The difference between a request and a demand

Has there ever been that person in your life that you learned to avoid because every time you came into contact with them they were making some demand of you? Perhaps you see them as having the personality of a taker, as described by Adam Grant in his book Give and Take. Perhaps it appears that all they care about is their own advancement; getting their own needs met, and they’ve found a way to do that through leaning on others whose tendencies are more giving than theirs.

Perhaps they really are like that.

But what if you’re wrong?

Request versus Demand

In the book Non-violent Communication, author Marshall Rosenberg shares a curious thing about the difference between a demand and a request. He says that we can tell the difference by what happens after we have respectfully declined.

Indeed, it is neither the words that are used, nor the tone in which they’re delivered, nor the history of this person’s request-or-demand-making career. None of these things determine whether the assistance asked of us is a request or a demand. (Though they certainly impact how we receive them in that moment.)

This difference becomes clear only after we have declined.

Did the person respond with empathy and acceptance?

If yes, this was a request.

Did they respond with punishment and blame?

Then it’s a demand.

This was a mind-bending distinction to me, and I asked myself: Why?

The struggle for clarity in receiving requests/demands

If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing you’d prefer to be able to differentiate a request from a demand before you decline it. Am I right?

Why is this?

It comes down to the ease (or lack thereof) with which we say no to things. We’ve touched on this before. Many of us have a serious challenge with saying no to people, even if what they are asking of us represents a significant burden.

Why is that?

Often there is fear of the punishment and blame that comes from declining a request. Though isn’t it funny that we don’t know what’s going to happen until or unless we actually decline?

How many times has someone asked you to do something that you didn’t really want to do, and yet you did it anyway because you assumed that there would be a certain negative outcome if you decline?

Can you see how this is judging the other person?

Several years ago I had a friend who suffered through an exceptionally challenging illness. She was unable to work, then unable to drive, money was tight, and she went through great physical discomfort in a recovery from massive surgery. I jumped at the chance to be helpful to her during this time, willingly driving her to appointments, bringing groceries, and spending time together.

As time passed and her situation gradually improved, I found my attention gravitating back to my own life and other relationships in it. Over a period of years to follow, this friend would contact me with marked regularity, making requests for help with various things. Pet-sitting, house issues, moving furniture, errands when her car was broken down, and so forth.

I grew to resent this, and to consider her a demanding person.

Eventually, I took to avoiding her altogether.

Looking at this situation through a new lens, I see that the issue was not her, but me. I cannot recall a time when I declined a request of hers. (I did plenty of complaining about it to others though.) If I’m not mistaken, I never gave her a chance to show me whether hers were simply requests. Perhaps she would have empathized with me saying sorry, this task doesn’t work for me right now, and perhaps we would be friends today if I had given her that chance.

What does this mean for our lives?

When we are afraid to say no – when we fear punishment and judgement as a result, we tend to act in ways like I did.

On the other hand, if we take a risk in delivering a kind and honest no, and are received with equal kindness, it will build trust and enrich our relationship.

Where in your life are you saying yes to something out of fear of punishment or loss?

And if you knew in advance that saying no would be okay, and the person would still respect and care for you, what would that do for you?


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