This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
If you’re like me, raised on snarky comedies and Animaniacs in the 80s 90s or 2000s, you stumble through life by making passive-aggressive demands.
We like to dress up our demands in nice clothes and sweet-smelling perfumes. We pass them off as innocent requests. We may sound polite but our body language screams, Gimme what I want or I will strangle you with your hideous SpongeBob necktie.
In some cases, we take an even more indirect approach. Our words and body language are polite but when the other person says, No to what we ask, we plot revenge.
And revenge, sweet revenge, comes in many flavors. Sometimes it’s a guilt trip, You never help me with anything. You’re too good to help a lowly garbage-person like me. Sometimes we ignore them for weeks or months. Other times it’s malicious and we put their stapler and computer mouse in Jello, coat their bedsheets with Corn Nuts, or slash their tires.
Any way you slice it, the goal of making passive-aggressive demands is to get our way but not seem like we’re doing that. Our earnest desire is to look like angels while employing the devil’s tools to get what we want.
But here’s the problem: This a fantastic way to lose friends and alienate people. The more we behave like this, the more people avoid us. If I never talk to Jimbo again, I’ll never have to come home to find my house toilet-papered.
So how do we escape the trap of making passive-aggressive demands? How do we break free of this prison we constructed for ourselves?
There’s an answer, a way out of this purgatory.
It begins with understanding the difference between a request and a demand, and the two types of demands.
What is a request?
Every request is simple and has two important elements:
- An appeal for help
- A promise to not punish i.e., You will not retaliate if they say, No. You won’t get angry, guilt-trip them, or write their phone number on bathroom stalls after the words, Free motorcycle parts.
For example, last Saturday I requested a friend to come to my house and help me install a hard-drive in my home media server. This was a simple request from me and we both understood that he could say, No without fear of Molotov cocktails thrown at his house.
When someone asks you for a favor and they punish you for saying, No, they’ve made a demand and not a request.
What is a demand?
Like requests, every demand has two important elements:
- An appeal for help
- A promise to punish. Negative repercussions will follow if they say, No or demonstrate any form of noncompliance. These consequences come in many varies including angry words, snubs, or plots of revenge.
Demands have 2 forms
Unlike requests, demands come in a couple forms:
1. The Ultimatum
This type of demand is like a great white shark. It has teeth and there is no question what it is when it’s delivered. It states, Do this or face consequences. Compliance ensures your survival.
These are straightforward and easy to understand. They are also somewhat rare in modern society.
2. The Passive-Aggressive
This type of demands masquerades as a request. It appears as sweet and benign as Grandma Shuree’s walnut cake. But upon close examination, you will notice cracks in its façade. Maybe the smile is fake. Maybe their voice’s pitch is too high. Maybe they appended elements of politeness to the demand as an afterthought. Would you make 10,000 copies of last year‘s TPS reports? Please and thank you!
Or maybe it was perfectly polite. But the threat of retaliation went unspoken.
This second kind of demand is sinister because it sounds like a request to our conscious mind but registers as a threat to our subconscious.
A way out
The simple way out this mess is to stop making demands of people. Before you ask a friend for help, like recarpeting your bomb shelter, ask yourself two critical questions:
- Is it ok if they say, ‘No’?
- Will I be ok if they say, ‘No’?
Sounds easy, right? But it’s difficult to do.
Here are some strategies that help me.
Make your requests sound more like requests
Whenever we hear a genuine request we assume it’s a demand posing as a request. We feel incredulous and wonder, Is it OK for me to say, ‘No’ to this?
So, to better communicate my intentions, I start requests with, I want to ask you for something, and it’s ok to say, ‘No.’
People are pleasantly surprised by this and are far more likely to say, No, instead of saying Yes and resenting me later.
Make demands sound like demands
In those rare cases when you intend to make a demand, do not dress it up like a request. Communicate in a way that is direct, honest, and straightforward.
Be ok with others saying, No
This is hard. Really hard. But you must accept that it’s ok for folks to say, No to you.
How to handle folks saying, No:
- Remember that no one owes you anything. No one is obligated to help you.
- Other people are busy trying to meet their own needs, achieve their own goals, etc. Don’t take it personally when folks prioritize their tasks over helping you.
- Show other people respect when they say, No to your requests. And in return, they will say, Yes to your requests more often.
- Learn to do things yourself. When you make fewer requests of people you’ll hear the word No fewer times.
Build your tribe
People help their friends. If someone always says, No to you they’re not your friend. They’re not part of your tribe.
But you could change that. You could create better and stronger relationships with the people who you need help from. People are far more generous with their time when they feel a strong connection with you.
This is especially important in the workplace. You need help from many folks for you to excel in your career. So become friends with them and help them when you can.
Listen for the soft No from others
People seldom say, No directly. Instead, they treat you to an item from the menu of acceptable responses.
The first response is the awkward or long pause followed by, Uhhhhhhhhhh…well…uhhhhhh Meanwhile their mind scrambles to generate a reasonable excuse to not help you.
The other kind of response is a long list of reasons why they can’t help you. They never actually say, No but rather give you a long, usually meandering, explanation of all the things they “have to do” i.e. I’d love to proofread your report’s fax cover but I have to finish up this spreadsheet about the rise of Bigfoot sightings near the Puget Sound and then I have to leave early and pack my suitcase and take Mr. Pickles, my tabby cat, to the kennel and then I have to catch a redeye flight to Boca Raton to take care of Daddy’s salamander, Salvatore, while he, Daddy not the salamander, has both kneecaps replaced with some new resin hardened…
Understand, both types of responses are a definite No. So make it easy for them and say, Sounds like you have a lot going on. I can find someone else to help me.
When you hear and respect their No they’ll be more likely to say, Yes to you.
When you demand something from another you are in effect saying, I want this thing and if you don’t comply with my demand then it will hurt our relationship.
Threatening to harm your relationship if you don’t get what you want is the nuclear option. Reserve this for rare occasions.
A request is the opposite and says, I want this thing and you may say, ‘No’ without fear that I will endanger our relationship or firebomb your house.
When people know you’re making requests they feel free to say, No without fear of reprisal. And when they say, Yes, you know that they genuinely want to help you.
Be mindful of how you ask for things from other people.
Beware of people around you who make more demands than requests.
Be well, my friend.