Birds

This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.

Positive Action Language will improve your life. It’s a bold claim, I know.

But it’s true. The easiest way to explain Positive Action Language1, or PAL for short, is to start with an example.

Let’s say I meet a friend for lunch and feel annoyed because he regularly checks his phone. My first inclination is to say, Put your damn phone down! But that doesn’t tell him what I want him to do instead of staring at his phone. Instead, I should say, I don’t get to see you often and would like to catch up without any distractions. This gently communicates, I want your attention.

When I tell my friend that I want his attention, I’m using PAL (Positive Action Language). In a nutshell, PAL specifies what I want and utilizes I want phrases, e.g., I want your attention, I want your help, or I want some of your butter pecan ice cream. And it never uses phrases that start with I don’t want.

PAL is concrete and decomposes abstract desires into specific material wants, until there’s no room for ambiguity.

Confused yet?

Here are two examples of vague I don’t want statements translated into PAL:

  1. I don’t want you to stay up late. =>
    I want you to go to bed by 10 pm. I want you to get enough sleep, feel good in the morning, and be in a good mood.
  2. I don’t want you to disrespect me. =>
    I want you to listen when I speak and wait for your turn before rebutting. I want you to speak at a normal volume.

Notice how both translated sentences begin with I want and detail, in concrete terms, what I want.

So, apply PAL to any area of life, e.g., work, home, civic, etc. For example, if you want to be loved by your significant other, tell them what that looks like. Do you want them to listen to you, compliment you, touch you, validate you, cook for you, and/or bring you presents?

Remember, if you’re clueless about what you want, others will be, too.

Tree

What are the benefits of PAL?

Positive Action Language has four massive benefits.

1. You can get what you want. When you specify what you materially want, you’re 1000x more likely to get it. People generally want to make you happy—you just need to say what you want.

2. You can help others get what they want. You have people in your life who feel frustrated and lament, No one seems to care about what I want. In almost every case, they fail to specify what they materially want. Using PAL, you can listen to them and help them decode their wishes into specific I want statements. And you can help them translate cryptic desires into clear and actionable ones.

(This process requires tremendous emotional effort and will drain you. But it can vastly improve others’ lives.)

3. Identify unreasonable expectations. For example, “Nonviolent Communication” recounts a story of a man who wanted his fifteen-year-old son to “start showing a little responsibility.” After some questioning, the father admitted what he actually wanted: “I want him to do what I ask, without question—to jump when I say jump, and to smile while doing it.” He didn’t want his son to be responsible—he wanted strict obedience. And that was untenable.

In most cases, folks like this adjust their expectations once they realize how ludicrous they are.

4. Unmask assholes. Society has a whole bunch of assholes running amuck, and they use covert language to disguise their ridiculous demands.

For example, I once worked under a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) who wanted me to update a software project. But he refused to define what exactly he wanted to be accomplished. Foolishly, I set out on a path that I believed best. A couple of weeks later, he called me into his office and yelled that I was on the wrong path. I took a deep breath and asked, What does the right path look like?

His response floored me: I don’t have time for this. Just pretend you’re the CTO and do the right thing! He had no idea what he wanted but could fire folks who didn’t deliver. A few weeks later, I found a new job.

Assholes, like my past boss, live in a fantasy world and play a game of guess what I want and then give it to me. When pressed about their absurd expectations, they might deflect and say, If you’re not up to the task, I’ll find someone who is. Or they might feed your ego with, You’re the smartest one here—you can do this! In either case, you will fail to meet their unknown desires, and you should run away! Far, far, away.

But beware: sometimes, the asshole is you.

Conclusion

People aren’t mindreaders. They have no idea what you want until you tell them. So, use Positive Action Language: figure out what you want, use concrete language, and assert yourself with I want statements.

Developing PAL skills has four significant benefits: 1) You can get what you want, 2) You can help others get they want, 3) You can identify unreasonable expectations and, 4) You can reveal the assholes among us.

Remember, if you’re clueless about what you want, others will be, too.

Footnotes

  1. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg discusses Positive Action Language and numerous other tools to improve relationships.