You can’t always get what you want, but how do you get what you need?
The Rolling Stones may have been on to something with their 1969 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but what happens when you “try sometimes” and still can’t get what you need? Think about it: Have you ever tried explaining what you need or how you feel to a friend, family member or spouse, but the message doesn’t seem to translate? No matter how you try to explain yourself, your listener becomes defensive, uninterested or simply does not react the way you had anticipated. Afterwards, as you mentally parse every word that was spoken, you start to wonder if talking about your needs, bringing up a concern, or making a request was even worth it in the first place. Let me reassure you- it WAS worth it! Not expressing your needs with others may leave you feeling unfulfilled, overwhelmed and resentful towards those relationships. In my work with couples and individuals, I have found that in most relationships, platonic or romantic, both parties want to provide adequate support and meet the needs of the other person. The problem is not the request for support, but instead how the request was made.
In a society where social and emotional learning is now being taught to kids as young as Pre-K, we are all pretty well versed in “I statements” (for those of you unfamiliar, an “I statement” goes something like this: I feel because ). Many couples and individuals report that they have used traditional “I Statements” but the results have been less than satisfactory. What I have discovered is that this statement tends to leave the listener with only a small amount of information, and in many situations, they can get defensive. While we have the best intentions in explaining why we feel the way we do, this format of the “I Statement” tends to lead us into a “you”/blaming format.
For example: “I feel sad because you are so selfish.”
In this example you have articulated your feelings, but, unfortunately, your listener is left to interpret your meaning of “selfish” and forced to guess how they could appear less selfish in your eyes. This is especially difficult if the listener doesn’t feel as if they are being selfish, or they just become defensive at the term. Instead of providing our partner or friend with a road map of how to better support us, we end up leaving them questioning the security of our relationship and lacking direction of how to meet our needs.
In an effort to reduce conflict and allow individuals to express their needs, I teach my clients a modified version of the “I Statement.” With this new phrasing, we exclude why the person feels the way they do in the initial statement, and instead specify under what circumstances the feeling occurs, as well as the needs of the speaker. The goal is not to negate why you feel the way you do, however, you want your listener to hear your message before they start disputing your reasoning or feeling under attack. Conversation immediately following the stating of your needs, may allow for you to express the “why.” The phrase I recommend to anyone interested in clearly communicating needs, looks like this:
“I FEEL , WHEN . I NEED .”
This statement allows the speaker to not only express how they feel, but give a specific example of when the feeling occurs, and exactly what they need from the listener. Sounds like great information to give and receive, right? This does, however, require a little bit of thinking on your part. Before approaching a loved one with a feeling, determine what you need from the individual. The goal is not to blame the other person for your feelings, but instead provide specific details about what they can do to help you.
In the case of our example, instead of saying: “I feel sad because you are so selfish.”
Try saying: “I feel sad when you refuse to go to the symphony with me. I need you to show interest and agree to participate in activities that I like. I feel supportive when we go to see your favorite soccer team. I need to feel the same support from you.”
See the difference? The modified “I statement” lets the listener know that the speaker is upset, gives specific reasons why, and provides the listener a road map to the speaker’s preferred path forward. Now the listener should have an opportunity to explain how they are feeling, and if they can’t agree to meet the specified needs, they need to explain why that is (more modified “I statements”, but this time from the listener).
Keep in mind, not only couples and adults benefit from clearly stating their needs. While teens may need more help labeling their feelings and identifying their needs, statements such as the modified “I statement” may provide them with an incredible template to express themselves!
Here are a Few Tips for Conversations about Needs:
Privacy Please! Conversations discussing sensitive topics should be done in private, or at least without other people within ear shot. If you want your partner/friend/family member to fully focus on your message, and respond authentically, give them an environment that they feel secure to do that in.
Fully focused! Find a time that is free from distractions. If your listener is dividing their focus, they may not fully understand what you are asking of them or even be able to process your conversation. Also consider outside stressors that may prevent your message from translating; such as, stressful days for your listener, exhausted listener, etc.
Make “eyes” with your listener! Gazing into one another’s eyes allows us to bond, without speaking. By making eye contact, you are showing your listener that you not only want their attention, but you want to connect with them.
** In some situations, the idea of sitting face to face may feel too confrontational. In these cases, instead of forgoing the conversation all together, consider taking a walk and talking side by side, or chatting in the car (after you have pulled into the driveway).
Help your partner meet your needs and vice versa. Use “I feel , when . I need .” statements to get your message across. Encourage the people in your life to also use these statements, so that you can appropriately respond to their needs as well. Promote this type of discussion until it becomes a natural part of your conversations!