The elephant in the room. A hugely impactful issue that no one talks about. Usually there is a juicy story behind it, but what usually gets left out of the story is the secret holder's complicit participation in it. We usually have very little awareness about our own involvement in maintaining these secrets. Preferring silence to an awkward conversation makes sense, except when we realize that our silence enables and maintains the very problem we privately complain about.
But if secret patterns are problematic, sharing them out loud doesn’t tend to help either. You’ve likely found that direct confrontation often deteriorates into fault-finding and blame. A sincere willingness to talk about the elephant in the room doesn’t translate into knowing how to do it effectively. The trick is to make a clear request.
A request isn’t a judgment or a demand. It is a request for a concrete action someone can take. So, let's say Tony is a jerk. Every time you propose something in governance, he viciously critiques the proposal, your judgment, and in effect you. You could try asking Tony to stop being a jerk, but that's pretty abstract. You could tell Tony how his comments impact you, but if you simply express your feelings, it won't be clear what you want Tony to do. Instead, try something like this:
Tony, I want to feel more comfortable proposing governance, and it takes a lot of emotional effort on my part hearing your reactions. The next time it comes up, would you focus your reaction more on alternative solutions than on critiquing the proposal? No pressure of course. It’s your reaction. I’m asking because it’s my issue and I’d like to find a solution.
Now, these sentences don’t exactly roll off the tongue. But that’s probably a good thing. Because most of us have learned when someone triggers us to either shove our reactive emotions back in someone’s face or learned to keep silent — even when things actually bother us.
Requests are a better way. They make it easier for others to help us. They orient our thinking around choices and options, rather than confusion and frustration. Sure, someone might turn down the request, but they (just like you) have a right to make their own choices. At least you’ll have clarity. Some roads may be closed but that doesn’t mean we turn the car around and sit in our garage.
Often you won’t immediately know what to request. That’s fine. But whose job is it to figure it out? We can't expect someone else to know what we want (and give it to us) if we don’t even know ourselves.
Remember, making requests isn’t the same thing as asking for something. It’s more technical than that. Here's your cheat sheet.
- A request must be an action. Don’t ask someone to stop doing something. You can’t do a don’t.
- Be concrete. Don’t ask someone to “understand” you. Instead, request an action that would make it clear you were understood (e.g. “Would you repeat back to me what you heard me say?”).
- Make it clear that the request is voluntary. Say, “No pressure,” or, “I won't be upset if you say, ‘No.’” Most people want to help, but they have the right to choose. Make it clear that you respect that right.
- Use the word “because”. Studies show that word alone makes others more open to considering your request, but more importantly it helps you get clear on your goal.
- Make it clear that you're taking ownership. “This is my issue and I'd like your help.”