Dear Tristan: on requests and demands

Dear Tristan,

Both your dad and I have written a bit about the Nonviolent Communication process – the way of being that teaches us to observe without judging, then identify feelings and the needs from which they flow. The final step of the NVC process is to request something of another person, something that would help to meet my need, perhaps something that would meet a mutual need.

A request can be stated in many ways, but always contains the sentiment (if not the words) “would you be willing” – the implication being that it’s okay for you to say no. But the fact is that usually when we ask something of someone, it’s not okay if they say no – especially if that someone is a child. Our “requests” are actually demands. Marshall Rosenberg says that “our requests are received as demands when others believe they will be blamed or punished if they do not comply. When people hear a demand, they see only two options: submission or rebellion.”

Oftentimes the difference between a request and a demand is not in the way the question is worded. It is in the way we respond when others don’t comply. If our “request” was really a demand, we are likely to get irritated, guilting or blaming the other person until they comply. If our request is, in fact, a request, we can empathize with the reasons why the person doesn’t want to, or can’t, comply.

The question, of course, is whether or not demands have any place in a relationship. I happen to believe they do not. I can’t think of a reason why it would be okay to ever demand something from another person if your priority is relationship. Of course in a hierarchical system like the military, demands – orders – make sense. They are necessary. In a relationship, not so much.

And yet, in our relationships, we level demands at each other and then get irritated with anything less than instant compliance. We may ask “Could you do….” but we don’t mean it as a request, as evidenced by the irritation we experience if the person we are asking doesn’t do as we ask immediately.

I think maybe this is because we don’t know how to ask things of one another and yet be perfectly okay if the answer is “no.” It is almost as if demands are the currency of relationship and we don’t know how to have it any other way.

I think this is true in every relationship, but it is nowhere as stark as the parent-child relationship. In fact, some would have you believe that the role of the parent is to issue demands; the role of the child is to submit to those demands. I’ve heard it said, “You don’t ASK your child to set the table for dinner….you TELL your child to set the table for dinner.”

This goes back, of course, to yesterday’s letter about respect, and adultism. Why can I make demands of you, just because you’re a child? Are you going to learn responsibility through demands? Are you going to learn how to live with character? Are you going to learn how to make wise choices? Or are you going to feel – as we all feel – that there are two choices when someone makes a demand on you…to submit or to rebel? I would much rather that I, as your parent, provide an avenue for learning something other than just submission…and that is to respond with compassion.

You see, when we demand things of people, there are those two options – submit or rebel. But when we request, instead of these two options there is the opportunity to respond compassionately and freely.

I, for one, would rather have you learn to respond with compassion to the needs of others, than I would have you simply learn to be submissive and obedient.

Even if it means that sometimes I’ll have to set the table myself.

Please do as I requested, only —
only if you can do so with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck.
Please do not do as I request if there is any taint of fear of punishment if you don’t.
Please do not do as I request to buy my love,
that is, hoping that I will love you more if you do.
Please do not do as I request if you will feel guilty if you don’t.
Please do not do as I request if you will feel shameful.
And certainly do not do as I request out of any sense of duty or obligation.
~Marshall Rosenberg


other letters in this series:
on failing to live up to ideals
on curiosity
on intrinsic motivation (and why we won’t do sticker charts)
on disagreements and choosing a different path
on being open
you are not what you do
on perspective taking
on the most important thing
when the going gets hard
on falling in love
on feelings and needs
on empathy
on differentiation and self-validation
on insecurity
on expectations
on becoming
on respect 

Daddy’s letters:

I love you
I’m sorry
Be Yourself
Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Be Powerful
Be…just be
Do it for you
On Rewards and Punishments
Choose Wisely
Hold onto Yourself
Cultivate Empathy
tell me what you feel
Be Differentiated
an invitation
no expectations
have regrets
what do you want?
why do you want?