Imagine you’re sitting at the doctor’s office waiting to be seen. The nurse calls your name and shows you into the examination room. After checking your vitals, the nurse asks you what brought you in today. If you say you’re in for a routine check-up, the doctor will probably cruise your vitals, and if nothing alarming stands out, send you on your way.
But, if you tell the doctor that you’ve been suffering from migraines for the last two weeks, the doctor will probably take a different approach to your examination.
What you communicate to the doctor is essential in how the doctor cares for you. That’s how you should think about communicating all your needs.
I used to think expressing my needs to others made me selfish and self-centered. I felt that considering the other person’s feelings and always putting their needs ahead of my own showed that I cared.
But I was wrong.
“Open communication is selfless because you are telling your spouse, partner, sibling, et cetera, the problems you are having and how they can help you,” life coach and mental health speaker Alexis Graff said. “In any relationship, expectations need to be communicated. High expectations without communication will just bring hardship into the relationship.”
Communicating your needs is one of the most important ways to care for yourself, marriage and family therapist Joree Rose said. And self-care is not selfish.
But it can be difficult.
“What stops people from speaking their heart is a fear of how we will be perceived, how well it will be received by the other person, along with not knowing whether or not any change will come of it,” Rose said.
“In some relationships, communicating what you need can even cause strain on the relationship, if the other person isn’t able to hear you or create the change you’re asking for.”
Time for another metaphor. Let’s say you’re going to build a bookshelf. You open the box and find there are no instructions. Yes, you have a few tools and screws, but you’re not sure what goes where.
You build the bookshelf to the best of your ability. Once the bookshelf is complete, it looks good, but it’s off-balance. All the books are sliding to one side.
Although you know what a bookshelf should look like, you didn’t have all the information to build this one properly. It’s assembled, but it’s not right, and it’s always threatening to collapse.
That’s what a lack of communication can do to a relationship. If you don’t give your partner information on how you need to be cared for, you place unrealistic expectations on them to help you assemble a sturdy relationship.
Your relationship may appear stable, but it’ll be off-balance, with too much weight in the form of unmet needs and unresolved hurts.
The ability to ask for what we want is an essential skill, transitional life strategist Randi Levin said.
“Asking is a game-changer because it eliminates assumptions while promoting authentic communication,” Levin said. “Asking enables acceptance and buy-in, and when we don’t ask the answer is always ‘no,’ which leaves us feeling unheard and unimportant.”
Clear communication isn’t about getting your way. It’s about growing a relationship rooted in respect and communication that reflects the needs of everyone involved.
Some people have more experience communicating their needs than others. To get into this type of conversation, Rose suggests a four-step process of “naming what you need and asking for how to remedy your emotions” that doesn’t attack or place blame, and allows you room to speak from your heart.
1. Describe your observations
Explain what the situation looks like from your point of view. For example, “I notice that whenever I start to talk, you stare at your phone.” You’re just stating what you see.
2. Name how the situation makes you feel
Let the other person know how their actions make you feel. Like, “When you stare at your phone while I’m talking, it makes me feel unimportant.” “I” statements are key to avoid placing blame and keep tensions down.
3. State what you need
Here’s where you tell the person what they can do to address your emotion: “When I feel unimportant, I need eye contact or a head nod that acknowledges that you hear me and are paying attention.”
4. Make a specific request
Be straightforward and make a suggestion that could help prevent the scenario happening again. For example, “Can you please put down your phone while we talk?”
Another rundown of the four steps looks like this: “I’ve noticed that when I get home from work, you and your friends are crowded around the television watching sports. When you have friends over without letting me know ahead of time, it makes me feel devalued. When I feel devalued, I need you to include me in decisions about guests so I know that you care about my feelings. So, can you please let me know when you’d like to have company over?”
This strategy isn’t reserved only for romantic relationships. It can work with friends, family members and anyone else you want to improve communication with.
If the conversation is successful, it’ll actually benefit you and the other person.
“When done with the right intention and execution, (communicating your needs) can serve to benefit both people and bring the relationship closer together,” Rose said. “Without clear and effective communication, the other person doesn’t have the chance to get to know us better, nor do we have the chance to understand them in a deeper way.”
Open communication is similar to saying, “help me help you.” No one is a mind reader, and getting stuck in assumptions never has positive outcomes.
If you can give someone what they need, there’s a better chance that they’ll be able to give you what you need in return. In order to do that, they need to know what you need.
So open up and make sure the people in your life know what you need to be your best emotional self.
Kit Stone is a multimedia storyteller from the West Coast. If she’s not working on the next stamp in her passport, you can find her spending time with her family, tucked away with a good book or binge-watching her favorite shows.