In the blog post series “AI explains NVC“, Joachim Berggren (JB) asks questions about NVC to Alex Incognito (AI), a fictional character representing Artificial Intelligence in the form of the tool ChatGPT.
JB: Hi Alex! In this blog post series, we have now come to the fourth component of NVC, requests (the previous components are observations, feelings and needs). There are several key differentiations associated with requests and I thought we’d take one of them at a time. My first question is: According to Nonviolent Communication, what is the difference between requests and demands?
AI: In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a request is an expression of a need or want that is made in a respectful, non-threatening way and leaves room for choice. It is a way of asking for support without demanding it or making the recipient feel guilty. On the other hand, a demand is a statement that presents an ultimatum and leaves no room for choice, often accompanied by a threat or an attempt to control the behavior of others. In NVC, demands are seen as barriers to communication and connection and it is recommended to avoid them.
Reflections on requests
JB: Thanks, Alex! As usual, you give a clear answer. Without taking away any of the value in your answer, I would like to add a few things. I don’t see requests just as a way to ask for support. For me, it’s more of an invitation for connection, a way to communicate my needs while at the same time taking the other person’s needs into account. In short, we focus on requests in order to enrich life.
I see three main directions of requests and it is possible that all three are included in your concept of support.
- Check that I’ve made myself clear: “Would you like to repeat what you heard me say?”
- Check what’s alive in the other: “What do you feel/think when you hear me say…?”
- Ask for an action: “Would you like to…?”
When I make a request, I’m curious about the answer and open to the other person saying no. A “no” is an opening for further dialogue. Behind a “no” I can always hear a “yes”. The “yes” is what needs the person wants to focus on instead of contributing to my request. If I engage in a dialogue, a shift may occur within me in reference to my request. I can postpone it, find new ways to meet my needs or perhaps mourn that they are not currently being met in the way I want.
Reflections on demands
If I express a demand or others hear a demand (even if it’s not my intention), this will affect the quality of the relationship. When people hear demands, they often choose to either a) obey or b) rebel. The fact is that I can never force someone to do anything against their will. I may think I can force someone, but they always choose their actions themselves. They may not like the consequences of disobeying me. I might have the power to inflict punishment or withhold material or emotional benefits. One obvious proof that no one can force anyone to do anything is trying to force a three-year-old to clean up after themself.
When people associate us with demands, their willingness to contribute to our needs decreases. They may do as we tell them, but then there is a cost to the relationship. They will likely withdraw and not want to spend time with us. Instead of being in touch with their natural need to contribute, they are in touch with gaining a reward or avoiding punishment. This disconnects us from one of the main purposes of NVC, which is to create connection.
Demands are focused on the outcome – we want people to do as we want. In order to get it our way we use possible rewards, threats or punishments. A request, on the other hand, is focused on the connection, the mutual giving and receiving between us. The underlying assumption is that when we are in contact with each other’s needs and we experience our free choice, we want to contribute to each other’s well-being.
People might hear it as demands when we make requests without expressing what’s alive in us – our feelings and needs. One example could be “I want you to do the washing up after dinner” versus “I’m feeling really tired and long to have a rest. Would you like to support me and do the washing up after dinner?” When we express our feelings and needs, people will often recognise that they sometimes share the same experience.
JB: The next question is as follows: Can you add something about undoable requests?
AI: In NVC, an undoable request is a request that cannot be fulfilled due to practical or physical limitations, such as asking for something that is impossible or beyond one’s control. NVC encourages individuals to focus on what can be done rather than dwelling on what cannot be done. Undoable requests can be reframed as observations or needs that the individual is experiencing, which can be addressed in other ways. This helps to avoid frustration and maintain positive communication even in difficult circumstances.
Reflections on undoable requests
JB: Thanks again, Alex! I haven’t thought about what you expressed in the second half of the paragraph. An undoable request can indeed be an expression of some deep-seated needs or values. Fulfilling these can hardly be done by a single request. The alternative is then, as you write, to express in other ways. An example could be a vision of how I would like society to be. Thanks for that input!
When I think about undoable requests, what comes to my mind is that the requester expresses themself so vaguely that the recipient has difficulty carrying out the request. For example, when we use the word “clean”, it can include many different kinds of actions. The risks when we refer to words with broad definitions or make vague requests are at least two:
- that the recipient thinks they understand what we want, but we are disappointed with the result, or
- they don’t know what we want because the request is too imprecise.
Regardless of the content of an undoable request, the connection might suffer. We assume that it’s obvious what we want, without us needing to express ourselves clearly, while others might believe that we expect them to be mind readers. Both the requester and the recipient have a tendency to become frustrated in those cases. The request maker probably doesn’t get the result they want, and the recipient doesn’t know what to do or thinks they have done what is expected.
A variant of this is when the request maker has thoughts like “if others cared or loved me enough, they would understand what I want”. At the beginning of intimate relationships, we are often more responsive and show our best side. When this initial phase passes, it happens that we lose that ability. Such assumptions can then easily lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointments.
Asking “negative requests”
JB: And finally, can you explain the effect of asking for what I don’t want?
AI: Asking for what one does not want in NVC is often referred to as a “negative request.” Negative requests can be interpreted as demands, and can lead to defensiveness, resistance, or further conflict. For example, instead of saying “Don’t be late for our meeting,” which is a negative request, one could say “I need to start the meeting on time, can we agree to arrive 10 minutes early?” This positively states the need and allows for collaboration to find a solution.
In NVC, it is recommended to focus on expressing one’s own needs, feelings, and requests in a positive and non-threatening way, rather than on what one does not want. This helps to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, and allows for a more productive and empathetic exchange of information.
Reflections on “negative requests”
JB: Thanks again, Alex! This answer was a bit unexpected. I usually don’t focus so much on the fact that negative requests can create resistance. Rather, I emphasise that requests that are about what we don’t want, rarely give the result we do want. Such requests tend to cause frustration for us. When we express what we don’t want, there are plenty of options for what people can choose to do instead. Many of these actions are probably not what we want to see happen at all. For example, if I tell my child to stop hitting their sibling, they may hit someone else or treat their sibling in some other way that I’m not happy with.
In the last paragraph, you write that we are recommended to express ourselves “in a positive… way”. Here I would like to refer to Marshall Rosenberg who suggests that we make requests using “positive action language”. Simply that when we want someone to do something, we express what we want in a concrete way, rather than what we don’t want them to do.
Characteristics of a request
JB: I just remembered a last question, what are the ingredients in a doable request?
AI: A doable request in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has the following ingredients:
- Specific behavior: The request should be clear and specific, stating the desired behavior in a positive and concrete manner.
- Own responsibility: The request should be framed in a way that takes responsibility for one’s own needs and feelings, rather than blaming or criticizing others.
- Mutual benefit: The request should be framed in a way that recognizes and respects the needs and feelings of the recipient, and seeks to find a solution that benefits both parties.
- Non-threatening language: The request should be made in a non-threatening and respectful manner, avoiding ultimatums or demands.
- Empathy: The request should be made with empathy and a genuine understanding of the recipient’s perspective, allowing for a more positive and productive exchange.
By incorporating these elements, a doable request in NVC can help to establish clear and effective communication, build mutual understanding and respect, and facilitate collaboration and cooperation.
Requirements of a request
JB: Thanks for your suggestions! They are slightly different from my list of ingredients for a request. The checklist I usually use contains the following bullet points:
- What do I want to be done?
- Is it doable?
- Who do I want to do it?
- When do I want it done?
- Is it possible to answer now?
- Is it voluntary?
The first bullet point is about concrete, clear actions so that the recipient knows what they are answering “yes” or “no” to. The second is about whether the action is possible to perform: is it doable? Even if it’s clear and meets the requirement under point 1, it may not be doable. And while it’s doable for some people, it might not be doable for others. So I need to adapt my request to the situation and person I am asking.
The third bullet point is about who I am asking. This might be clear if I’m talking to a specific person. If, on the other hand, I direct a request to a group of people, it’s not always clear whom I am addressing. The fourth one is also about clarity. When I want something to be done at a specific time, I better specify this. If I’m disappointed that something hasn’t been done, I may not have specified a time when I wanted it to be done.
Answering in the present moment
Bullet point five deals with the present moment. We can only answer questions concerning the present. We may have intentions to perform actions in the future, but it is only the present that we have some kind of control about. If we want something to be carried out in the future, we can ask how the recipient reacts to this request right now. An example could be: “I would like you to cook dinner tonight. Do you think that would work?” The request is therefore whether the recipient right now thinks they have the intention to cook dinner tonight.
Reactions to a “no”
The sixth point is about whether we are open to hearing “no” from the recipient. If we are not open to a “no”, it’s not a request but rather a demand. Since NVC is based on voluntariness, it’s difficult to combine it with demands and coercion. If I expect obedience, I would express that, and refrain from using NVC to give the appearance of an openness that does not exist in me.
We cannot determine whether the person asking a question is expressing a request or a demand based on how the question is formulated. It’s when the recipient answers “no”, we get a clue if it was a request or a demand. If the requester is curious about why the recipient says “no” or treats the “no” with empathy, it was probably a request. If, on the other hand, the reaction contains criticism, blame, threats, punishment or the like, it was probably a demand.
When we talk to others, we usually want some kind of response. Even if we are not aware of it, we constantly make requests to those we talk to. We may think we’re just talking in general terms, but for most parts, we want some kind of reaction. If we don’t get any response or if the response is misplaced, it arouses feelings linked to unmet needs. It may be enough for someone to nod or hum as confirmation that they have heard us, and at other times we want more active responses.
If we are aware of our requests in relation to others and express them, the connection between us gets easier. Many misunderstandings and difficulties can then be avoided. An example of when we are not clear is when we express discomfort and assume that others hear the underlying request. A spoken request when we feel discomfort might be that we want to be heard or that we want someone to perform a specific action.
Another example that might create confusion is when we want someone to feel in a specific way, without us expressing a concrete action that could lead to that specific feeling. For example, instead of saying “I want you to feel free to raise any problems in our collaboration” we can say “Is there anything I can do that will make it easier for you to raise any problems in our collaboration?”
Requests are a powerful way to handle situations. Making concrete requests to oneself or others usually leads to faster results than vague wishes or thoughts that others should understand what we want. And to include other people’s needs in our requests is even more powerful.
If you would like to read an article about the four components, please got to this BLOG POST.
In this blog post, except of being inspired by Marshall Rosenberg, I have gotten a lot of inspiration from the book Cracking the Communication Code by Liv Larsson and Katarina Hoffmann, specifically the chapters about the key differentiations of requests.
Joachim Berggren is a certified CNVC trainer. He has been a student of NVC since 2009 and has taught his understanding of NVC since 2010. He writes blog posts, offers workshops and hosts events about NVC, as well as offering individual sessions. He is passionate and intrigued about exploring human connection and our capacity to grow and evolve as individuals and groups during our lifetime.
In the blog post series “AI explains NVC“, Joachim Berggren (JB), is in dialogue with a fictional character, Alex Incognito (AI). Alex uses Artificial Intelligence to help Joachim explore questions related to NVC. Joachim asks questions and Alex generates answers from the tool ChatGPT. The text from ChatGPT is not edited, it’s just copy-pasted. The only change is the layout so the text fits in the blog post. Alex’s answers are indicated in italics.
To learn more about NVC, please visit the Empathic Way Europes website and check out other blog posts and our coming events.