Raise your hand if you’re the kind of person who tries not to make waves.
It can happen at work: You aren’t getting the help you need, so you just do things yourself instead of speaking up.
It can happen at home: You pick up your partner’s clothes off the floor because it’s just faster —even though you feel a little resentment starting to build.
It can even happen with sex: Is it truly working for you —or is it just good enough that you put up with it rather than making waves?
If any of this sounds familiar, not speaking up may be the result of what I like to label as conflict avoidance. As children, some of us were “trained” that when we asked for something, it was met with resistance or guilt —or perhaps we simply didn’t get what we wanted. So over time, we learned not to ask for things and simply just did things ourselves instead.
We have B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, to thank for the theory of reinforcement. The idea is simple: If you get good results, you do more, and if you get bad results or no results, you do less. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t ask for help, it’s likely you were conditioned as a child that asking a parent or teacher doesn’t result in a positive outcome. So you either did it by yourself or didn’t do it —and eventually, you learned not to ask for help at all.
Another factor that can contribute to being conflict avoidant is operating at a high level of “nice.” You may tend not to bring up something another person is doing incorrectly because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. None of us like to tell someone —especially people we really like —that they’re not doing something well enough, so we tend to avoid it at all costs.
While avoiding conflict isn’t uncommon, there can be more serious consequences when you don’t express your needs —or deny your needs —on a regular basis. These may include passive-aggressive behavior that makes you difficult to be around, blowing up in anger about something completely unrelated or reaching for the cookies or wine to satisfy your need for nurturing.
One solution you may want to try: Mad Libs. If you ever played Mad Libs as a child, you know the hugely popular game consists of creative fill-in-the-blank sentences that often result in wacky and amusing stories. As an adult, you can actually apply a similar three-part framework that works when you need something (anything) from someone. It goes like this:
1. Part 1: Give compliment
2. Part 2: State what you need in one sentence
3. Part 3: Ask for acknowledgement
Here’s what it looks like at work when your assistant forgot to proofread your presentation before a big meeting:
“Hey —————————————, I really appreciate your ability to multitask and take on several projects at once. You are quite phenomenal at —————————————, and I’m needing someone who will proofread my presentations before my meetings without me needing to remind them. Is that something that you are available for?”
Here’s what it looks like with your S.O. when you’re a bit tired of dinner and drinks, and instead want to do something active:
“Hey —————————————, the dates we’ve had have been so delicious and fun, and I’m wanting to try some other experiences with you, like —————————————. What do you think?”
As for your partner and their clothes that always end up on the floor:
“Hey —————————————, thanks for helping me —————————————. It really makes it more fun when we clean —————————————together, and I also need some help keeping our bedroom more Marie Kondo tidy. Do you have any ideas on that?”
Perhaps best of all, this method even works for sex!
“Hey —————————————, I love when you kiss me on my neck. It really drives me crazy, and I’m also needing —————————————when we have sex. Can I show you what I mean by that?”
You may find the framework a little clunky at first, but commit to practicing it. Within no time, you’ll be clearly stating your needs and identifying the people that will be able to accommodate you without feeling needy, aggressive or angry.
Now that you’re not doing everyone else’s work, what else can you do with your free time? Longer lunches? Mani pedis? Stronger orgasms? Naps? Write that book you’ve been wanting to start? Go for it!