directly asking for what they want. How can I help them overcome this common communication challenge?
A: After more than 40 years of working with couples, I’ve been struck by a universal and painful truth: Almost no one is good at constructively asking for what they want. A fun version of this truth puts it this way: The three hardest things to say are “I need help,” “I was wrong,” and “Worcestershire sauce.”
Particularly in long-term romantic relationships, asking clearly and constructively for what you want is a critical skill that helps people get their needs met when conflicts over those needs inevitably surface. The emotional challenge here is doing this without resorting to a simplistic, one-sided, self-righteous, blame-filled narrative, and doing it nicely and persistently in the face of resistance. In fact, it’s such a challenge that helping clients with healthy self-assertion has become an almost universal target for my therapeutic attention.
What Do People Ask for and Why is This So Hard?
Couples ask each other for many “things.” Some requests are trivial, like asking a partner to pass the salt; others are more significant, like asking a partner to do the family’s taxes; and some require substantial personal sacrifices, like asking a partner to move to another city when they don’t want to. Many of the things we ask our partners for can lead to debates about the equitable division of labor, how to spend time together, and how often to have sex. Many involve requests for emotional support, for sympathetic listening, and (less often) for practical advice. The deeper emotional need that makes a request salient is frequently hidden, even to the requester. Our task as therapists, before teaching partners more adaptive ways to ask for things, is often to help them clarify what’s really needed and why it’s so important.
The most obvious danger when asking for something, one that makes us vulnerable, is being turned down. This anxiety is stronger when what we want is important, as in the apocryphal Jack Story, which I sometimes share with clients to illustrate this common stumbling block. A man gets a flat tire and discovers he has no jack in his trunk. He walks to a gas station he passed a mile or two earlier. Along the way, he worries that the station attendant may not have a jack or might not lend him one. When he arrives and the attendant politely asks, “How can I help you?” the man yells, “You can keep your damn jack!” and storms out. Our vulnerability only increases when we make requests of people who matter to us (lovers, rather than gas station attendants) since such requests also encompass our need to know that we’re important to them. This deeper emotional need helps explain the intensity of many battles couples have over things requested and requests denied.
As a therapist who’s less conflicted than they are, and has taught others how to ask, it’s often easier for me to voice clients’ as-yet-unexpressed, semiconscious needs (sometimes with speculations explaining their reluctance to do so). For instance, in a recent session I said, “Tom, I think what Jennifer would tell you, if she could be more direct and less afraid of hurting your feelings, is that when you get worked up and ask her over and over again to plan your upcoming vacation with her, it makes her feel like her needs won’t be heard. This makes her angry. Then, feeling uncomfortable with her anger, she breaks off talking to you.”
While the importance of a request to the requester, and the risk of it not being met, can inhibit a person from asking for what they want, some clients come to us with inherent limitations that can make asking even harder. People who are insecurely attached, for example, don’t trust others to reliably provide what they need. Many personality types (paranoid, avoidant, masochistic, narcissistic/entitled, dominant/power-hungry) avoid asking or else attempt to finesse a request by seeking out and abusing positions of power. This is often because negative expectations that requests won’t be freely granted have been internalized. Difficulty asking for things is commonly a legacy of growing up in families where children had to do as they were told without complaint, or where requesting things was imperfectly modeled or taught. Relationships with other people, especially intimate ones, routinely trigger reminders of childhood trauma and misattunement. Making requests can be further exacerbated when outside stress comes home or when biology reduces self-control due to hunger, fatigue, depression, or illness.
In addition, some people don’t feel they have a right to ask, deny having a need (say, to see a doctor when sick or to ask for directions when lost), believe their request is destructive, or assume that loved ones should read their minds (so that no asking is required). In all these cases, clients will need our help identifying what’s interfering with their ability to ask for what they need.
Even clients with little trouble asserting themselves (including those who have become less inhibited as a result of individual psychotherapy) must contain their inclination to repeat requests without pausing for a response or to add one request on top of another. When emotions run high, they must resist the urge to verbally attack their partner in anger or to break off discussions in a huff.
Common mistakes people make to avoid feeling vulnerable or disappointed are to cite others who agree with them when asking (“My sister also thinks you should …!”), especially experts (“Dr. Expert says that husbands ought to . . .”). Many people appeal to fairness (“Considering what I’ve done for you, this isn’t so much to ask.”), presumed logic (“The only reasonable way to deal with this is . . .”), or a combination of love and guilt (“If you really loved me, you would . . .”). Many also combine insults with appeals to absolutes (“Any sane person would see it this way!” “Only plebians don’t like opera!”). Nagging, whining, and sulking are other common mistakes (“Why do I always have to be the one who walks the dog?!”). Like any indirect attempt to strongarm change in a partner, these are off-putting and often elicit passive-aggressive noncompliance.
Fortunately, there’s much we can learn from those who are good at asking and from research on best practices. Famed researcher John Gottman found that outcomes can be predicted from the first three minutes of a couple’s interaction making opening conversational moves and “soft startups” critical. In addition, I give my clients the following recommendations to help them ask for what they want when the other person is likely to put up resistance or become upset.
Make a plan. Not planning is planning to fail. Prepare by identifying your goals and being curious about your partner’s perspective.
Be aware of your hot buttons. If one of these is the issue, acknowledge this when you begin, “I know I’m more sensitive about this than most people, but…”
Get permission to talk and choose a good time to do so. Launching into a request when someone doesn’t have the bandwidth to listen—when they’re on a work deadline or managing a child’s meltdown—pretty much guarantees your request won’t receive the attention it deserves.
Own your requests, rather than cloaking them in appeals to virtue or logic. You’re entitled to have needs, desires, and preferences.
Criticize your partner’s actions, not his or her character. As Roger Fisher and William Ury write in Getting to Yes, “Be hard on the problem, soft on the person.” It’s easier for people to change what they do with their dirty clothes than how thoughtless they are.
Use a “criticism sandwich” to make a simple request for change. Begin with a compliment, say what you’d like done differently, and end on a positive note. While this may seem fake or manipulative, it encourages you to avoid “hard startups,” as when one partner enters a room and abruptly says something like, “Why didn’t you do what I asked?!”
For more difficult requests regarding someone else’s behavior, use Terry Real’s “feedback wheel” from The New Rules of Marriage. Describe what you saw or heard, as if a video camera had recorded it. Describe what you “made up” about this—in other words, how you interpreted what you observed. Describe what you felt, based on your observations and interpretation. Finally, describe what your partner can do differently in the future.
For requests that deal with emotionally challenging issues, begin by narrating “the third story.” This is a technique from Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The “first story” is your story, the “second” is your partner’s, and the “third” is the situation as a neutral mediator might see it. Talk like a mediator from the beginning, aiming to outline the gap between you, your partner, and your divergent stories.
Whichever format you choose, remain calm if your partner pushes back. Just as asking for what you want is challenging, so is listening when your partner replies defensively or says, “No way!” Do register the intensity of their response and acknowledge what they’ve said, but don’t allow name-calling, cross-complaining, or other defensive tactics to deter you from continuing the discussion.
Mature asking requires a combination of positive expectations (a component of secure attachment), skillfulness (such as using soft startups and criticism sandwiches), and resiliency (the ability to manage reactions if you don’t get the response you were hoping for). Resiliency, dependent on a positive core sense of self and practice with self-soothing, makes it easier to ask for things since disappointment will be more manageable. We therapists can help strengthen all these capacities.
In addition, when living with another person, even with someone who has made a commitment to love us above all others, we must still balance satisfying our needs with meeting theirs. And we must often do so in evolving, uncertain circumstances. This final existential reality means that helping clients with ethical and constructive asking will always be the stuff of couple therapy, as we help our couples to work out the details.
Photo by Antoni Shkraba/Pexels
Arthur C. Nielsen
Arthur C. Nielsen, MD, is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and a faculty member at The Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and The Family Institute at Northwestern University. He’s the author of A Roadmap for Couple Therapy: Integrating Systemic, Psychodynamic, and Behavioral Approaches (2016), and Integrative Couple Therapy in Action: A practical Guide for Handling Common Relationship Problems and Crises (2022). Visit his website at www.arthurnielsenmd.com.