Asking for what you want and need in a clear, direct, honest, and courageous way is one of the keys to healthy communication and relationship dynamics and yet one of the hardest things to do. I have struggled with it personally for a long time. Raised as an Asian American woman, being assertive felt counter to my upbringing and cultural values. Yet I have learned over time, as Dr. Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
To be clear and direct can fit into my cultural values when I do it with thoughtfulness, skillfulness, kindness, and compassion. In this blog post, I will offer some effective strategies to ask for what you want in your relationship to maximize the chance that your partner will hear and understand you clearly and accurately. Let’s first identify some of the myths of healthy communication.
Myths of Healthy Communication
- If I ask for what I want and my partner delivers what I want, it is inauthentic.
- If my partner really loves me and cares about me, they should know what I want and need without me asking.
- My partner will be put off by my demands. It is better if they spontaneously offer than if I had to ask for what I want or need.
- I can intuit and anticipate my partner’s needs so it should be easy and natural for them to anticipate mine.
- I have given hints and clues to what I want and need indirectly; my partner should be able to pick up on it.
- If I praise or show gratitude to my partner for doing something that I think is “expected,” they will depend on my affirmation to do things in the future.
Fears of Being Direct and Assertive
Some of the doubts and fears that often come up when we practice being direct, honest, and clear are:
- What if I am asking for too much?
- What if the other person thinks that I am too needy and leaves?
- What if they reject me?
- What if they cannot fulfill my needs?
Sound familiar? I have these thoughts running through my mind too. When these thoughts get too loud, instead of asking directly, I might hint at my needs, use criticism or passive aggressive behaviors to express my needs, tell myself that it is better not to depend on others, and/or bury my needs to the point that I cannot recognize them anymore. Instead of building a healthy relationship dynamic, I may end up unconsciously and unintentionally self-sabotaging my relationship.
The skillful ways to ask for what you want and need maximizes the chance that the other person can hear it accurately and want to fulfill it. This way of asking is not demanding, intimidating, aggressive, critical, burdening, or obligatory. It is not setting ultimatums, escalating emotionally, using guilt and shame, or persuading the other person. When you are clear, direct, and confident in what you want, you give the other person the opportunity to come closer to yo, to understand you better, to step up into their higher self, and to care for you in ways that are meaningful to you. Below are the five strategies to ask for what you want in a healthy way that challenges the myths of healthy communication in a relationship. These strategies come from Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, Non-Violent Communication, and Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills.
1. Assume Good Intentions
Start the conversation by assuming good intentions about the other person. An unhelpful strategy to ask for what you want is to assume that the other person has not met your needs so far out of bad intention or not caring. In my work as an Emotionally Focused couples therapist, I often hear one partner say, “If they cared about me, they would have known to do x, y, or z.” By starting off this way, the listener is already on the defense about their intentions. Instead, try starting the conversation with the following:
- I know that you are a caring person.
- I can see all the ways that you are trying really hard.
- I am sure you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.
- I didn’t share this with you this before so of course you wouldn’t have known this.
- You didn’t do anything wrong.
2. Express Your Emotions
Expressing your emotions can help de-escalate and clarify miscommunication. The first step is to calm and soothe yourself and become clear about what you are feeling on the surface as well as at a deeper level. For instance, you might be feeling frustrated, resentful, bitter, and angry on the surface with your partner for not seeing your contribution or valuing your efforts. At a deeper level, there might be feelings of fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of abandonment, and feeling unseen, taken advantage of, and unworthy. Expressing both the surface emotions and the deeper emotions with vulnerability and authenticity can help to soften your partner and allow them to see the hurt inside that is in need of comfort, compassion, care, and protection.
3. Give Others the Gift of Caring for You
Reframe a request as a gift for your partner: a chance to see the map into your heart. Most likely, your partner wants to care for you and is looking for opportunities to express how much you mean to them. They will not be able to read your mind and they might need some help to understand you better. When your partner knows that something delights you, makes you feel loved and supported, it is setting them up for success to do that more often. Give them the opportunity to succeed with you by directly and gently letting them know what you like, what you would love to see more of, what brings you joy, and how you feel the most cared for. It is a privilege and a gift for your partner to be able to care and love you in the ways that matters to you.
4. Accept When They Say “No”
Sometimes you may hesitate to ask for what you want directly because you are afraid of rejection or being “too much” if the other person cannot fulfill your needs. You can decrease the stakes and risks of asking by identifying other ways to get your needs met. For example, if your partner is not available to listen to you right now and they say “no,” can you call a friend to talk instead? If your partner is not able to care for the children right now, can you hire a childcare provider instead? Feeling that you are empowered and have agency to meet your own needs makes it easier to accept a “no.” Just because your partner is not available or able to meet your request right now does not invalidate your need or want.
5. Express Gratitude When They Say “Yes”
Expressing gratitude and praise is the most effective way to increase the chance that a behavior will happen again. Humans are very responsive to positive reinforcement. When your partner gets instant feedback that what they did is on the right track, that it mattered to you, it had the intended response that they were hoping for, and that it made you happy, they are much more likely to do it again in the future. When your partner says “yes” to your request, delivers what you had asked for, spontaneously does something that makes you feel wonderful, let them know early and often that they are on the right path into your heart. Over time, your partner will internalize the feedback. When their behavior becomes a habit, you won’t have to express gratitude each and every time for them to continue doing what they know will make you happy and contribute to a healthy relationship.
Begin Couples Therapy in Our Ballard Office or Through Online Therapy
If the idea of working on these effective communication strategies feels taunting or overwhelming to do on your own, our competent and compassionate therapists can provide extra support and accountability through individual or couples counseling. We can help you dig deep into your current communication patterns, self-sabotaging behaviors, and stuck places in your relationship. We can guide you toward effective communication strategies to create more intimate, healthy, secure, and thriving relationships with your partner. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with us today.