When couples struggle with communication issues, one of the main reasons is that they use complaints to address upsets or problems that arise. Let’s face it, it’s easy to complain and it is something we all have lots of experience doing and seeing others do.
However, to improve communication, and the relationship as a whole, it is important to shift from complaints to making requests.
A request honors the individuality of each person, it respects the emotional boundaries needed in a healthy relationship and it creates a future focus instead of a focus on the past and on problems, the way complaints do.
Shifting from complaint to request is not easy because there is the possibility your partner will turn down your request. It makes us face the inevitable possibility that a need may not be met by our partner. Making a request takes maturity and a willingness to be truly vulnerable in a way that complaining does not.
How to Move From Complaint to Request
Here’s an example of an exercise to help with this shift:
The exercise is called “Moving from Complaint to Request”. Here’s how it works:
- Let your partner know you’d like to talk about X and invite them to talk at a specific time: “I’d like us to talk about the upset we had the other day when you came home from the grocery store. Would you be free to talk at 7 pm tonight?”
This step is important for several reasons. It allows your partner to know what you want to talk about and helps both of you set a time to be prepared to talk about it. Being prepared means being ready to talk respectfully, to listen with an open heart and mind, and to be aware of taking care of the relationship, not just your own thoughts and feelings. It allows you to be connected, not reactive.
2. At the agreed-upon time, there is the listener and the speaker. The listener is to listen openly for the parts the speaker is saying that they can agree with.
The person bringing up the issue (the speaker) follows this structure:
- State what you saw and heard. Be as objective as possible. “When you came home from the grocery store, I heard the door slam loudly behind you. I did not hear you say hello, and I heard you cursing as you walked past my office while I was on a conference call.”
- State what you made up about it. We all make up stories about what we see and hear. Often, those stories are not accurate but are connected to our own feelings, biases, traumas, etc. “What I made up about it is that you were angry at me that you had to do the grocery shopping and you were going to be as loud as possible to make it known that you were aggravated”
- State how you feel. What we feel is often connected to the stories we make up about what we saw and heard. Feelings are not facts, but they are important to be able to express and to have heard by our partners. “I felt (NOT you MADE me feel) upset and hurt. The cursing scared me”
- State what you need. This is where you make a request instead of focusing on a complaint or what didn’t work. “If you don’t want to do something you have agreed to (in this case doing the grocery shopping) please come to me ahead of time and we can talk about making different arrangements to get it done. Also, please do not curse when you are upset.”
- Let go of the outcome. This is the hardest part for the speaker. In our relationships we long for all of our needs to be met, but we are in relationships with other imperfect human beings who at times will meet our needs or live up to our expectations, and at other times they will not. That reality is often hard to manage or accept. If both people are committed to supporting each other and the relationship as a whole, they will each do their best to meet the other’s needs and speak up when they are not able to.
The listener, after having heard out what the speaker has said, is to reflect back to the speaker what they heard and understood in their own words. Once it is confirmed by the speaker that, yes, the listener got what the speaker was expressing, the listener then follows the following structure in reply:
- Reflect in your own words what you heard and understood the speaker to be saying. Get confirmation from them that they feel heard and understood. Do not start to explain how you felt, what you were thinking, or defend yourself.
- State what you can say you view in the same way or can agree with – this is important to show where in the upset you are both on the same page: “Yes, the door slammed loudly behind me when I came in from the grocery store. And I was cursing.”
- Express empathy for your partner’s feelings. “I can see how that would be upsetting and I know that your Dad used to curse a lot when you were growing up and that it scares you to this day”
- Respond to the request positively if you are willing to honor the request, remembering your commitment to the relationship being a safe place that helps meet both people’s needs. “In the future, if I am unable to follow through on something I committed to doing, I will discuss it with you ahead of time instead of doing it angrily. I will do my best not to curse or slam doors in the future”.
- Do not agree to the request if you have no intention of fulfilling it or working on it. That will do more harm to the relationship than being honest. If you are not able to honor the request, say so. And offer an alternative that you can do and ask if the speaker would be open to trying that option instead.
Remember, the purpose of better communication is to be able to strengthen the intimate connection between you. This means being willing to work through difficult conversations, to be vulnerable, and to move from complaining to addressing issues as a team.
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