How do we ask the other people in our lives for the things we need and want? This can be difficult for everybody. Many of us have trauma from a society that continually tells us that we don’t deserve to have help meeting our needs, or from past situations where our needs have been neglected. We are also often aware that asking for things can sometimes be upsetting to the people we ask. We are painfully aware of their ability to say no, and we know how much that can hurt.

This is a topic that everyone I know, including myself, could stand to improve on. No one is perfect when it comes to asking for the things we need. If you think you are, you are either a saint or Bodhisattva … or (and this is more likely) you are due for some introspection to figure out if this is really the case. Thinking you’re perfect at any skill is in general a red flag that you’re experiencing some form of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that you’re just not skilled enough to even see the ways in which you’re not skilled.

I am neither a therapist nor any sort of accredited expert on interpersonal skills. I am just a person, albeit a person with ADHD, a person who reads way too much about psychology and therapy as a hobby, and, of course, a person who just plain has to interact with many fellow humans in my life. As such, I think a lot about interpersonal interactions. I thought I would share with you some of my accumulated knowledge that I hope is insightful and useful.

So, what are some tools that we can use to most effectively ask for the things that we need? What tools can we use to make sure that we have our best shot at getting what we need in the moment without (and this is important) causing long-term damage to the relationship? How can we be bold and up-front to not let problems and unmet needs fester, without alienating people through manipulation and aggression? How can we create a situation where, if they can’t meet our needs how we asked them to, we’ll be most able to find a work-around?

Passive and Aggressive Communication#

One framework is to think of this in terms of strategies. There are two overall strategies that are bad habits: the passive and the aggressive. Like in many topics, there are aesthetically opposite errors that are both harmful.

The passive strategy involves just not asking, and hoping the other person intuits our needs and wants, and provides them as a matter of course. This has the obvious downsides that the other person might not even be aware of our needs. If they don’t provide them, it might not be that they can’t, or don’t want to. They just might not know what priority it is to you. They might not know about them at all.

This strategy isn’t always terrible. Sometimes, your needs are provided for, and there’s no need to ask. Sometimes, a want is low enough priority, or there are so many ways the need can be filled, that asking isn’t necessary. But when a need is important, it can breed unnecessary resentment when the people in our lives don’t read our mind about it.

It can also cause actual harm, however. It’s hard to give an example of passive communication going awry, because it usually takes the form of the absence of activity, and we don’t always see lost opportunities in the same way as active harm. But make no mistake, it can cause harm. The harm can take the form of never getting a raise, because you never asked for it. It can take the form of eventually letting a friendship deteriorate, when you could’ve intervened to fix it. It can take the form of not inviting someone to a function, rather than telling them they’re welcome to come if they don’t, say, drink alcohol, or make everyone sing karaoke, or bring their partner.

Avoiding confrontation is not adaptive in the long-term. In the extreme, it can lead to harmful behaviors like letting a friendship or relationship die rather than address issues, or even ghosting.

Someone can also be trying to communicate, but be too timid to communicate explicitly. This can lead to confusing situations, where someone is talking about apparently unrelated things, or seems to be talking about nothing at all, but as if it’s very important. This can also be distressing for the interlocutor, and can look a lot like aggressive communication.

The aggressive strategy, on the other hand, involves combining the request with what feels like the beginning of a fight. The request is combined with an attack – which can take many forms – basically trying to maximize the short term likelihood that the need would get met, that a “yes” would be reached, at the direct expense of the long-term health of the friendship.

The form of the “attack” can vary greatly. This can range to extreme examples, like threatening ending the relationship or even physical harm to the other person or to the self, to more mundane examples, like discounting or changing the topic away from the other person’s needs. Sometimes, it can look like passive behavior, like the silent treatment, or withdrawing. Sometimes, the attack is given on its own, and the request not actually stated explicitly.

Aggressive behaviors often result from a perceived need to control interpersonal events and a strong sense of how the relationship should work. Aggressive behaviors say, implicitly, “the other person owes me this,” or “my way is the only acceptable way.” Often, however, this is not true, and there are multiple ways to achieve the same goals. But even if the other person does have a moral obligation that needs to be discussed, aggressiveness is still not the most productive way to communicate.

All of this is relationship-dependent. Seeming aggressiveness can sometimes be used in a tongue in cheek way between trusted friends, but it’s important to calibrate this use case and make sure you’re confident the other person is overall fine with that.

Passive and Aggressive Communication in One Person#

Passive and aggressive behaviors might seem like opposites, but they can show up together in the same person.

If someone has a strong sense of how a relationship should work, and what the other person should be providing them without having to ask, or even if they just feel the need particularly strongly but have trouble getting themself to articulate it, they might start out with the passive strategy. Then, later, if that doesn’t result in their needs getting met, when they are so frustrated that they feel forced to say something about it, they will jump over asking for their needs and go straight to the aggressive behavior, feeling like a victim of an injustice. So, in the end, passive and aggressive behaviors can both come from a strong sense of norms, and aggressive behaviors can arise from overly frustrated passive behaviors.

They both can also arrive out of undervaluing our own needs. If we feel like we have to prove our needs to get them met, then we might decline to assert them – we don’t ask our partner to take us on a date, because we feel like we have to prove we deserve it. Or, alternatively, since we are not confident in our own needs, we might feel the need to justify it with proofs and moral arguments, and that can yield an aggressive behavior as a sort of preemptive strike against the criticism or denial we imagine that we’re going to get – where we might ask our partner to take us on a date somewhere we like, now that we can say they owe us because we went somewhere they liked. All the while, it would’ve been healthier to just ask when we wanted the thing, rather than demand it with justification (aggressive) or fear to ask for it without justification (passive).

All of this can come across as entitled, even if it comes from a place of anxiety and insecurity. It is tempting to make our interpersonal needs into entitlements, to frame them as things the other person has to give us, because that makes the other person’s role in our life predictable, and gives us a mental framework to grapple with it, a way of making sure we get our needs met by establishing that it is our right.

But the scary truth is, our needs are not entitlements. Usually, the other person has many legitimate reasons why they might prefer to say “no.” Building in a punishment for saying no is unfair, as is harboring resentment or disappointment silently. Everyone on the receiving end of aggressive or passive communication knows this to some extent. But receiving a “no” can feel unfair too.

Passive and Aggressive Communication in My Life#

I have definitely used both dysfunctional strategies. I’ve definitely accidentally guilt-tripped people. Usually, this isn’t my intention. I’m either thinking out loud, and trying to show the other person that I’m not upset, but I handle the nuance wrong and it has the opposite effect. Either that, or I was trying to be playful and hyperbolic for humorous effect, and it doesn’t land. These are explanations, not excuses. If the other person feels guilt-tripped, then it does the damage that guilt-tripping does.

I have also at times over-corrected, and thought I was being aggressive when I wasn’t. That’s also a risk, especially in close friendships where people understand and trust where you’re coming from. It’s less bad than actually being aggressive, but still a little annoying. It’s important to calibrate to individual friendships.

I also sometimes have been passive about my needs. Sometimes, I am waiting until I think the other person will be receptive of them. If someone is currently upset or has strong emotional needs themselves, that’s probably the wrong time to ask for your own needs to be met. I also don’t want to come across as needy, and I sometimes shut down if someone else perceives me that way or I worry that someone else will, even if I genuinely believe they are misunderstanding my need or that my need is actually reasonable.

The confusing thing is, that’s sometimes the right call. Sometimes, you need to wait until someone is in the right place to hear a request, or the next step in a complicated untangling of a convoluted interpersonal conflict. But sometimes, it’s the wrong call, and the other person is misled into thinking you’re satisfied when you’re not.

Perhaps this is impossible to get 100% right. Certainly, getting it right is the work of a lifetime.

Asking Nicely#

So what’s the alternative to passive and aggressive communication? A DBT book or an online psychology blog might call it assertive communication, but I tend to call it “asking politely” or “asking nicely.” It’s different from passive communication because it intrinsically involves actually asking, but different from aggressive communication because it involves doing so nicely.

Part of this is old standard admonitions like saying “thank you.” “Thank you” is sort of the opposite of aggressive communication in some ways. It acknowledges the other person could have said “no.” It acknowledges the other person may have sacrificed something. It acknowledges that what they did was useful to you, and that you care about whether they continue to behave that way. It establishes that you don’t take them for granted. All of these effects are mere individual facets of that great feeling that it conveys: appreciation.

This involves keeping track of how much the other person is doing for you, and thanking accordingly. It involves thanking them when they promise to do it (in advance for the action and for the first step towards it), which can be scary if you have trust issues. It involves thanking them when they finish doing it, which can be difficult if you have ADHD and are forgetful.

Of course, as important as saying “thank you” (and the underlying emotional work it represents) is avoiding the passive and aggressive pitfalls by remembering that the other person probably wants to help you. They want to help you, so you should ask rather than remaining silent, so they can do that. They want to help you, so you don’t need to give them punishments and reprimands for not helping you, because they probably will help you.

With this attitude, rather than focusing your persuasive efforts on why they’re a bad person if they don’t help you (aggressive), or figuring out how to hint it or convey it so they don’t get mad at you (passive), you can talk about how fun it would be if they do help you. You can talk about how useful it would be (this can be done without guilt-tripping, believe it or not).

And there’s one last effect of this attitude, that cannot be overstated: You can brainstorm cooperatively with them about alternatives if your initial request doesn’t work. There might be another way to get the need met! Work together with your interlocutor to do so, whether you are the asker or the askee.

Long-Term Thinking#

All of this has been phrased about short term interactions. But relationships tend to be long term. You must balance the long-term health of the relationship with the short-term need. In the end, we don’t always get all our needs met. And we can’t always get our needs met from the person we originally hope to have them met by. Ideally, this does not need to end our relationship with that person.

If we fail at this and act aggressively, we can come across as entitled. Sometimes, this is because we feel entitled, and sometimes, because we fail at communicating effectively, and sometimes a mix of both. Or, if we fail at this and act passively, we can torture ourselves by brooking secret resentment when a situation is unresolved, when even a clear “no” is better than the ambiguity and the waiting.

This is a difficult balance.

It is unfair to resent someone for something they’ve never been asked to do. If you’re waiting for someone to do something you think they owe you, and they didn’t know you had that expectation, the clock starts for the other person when you ask for it. The clock for you, however, starts when you first noticed the need.

It is also unfair, however, to ask at a bad time, when the other person doesn’t have the bandwidth to help, or when they’re upset about something else, or when they’re feeling overwhelmed by the relationship and genuinely need some space.

It is also unfair to play off as unimportant something that is important.

It is also unfair to make everything you need seem urgent and dire, like the boy who cried wolf.

All of these concerns are difficult to balance. They depend on the nature of the relationship – which is constantly evolving, even in lifelong relationships – and the personality of the person you’re asking, and even unforeseeable accidents of mood and timing.

It’s a lifelong skill, but one that is better with a vocabulary and tool-set for thinking about it, and with values to keep in the forefront of our minds as we navigate it. Hopefully, you found this blog post useful in your lifelong journey of being a person, of being an ever better friend, family member, partner, and fellow human.