The Positivity of NVC: Requests (part 3)

If you’ve read Part 1 of this series on the Positivity of Nonviolent (NVC), you’ll know that I described how NVC takes an intrinsically positive regard of human beings — that while we may not like or approve of strategies that people employ (words or actions), we understand that each thing we say or do is an attempt to meet primal human and living needs.

In Part 2, I shared how developing fluency with needs can help you practice NVC more easily and effectively. Now in Part 3, I will share how the inherent positivity of NVC brings us to another positive lens that we practice in NVC: how we make requests.

asking4

Requesting What we Want

Once we focus on what we do want through needs — and create that alchemy of transformed judgments — we take the “positivity” one step further through our strategy requests that are clear/concrete, positive, and doable. The positive element is the key: What DO we want? (rather than what we don’t want).

The positivity is one way of making our requests concrete and clear. In effect, when you make a negative request (“Please don’t leave your shoes there!”) we actually are leaving the other person guessing and even in the dark: Where do we want them to leave their shoes?

What I have found, including when supporting managers and organizations, is that often requests are being made in the negative and then managers are frustrated or impatient when tasks are being done in a different way, by a different standard, or in different timing than they wanted. I also hear examples of this at home.

When we make “negative” requests (about what we don’t want) it also starts sounding very easily like criticism or a demand—because, as we explored in Part 1, criticism is always negative. Again, test both of the following options by saying them out loud:

  1. “Don’t leave your shoes there!”
  2. “Would you be willing to leave your shoes at the door?”

Dian headshot 2019 MEDWhich one does your body prefer? Which one do you think would be easier for someone to hear? Which one would they be more likely to act on? The negative aspect (the “Don’t…”) sets us up a climate of criticism and demand right from the start.

If you want to take the experiment even farther, add the word “please” to the negative request: “Please don’t leave your shoes there!” Even though this softens the statement a little, it still sounds like a demand to me. The sentence still basically leads with a don’t. And no one in my experience likes to be told what to do. More, I’ve yet to find anyone who enjoys hearing a negative, especially a negative demand.

Saying what we Don’t Want Backfires

I’ve read articles on linguistics that back up this concept. We would think that “no” or “not” are emphatic and strong and so would stand out and get people’s attention. However, research shows that our brains actually focus on the content word (“run”) rather than the adverb (“not”). Therefore, when someone says, “don’t run!” what our brains actually hear is “run!” So in effect, we are reinforcing the opposite of what we want the person to do!

If instead, we say, “Please walk,” our brains take in that positive concept immediately and directly (“walk”) — free of the necessity to translate to the desired behavior. In effect, when given a negative, the listener needs to take the extra step of figuring out what the person is looking for. The brain hears — and primarily focuses on — the content word (“run!”) which is actually the opposite of what you want.

In terms of taking the effort to figure out what someone does want when we get a negative, imagine this for a second: Someone asks you to go to Baskin Robbins ice cream shop and to get any flavor for them except chocolate or vanilla. As you may know, Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream! Trying to figure out which flavor to get when you’ve only eliminated two would be very confusing and frustrating. I would be tempted to just give up rather than go through the effort of eliminating every flavor that has a chocolate or vanilla base.

baskin robbins

But that might not even be what you meant — maybe they didn’t want plain chocolate but would have been happy with chocolate almond! The person asking you to buy ice cream for them would probably be frustrated. And you probably will be frustrated too — since you may not get them what they really wanted. I know this is an extreme case—how many situations have 31 different possibilities? And I hope you get the concept.

However, I would guess that at some point in your life, you have asked for something and didn’t quite get what you wanted… and realized after the fact that you could have made a clearer request. Making it positive — about what you do want — even if it’s something like, “chocolate ice cream with some kind of nuts in it” will bring you much closer into the ballpark of getting your needs met.

In this context of making positive and clear requests, it also strikes me how many judgments also take the form of what I call “half–baked requests.” For example, if someone says, “It’s too cold in here!” I wonder if they’d like me to turn the AC down? Or turn the heat up? If they say, “You never pay attention!” I wonder if they’re asking me to put my device down while they speak to me? Or did I miss something that they said?

Again, I consider it tragic that so often, we talk about what we don’t like rather than asking for what we do want! And again, I hope you see how making a “half-baked” request in this way also easily sounds like a judgment or complaint. I consider it far more effective to ask for what you want — directly and positively.

In addition, I find that many people are so accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong and what they don’t like — and believe that they can’t get what they really want — that when I ask, “Well, what do you want?” or, “What would you like?” they often have trouble figuring it out… and still reply in the negative!

For example, a person once said to me, “I don’t want my partner to read the newspaper when I’m talking to him.” OK, I said, so what do you want? “I don’t want him to blow me off!”

Listening to this person, I’m clear about their needs: attention, being heard, communication, mattering. But what is this person’s actual dream in terms of their partner’s behavior? Would they love for their partner to put down the paper when they come in and say good morning or ask a question?

two people looking down

Asking for what we truly want can take us to a vulnerable place. Maybe we’ve been disappointed before. Or told (directly or implicitly) that we expect too much. We could have other stories too. Sometimes when I come up with a clear and positive request, even I’m not happy with what I am requesting! Sometimes I find it’s outside what I would, in fact, consider doable or what I would really want.

For example, back to the person who wanted their partner to put down the paper when they spoke to them: I don’t think I’d actually be comfortable with making that request. I want connection and to be heard and I also value my partner having autonomy and choice. Maybe my actual request would be: “When I come in and say ‘good morning’ would you be willing to finish the article you’re reading and then connect with me for a few minutes?” This request holds both my needs with care and my partner’s needs. And I cannot get to that point without making my request positive.

Positivity of Requests

So, in effect, NVC focuses on the “positive” in two different ways:

  1. Focusing on needs (turning judgments into gold).
  2. Making clear/concrete, positive, and doable requests* (or as I call them for short, “CPD requests”)—which in effect is the “CPR” for increasing the odds of your being heard and your needs being met!

* Note: It’s usually best to make requests only once both parties have been heard and trust is established.

Again, this is about developing different habits: training our brains to listen for what we want (on a core level of needs) and then to ask for what we want (as opposed to what we don’t want) with a positive request.

Would you like to experiment with this in your own life? The next time you notice a complaint or criticism, see if you can translate it into a positive request. In effect, this is another NVC “shortcut” or empathy hack. I often practice it on myself: for example, if I tell myself, “You’re not exercising enough!” I already know my feelings and needs. So I go right to a positive request: “OK, self, what can we do today to get some exercise?” That positive request brings me immediately into proactive solutions.

Let me know how it goes for you and what you discover by commenting below!


If you missed the first two parts of this series on the Positivity of NVC, read them here: “See Me Beautiful” (Part 1) and “Needs” (Part 2).

2 thoughts on “The Positivity of NVC: Requests (part 3)

  1. I Noted: It’s usually best to make requests only once both parties have been heard and trust is established.
    What happens when trust is just not there between two people, but I still need to express my feelings needs and a request assertively so I dunt continually get overlooked, dismissed and stepped on?

    • Hi Maria,
      If trust is lacking, I suggest connecting more first to create trust. If I am lacking internal resources to engage, then I could also take some “time off” —letting the other person know that I am taking a break, why, and when I’ll circle back to see if we can restore connection. You can learn more how to practice these skills at the workshop I’m giving Oct. 19th-20th in Vermont. Learn more here: https://workcollaboratively.com/vt-2019-being-the-change/

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