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

Let’s say I meet a friend for lunch and feel annoyed because he keeps checking his phone. My first inclination is to say, Stop looking at your damn phone! But that doesn’t tell him what I want him to do instead of staring at his phone. Alternatively, I could 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 Positive Action Language. This concept is explored in the book “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg.

In a nutshell, Positive Action Language pushes me to specify what I want and utilizes I want phrases, e.g., I want your attention, I want your help, or I want you to share your butter pecan ice cream. And it never uses phrases that start with I don’t want.

Positive Action Language is concrete and seeks to decompose abstract desires into specific material wants.

Confused yet? Here are two examples of I don’t want statements translated into Positive Action Language:

  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.

Positive Action Language is hard

This all sounds well and good, in theory. But in practice, it’s challenging for two reasons:

1. Most of the time, I have no idea what I want. Things like disrespect register in my brain at an emotional level and my immediate reaction is, This must stop now! I don’t know how I want them to behave until much later when I’ve cooled off and had time to reflect.

Other times, I only have a fuzzy notion of what I want. Like, I want my kids to clean their rooms on Saturday, but what does that materially look like? After some consideration, I figured it out: I want dirty clothes in the hamper, toys in the bins, clean clothes in the dresser, bits of paper in the trash, and the floor ready to be vacuumed. In retrospect, it’s obvious that I should be specific with my kids. But I didn’t understand this the first time I told my son to clean his room (and he just cried!).

2. Telling people what I want feels scary. Folks may tell me, No, and that what I want is less important than something else. They may scowl and say, Why would you want that? Or they may try to persuade me to want something else. These responses leave me feeling disgruntled, and a voice whispers, Don’t ask for what you want, and they won’t react that way.

I don’t have any amazing advice on how to overcome this. It hurts a little. Every time. The only thing that helps is to remind myself of two truths:

  1. No one is obligated to help me or go along with my ideas.
  2. Our relationship won’t end if they tell me, No.


Dealing with frustration

When I feel frustrated with someone, I ask myself, What exactly do I want from them? Have I told them this? In nearly every case, the answer is, No.

And to be completely honest, I struggle even to remember to ask those questions in the moment. I usually don’t think of them until hours later, when I reflect on why my day went so poorly.

But I’m working to improve this.

Now, readers may say, But people should just know what I want! This is nonsense and code for, I want to avoid the hard work of figuring out what I want. Don’t fall into this trap. Especially with kids—they have no idea what adults want.

Is this reasonable?

Sometimes we work hard to unearth what we want, only to discover that it’s unreasonable.

For example, “Nonviolent Communication” recounts a story of a man who wanted his fifteen-year-old son to “start showing a little responsibility.” Eventually, the father understood 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 desire was untenable.


Positive Action Language is a powerful way to communicate. It begins with figuring out what we want and uses concrete language. Its statements begin with I want. Two obstacles prevent us from using Positive Action Language: 1) We don’t know what I want, and 2) we feel scared to open up about what we want.

This communication strategy will help us resolve conflicts and meet our needs. It also identifies when our desires are unreasonable.

Positive Action Language is difficult to implement. But if we can’t get clear about what we want, how can we expect others to help us get what we want?

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