One of the things I have noticed after working with thousands of clients is people cannot seem to ask for what they want. Don’t believe me. Start to track yourself and others and you will observe that each of you will almost always ask for what you DON’T want, rather than what you DO. Why is this important? I will explain in a moment.
Maybe, it is just my personality but I have always been obsessed with identifying cause and effect to any pattern. Rather than judge it, I am more curious. If we all seem to engage in a certain behavior, why is it so? My conclusion is it has to have some level of value or did at one point. Much of psychotherapy is identifying ineffective patterns of behavior, their origin, and subsequent resolution.
In my experience, this particular pattern comes down to how our brains are wired. The majority of the brain and nervous systems is dedicated to objectives associated with survival. Makes sense. First priority – live. Everything else is secondary. One of the internal systems that assist us in this endeavor is the one associated with pain.
Many of the things that cause us pain are threats to our survival: hunger lets us know we need nutrition; thirst alerts us of impending dehydration; physical injury and disease makes us aware of threats to our health or physical integrity, and grief informs us of loss of important relationships.
Our response to pain is to identify and eliminate the source. There is value in doing so. However, when it comes to relational and emotional pain this reflexive response to pain can create more of it. In a relational context, telling someone what you DON’T want often implies they are characteristically negative or failing in some manner. Perhaps they are, but this will likely trigger their relational defenses.
Let me give you an example I have experienced countless times in therapy. One spouse is frustrated with the other spending so much time at work. They bring this up in the session and say something like, “All you care about is your job,” “I wish you would stop spending so much time at work.” In this situation, the person asked for what they DON’T want, which is for their partner to stop spending so much time at work.
Asking for what you want would sound something like this, “I would mean a lot to me if you could try and come home a little earlier so we could have dinner together.” Does this guarantee the desired response? No! But it does up your odds. Relationships are extremely complex and challenging at times. I have found small communications tweaks such as this can bring a big relational R.O.I. (Return on investment).
In the former example, it implies the partner is selfish and uncaring, which will trigger shame for them. Furthermore, it can activate a person’s unresolved history related to shame and failure. They will most likely either shut down or start defending themselves. The latter illustration does not imply anything negative about the partner. The requesting partner expresses what they WANT.
This is much less likely to trigger shame or defensiveness because you are not attacking or asserting the partner is negative in any way. Doing this requires effort; it does not come naturally to most of us. I have rarely if ever, met a person who can initially ask for what they want when I start to work with them. I’ll give a whole speech on this, which they verbalize their understanding of, then, when I ask them for what they DO want, they immediately inform me of what they DON’T want.
Another positive aspect of asking for what you DO want is it can be emotionally moving. In a session, I will ask a client to paint me a picture of why this particular behavior they desire from their partner is so meaningful. We are often caught in double binds in life and relationships. In the work example, the partner stuck at work may want to come home early and spend time with the other partner, but they could be feeling financial pressure to provide adequately. They are stuck between not providing or their partner feeling neglected.
The partner at home may share a story of how alone they felt throughout much of their childhood due to their parent’s divorce and the custodial parent having to work multiple jobs to survive. They become emotional as they share their history that then moves the other partner and increases their level of motivation to work out a more balanced schedule. They are not going to move them emotionally by telling them all the ways they are failing or attacking their character.
Look. I get it. We all communicate in these ineffective ways. We want the source of pain to go away. “Stop hurting me,” we say in some form. But if you take the time to work on this one fine-tuning in the way you request things from the important people in your life, I promise it will pay off. The key is to be consistent with it; don’t give up just because it doesn’t work the first few times.
The part of the brain we perceive consciously with is the prefrontal cortex. It is made up of six layers. Three of these are filtering incoming data from our five senses. The other three are associated with memory. Often, when you initiate a new behavior, your partner cannot even be aware of it yet. It takes repetition for their brain to begin recognizing what just occurred. Keep at it until the new behavior becomes the new reality.
As a psychotherapist, I don’t let my client’s make NEGATIVE goals. They must be POSITIVE approach goals. Quitting drinking or smoking, NOT fighting, and NOT having anxiety are all NEGATIVE goals. POSITIVE reframes of these goals would be becoming healthier and running my first 5K, feeling more calm and at ease, and being more connected and vulnerable in the relationship.
These are what are referred to as positive/approach goals versus negative/avoidant goals. One of my first mentors taught me the brain does not understand what is referred to as negation – not or don’t. If you are playing golf and your focus is DON’T hit it into the water, that is likely where you will go. I can attest to the validity of this countless times. Instead, if you visualize and hold your attention on where you want to hit the ball, your brain will orient your efforts in that direction.
Whether it is individual or relational goals or needs, remember to focus on what you WANT, not on what you DON’T want. It is essential to achieve your individual ambitions but imperative in relationships. Lastly, your brain does not know the difference between external and internal reality when it sees an image in the mind’s eye. If you remain focused on what you DON’T want it will release neurochemicals (emotions) associated with pain.
If you maintain attention on the desire outcome, it will release emotions correlated with pleasure; what you focus on determines how you feel. Challenge yourself to work on this one communication strategy in the coming days and weeks and track the return on your relational R.O.I. If I was a stockbroker, I would refer to this as my hot tip of the week. Practice this consistently and I guarantee you’ll get a return.
If you would like to learn more about this topic or schedule a session to develop more effective communication, contact me anytime at 561-468-6464