It’s 8pm on a weeknight, which means we should be ushering small people through the stations of winding down: read aloud, teeth brushing, pajamas, and ultimately the long, one-way march towards bunkbeds. But, everyone’s trying to wring the last moments out of a fading spring evening.
Col is reading a dystopian novel on the couch. Two feet away Rose is choreographing a dance to Joni Mitchell’s Carey, which she is also singing, managing to take up an impressive amount of space, physically and auditorially in our 800 square foot house.
I warn the kids bedtime is approaching and Col throws an arm out to hook his father, passing through the living room. “Come snuggle me, Daddy,” Col pleads, and even though there’s a whiff of stalling the inevitable, Dan embraces the invitation.
I watch Col’s small body tucked into Dan’s, thinking, this is what boys need, men who can model intimacy, who can be soft and gentle, who…suddenly and suspiciously Rose’s dance routine comes to an abrupt halt and she launches herself on top of the snuggling pair.
“Hey – get off! Me and Daddy are snuggling!” Col shouts.
“I have enough love for both of you,” Dan calmly replies, rolling each kid up in an arm.
The couch becomes a tumult of arms and legs. Col jumps off the couch and like a military strategist begins striking his sister from the floor. Snap judgments infiltrate my mind: Col is a bully. Rose is interfering. And then, the stories unspool: It’s hopeless, they’ll never be friends, Thanksgiving circa 2038 will be a disaster. Dan raises his voice, telling Col to stop, and then resumes his preschool teacher demeanor and asks, “Col, is there a request you’d like to make?”
“Yes. Can you tell Rose to stay out of this?”
“Can you make a request that tells me what you want, not what you want Rose to do?”
“I just want to snuggle you alone,” Col replies.
“Ok. I’m happy to do that. Can you wait until Rose and I have a couple more minutes snuggle time?”
A quiet calm settles over the house. I feel my nervous system decelerate from red to green. No one is wrong, nor needs discipline. Mother Theresa says, “if you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Here are kids that need to be loved, who have longings to uncover. One kid wants the special feeling of physical connection alone with his dad, another kid wants reassurance that even if others are connecting, she’s loved, included and belongs. Requesting that which contributes to our happiness is a skill that enables us to access power in our own lives.
It’s a bit like magic, really – the way a request (would you be willing to set the table tonight?) will recruit all the cells of our willingness, while a demand (I need you to set the table tonight) acts as an affront to our autonomy. When we grudgingly cooperate with a demand out of guilt or fear we actually miss out on the good feelings generated by our own generosity. And, we’re likely not to do our best work. Marshall Rosenberg says, “As long as I think I ‘should’ do it, I’ll resist it, even if I want very much to do it.”
I love receiving clear, doable requests. It’s satisfying to get clarity on how we can contribute to someone’s well being. Studies show that we receive much happiness from acts of generosity, and yet many of us are more likely to launch a complaint rather than letting others know what can be done to bring more ease or joy to our lives. News flash: expectations unvoiced go unmet.
Later, during the high level debriefings that often take place after the kids have gone to bed I thank Dan for how he handled the couch skirmish. “I learned it all from you,” he replies. Which is true, just for the record.
How to Make a Request using principles of nonviolent communication
Col and Rose become empowered by the tool of making requests and approach us with their desire to replace our homemade, unscented deer tallow soap in the bathroom with store-bought liquid soap.
- Requests are clear and specific. Instead of “Can we start using a nice soap in the bathroom?” they might say, “Would you be willing to buy liquid soap for our bathroom when you go shopping on Sunday?”
- Requests express what you want, not what you don’t want. Instead of “Will you please stop putting deer tallow soap in the bathroom?” they might say, “Can we replace the bar soap with liquid soap?”
- Requests are doable. A successful request won’t compromise anyone’s values, and usually doesn’t contain the words “never” or “always.”
- Unlike a demand, a request maintains everyone’s dignity by allowing for the option to say no, or for negotiations. I don’t like the idea of recycling plastic liquid soap containers regularly, so in agreeing to use liquid soap I want to know that the kids will help me refill reusable containers with bulk liquid soap.
- Requests are more enjoyable to meet when we know how it will contribute to others’ happiness. “That liquid soap seems more sanitary, easier to use, and doesn’t crumble into pieces as it wears down, and we think it looks better when we have friends over.”
*One spot remains in my 5-week June, Tuesday night Living Nonviolent Communication Class. Details here.