“I need to either change my work contract or find another position, but I don’t know how to go about making this change without upsetting others. Help!”
It is great to know what you need. Clarity is an underrated mental state. So, you’ve done half the work- you know how something in your life is not meeting your needs. Your next step is getting your needs met. The preparation for, execution of, and resolution of negotiations on this front are different depending on the nature of your relationship with the other party. We have needs in every area of our lives, so I’d like to broaden this topic from one of making a change at work to making any kind of change that involves others. Here are some steps for taking care of yourself in this sometimes murky area:
Walk Through the Potential Outcomes
Something is not working for you, and you have concluded that this thing must change- one way, or another. For example… your hours at work need to be reduced because you are burning out. You need your girlfriend to text or call at least once on days you don’t see each other so you know she’s alive. You need your neighbor to stop using the leaf-blower at 7am on Saturdays so you can sleep in. Whatever your situation, take some time to consider what the outcome of requesting your desired change might be.
-the strength of your relationship.
-whether the other party has been responsive to past requests you have made.
-whether your need may be reasonable in the other party’s eyes (which is not an indication of the validity if your need- simply an indication of the other party’s perception.)
Imagine what the best-case response could be, if you bring this topic up with the other party. Now note the worst-case response. For example, in the burning out on the job example, a best-case response could be your boss agreeing to reduce your hours- without reducing your pay or benefits. A worst-case response could be a dismissive and non-accommodating reply from your boss, followed by an unprecedented- and seemingly undeserved- formal reprimand from her the following week. Which one of the responses is more likely to happen?
Decide if it is Safe to Bring your Request to the Other Party
If your mental walk-through of potential outcomes seemed pretty promising, you are close to ready to broaching the conversation with the other party. Go ahead to the next step, “Effective Language for Getting What you Need.” If your mental walk-through did not seem promising, you need to decide if you are willing to subject yourself to a potentially abusive / unsettling exchange in order to try to get what you need, or if you are simply ready to move on and find a situation that better meets your needs. A large question here is: if your boss / girlfriend / neighbor is truly so unpleasant- but you still want to bring your concerns to that person- what are you trying to hold onto?
A self-care superstar knows that 1) no one else is responsible for our needs, if we are able-bodied-and-minded adults, but that 2) we have the daily opportunity to surround ourselves with people who are responsive to our needs. If the boss or girlfriend has a track record of little regard for your needs, it’s time to find another job and to leave that relationship. If the neighbor has little regard for your needs… it may be time to get a noise complaint in to the local officials, rather than wasting your time and breath with your neighbor, directly. In an ideal world, we would be able to honestly and vulnerably share requests with people in our lives. Unfortunately, some people are not ready for that kind of exchange, and are prone to defensiveness- anything to avoid change, or personal responsibility.
I have heard it said that the only mandatory life experiences are “death and taxes.” There are many people who don’t pay taxes, and some people are pursuing immortality, so let’s just say that nothing is mandatory. You don’t have to stay in an unhealthy workplace or relationship. There is always- always– an alternative. It doesn’t matter if you are 60 years old and it’s the only job you’ve had, or you got married in a cult where you will lose your entire social circle if you divorce. There is always another way. However, in these circumstances, you want to take extra care to set yourself up to succeed when you make the change. So, if you have a ton to lose when considering letting your needs be known or just walking away from what you know will not meet your needs, identify at least 3 resources to help you. Is it 6 months of living at your cousin’s home when you leave your home? Federal unemployment money if you lose your job (because, otherwise, you will just be applying for new jobs while still working at your current job?) Calculated risk and covering your rear are both forms of self-care.
Back to broaching the conversation: even if you believe the other party is not able to respond well to your request, read the next section. You may find a way to get through, yet.
Develop and Practice Effective Language for Getting What You Need
It is possible that negotiations have not gone well with the other party in the past. This could be due in part to the other party’s inability to have genuine conversation, and it could also be due to your inexperience in communicating your needs effectively.
Imagine hearing this, from your romantic partner:
“You never text or call me. I need you to text or call, or I’m going to leave you.”
What is your immediate, gut-response? You would probably note the 1) over-generalization of “never” or 2) the threat of being left! These are two communication tactics that are sure to not get you what you want or need. Unfortunately, many of us grew up in homes that modeled exactly this kind of behavior- and a lot of melodramatic media reinforce these and many other negative communication styles. Fortunately, there are better ways to communicate, and we can train ourselves to use them.
Now imagine hearing this:
“Something I really appreciate about you is how full of a life you live- you work hard, you make time to spend with your friends and with me, you stay fit- and I know your days are packed, doing all of that. I know I’m not always the best at letting you know that I’m thinking of you, but I think about you all the time. I’ve noticed that on days when we don’t see each other, I wish I knew what you are up to- or at least that you are okay, and happy. When I don’t hear from you on those days, I even get worried. Are you willing to make a point of at least texting me once on days we don’t meet, so I know that everything is okay?”
What would your gut response be to this request? Hopefully, nothing too strong- maybe just compassion for your partner, who is sharing vulnerably and respectfully what she needs. Notice the 1) appreciation she shares first, then the 2) acknowledgement that she isn’t a perfect communicator and 3) her sincere wish for you to be happy and healthy and 4) her non-debatable feeling of worry when she doesn’t hear from you and, finally, 5) a specific, attainable, request of you. This gal gets two gold stars for having identified all these factors- her need, what she appreciates, her own part in your dynamic, etc.- and then speaking this truth to you. In other words, she’s a keeper. You can be a keeper, too!
In order to get ready for your own conversation, develop a gold-star script like the one above. Write it down. It is by far best to have this conversation in person, so you aren’t going to be holding the script in front of you during the actual conversation. You are writing this script so that you can internalize and be very clear of all the points you want to address. You can even ask someone close to you to stand in as the other party while you rehearse delivering these lines two or three times, to get the feeling of the potentially unfamiliar words rolling off your tongue.
Have the Conversation
At a predetermined time, or at a time that the other party appears available, bring up your appreciations for the other person, acknowledge the time you know you were remiss. Be cool- easy-breezy. Chat a little bit, then ask for what you need. Make sure you say the emotional and physical consequences to you, when you don’t get what you need (the burn-out, the fear, the lack of sleep.) You are confident because you put the time in to understand your position and the likely position of the other party. You know your request is legit- and that you are free to go elsewhere, take an alternate route to getting your needs met, if this conversation doesn’t bear fruit. More often than not, people respond well to someone who has thoughtfully prepared a request, and who speaks with humility and integrity. Appreciating the other and acknowledging your occasional shortcomings, vulnerably stating the consequences to you of the status quo… these are undebatable, blameless ways to speak. They inspire collaboration and goodwill. Good luck!
Important skills you are strengthening:
Now, Share Your Experience
If this article has inspired you to ask for what you need, please share how you asked and what outcome you saw in the “comments” section below.