Couples’ Formula for Successful Requests
One of the most common communication issues I see in my couples’ sessions are difficulty with successful requests, or self-sabotaging requests. What do I mean by this? Often when we really need something from our partners - respect, affection, attention - we ask in a way that is guaranteed NOT to get us what we want. Here’s an example:
Sally had been traveling for work for the past week, and was not very responsive via text to her husband Fred when he attempted to check in and connect. By the time Sally returned home Friday evening, Fred was feeling lonely and hurt. He wished Sally had missed him more and wanted to have an evening connecting with her when she got back. When Sally walked in the door, Fred’s first words out of his mouth were “finally! I had no idea when you were getting back! Why didn’t you text me??” This led to a fight, and instead of reconnecting with Sally, Fred spent the night angrily watching tv by himself.
Fred wanted to reconnect with Sally, but the way he asked (“why didn’t you text me???”) obscured what he was really asking for. He communicated his anger to Sally, but she probably had no idea that he was asking for connection. He did not make a successful request.
What Fred needs to work on is making clearer, successful requests using the following formula
State your feeling + State your need + ask for a concrete action = Successful Request
This formula is pretty simple, but requires the ability to reflect on feelings and dig down to the needs underneath them.
Couples’ Formula for Successful Requests Step 1: State your feeling
Often when my clients are asked to describe their feelings during a fight they get as far as “angry,” “frustrated,” or “irritated” and stop. The reality is, anger-spectrum feelings are usually in reaction to other feelings. We feel angry because we are feeling other “negative” feelings that are even less comfortable than anger. Take a minute to dig deeper. See if you can complete the following sentence: “I’m angry because I feel __________.” In Fred’s case, he felt angry because he felt disconnected, rejected, unimportant, and lonely.
Couples’ Formula for Successful Requests Step 2: State your need
Once you know what you’re feeling, look for what you would need to stop feeling that way. In Fred’s case he felt disconnected, rejected, unimportant and lonely.
When asked to think about how to repair these feelings, Fred identified their opposites.
He felt disconnected, rejected, unimportant and lonely. By looking at the opposite of each “negative” feeling, Fred identified his needs. In doing so, he arrived at the following:
Disconnected → Connected
Rejected → Accepted
Unimportant → Important
Lonely → Connected
Notice that he needed connection twice! That means it will be extra important for Fred to ask for connection.
Couples’ Formula for Successful Requests Step 3: Ask for a concrete action
After identifying your emotional needs, the next step is to figure out what concrete actions will meet these needs. These requests should be things that can be done now, in the immediate and present moment. Often my clients will get ahead of themselves, thinking about what needs to be done in the future, or never done again. These are important things to know, but will do little to meet your needs in this moment.
In Fred’s case, the request he made was “why didn’t you text me??” This request addressed the past (why didn’t you) vs the present. It didn’t address any of his current needs: to feel connected, accepted, important and connected. Upon further reflection, Fred decided what would have helped him to feel those things in that moment would have been: a hug or to sit on the couch and tell Sally about his week.
When asked to spell out what that request is, Fred ventured he could have said “can I have a hug?” or “can we sit on the couch while I tell you about my week?”
This is the most important step in the exercise, and a tricky one. Take a minute to think about what concrete actions would help you to get your needs met immediately. Be as specific as possible.
Couples’ Formula for Successful Requests Step 4: Put it all together
Taking all of the information Fred uncovered (his feelings, his needs and clear actions that would help), it’s important for Fred to communicate all of this to Sally. Our partners need to know the context for requests to fully understand what they’re saying yes (or no!) to.
For instance, if Fred had simply walked up to Sally and said “I need you to sit on the couch and listen to me talk about my week” Sally might not get how important the request is, or even felt irritated by it. If Fred had walked up to Sally and said “I need to feel connected to you” she might be unsure about how to achieve that. To really set himself up to get what he needs, and make it clear how Sally can do that, Fred needs to provide all three parts of information in the Request formula.
Remember that the formula is State your feeling + State your need + Ask for a concrete action
Fred attempted to put it all together retroactively.
State your feeling
State your need
Ask for a concrete action
I’ve missed you! I’ve been feeling a little disconnected
I’d really like to take some time tonight to reconnect
Can we grab a glass of wine on the couch and catch each other up on our weeks?
When it’s your turn, remember that it’s vital to include all three components of the formula to set yourself up for success. By using this formula, you’ll be on your way to better understanding what you need, and setting your partner up to better provide it for you.
Of course, sometimes even when we ask perfectly, our partners may still say “no.” Sally might simply be too exhausted from her trip to stay awake long enough to stay up and talk with Fred. If that happens, that’s ok! Go back to the feelings and needs and ask for another time to meet them. Fred might say “ok, I understand you’re too tired tonight. Can we make some time tomorrow to catch up with each other?”
If you had trouble with any of the three formula components, consider booking an appointment with a therapist today.