Lawyering for Your Needs
Have you ever heard yourself or someone else express their needs as though they were making a case to the judge? It might sound something like this:
"I talked to my friends and they all said you're being ridiculous. Besides I pay more money than you so I have a right to move things around without asking you. You are the one who decided to paint the bathroom so I . . . "
In this example, there is the sense of "I'm right" and just underneath "I'm right" is "it's okay for me to have these feelings and needs." This example is, perhaps, a bit obvious. Often times in my work with couples I hear more subtle versions. The person speaks in an even tone and says something like this:
"I am wanting you to just listen. As I go through this difficult time I want to be able just to express my pain and I don't think I do it that often. I mean there are plenty of times when I listen to you and your struggles with finding work and having interviews and all those things. I think it is okay for me to say what's going on for me. This is my experience right now. I listen to you. You know the other night when …"
In this example, the speaker is making a case for the need for empathy and being heard. What happens for the listener in this situation is that he or she has the experience of being "talked at" rather than "talked to". The listener not only loses connection to the speaker's needs, he or she also internally begins to prepare his or her own case. Before you know it, the conversation escalates into an argument.
The speaker in the second example could have been heard more deeply by stopping after the first sentence and than adding a specific request, like this:
"I am wanting you to just listen. When I talk about the pain of this health challenge. I am just wanting to hear you say 'Yea, it's hard. Uh, huh.' Or just nod your head to let me know you hear me. Is this something you are up for doing?"
Perhaps the speaker's partner answers in the affirmative and yet there is a sense of resistence or hesitation in their face. Seeing this the speaker follows up with:
"I am hearing you say yes, and I am guessing there is something coming up for you about this. Would you be willing to tell me what's coming up for you?"
Part of taking care of and honoring your needs is getting clear that when others offer to contribute to your needs they are doing it from the heart, not from a sense of obligation, fear, guilt or desire to win approval. It is tempting to take any "yes" you can get and move on before the other person changes their mind. Unfortunately a "yes" given out obligation results in more unmet needs in the long run (anger, resentment, scorecard keeping, etc.).
Here are three things that can help you avoid the dynamic of "lawyering for your needs".
One is clarity about what the need is and how it can be met. When you are grounded in your own sense of clarity and honor for your needs, you are more likely to express them directly. Learning to honor your own is often a journey of healing work, being in loving and caring communities, and choosing affirming relationships. A part of this journey, is pausing as often as you can to notice your relationship to your needs in a particular situation, and simply practice greeting your needs with loving-kindness. This might mean softening your body, softening your inner tone of voice, offer words of acceptance like "This is a valid need, it's okay to have needs.", or thinking of someone you admire and reminding yourself that he or she has the same needs.
Two is a confidence that your need can be met in a variety of ways. When you already have in mind two or three ways your need might be met, you will have a sense of flexibility and be less likely to push for one particular action. You are then able to hear a "no" to your request without taking it personally and without severing the connection between you and the other person.
Three is your ability to stay in dialogue and negotiation when you hear "no" to your request. When you hear no, you can get curious about the feelings and needs of the other person. You might ask questions like: "What about my request doesn't work for you?", "What needs of yours do you imagine won't be met if you say yes to my request?" "Is there something you would like to change about my request that would make it work for you?" "Do you have an idea about how both of our needs could be met?"
These three things require subtle skills and significant shifts in consciousness and at the same time any little turn in this direction makes a difference. Just the act of noticing that you are lawyering for your needs, and the actual impact that has, is an important step in the direction of a new consciousness and way of relating.
Challenge yourself to make a simple two sentence request each day this week, when you have the impulse to make a case for your needs. The first sentence clearly states the context, feeling, and need. The second sentence contains a simple concrete, do-able request.