One of the benefits of empathy and compassionate communication is the ability to turn what once were demands, into requests. Our objective changes from wanting the person to comply with our request (which can be received as a demand) to establishing an honest and empathic flow of communication.

A couple of days ago I was on Facebook trying to coordinate something with my brother.

Me: Michael says you’re picking up Marley from Parramatta? Any chance I can get in on that?
Brother: Did you not get my text?
Me: Nope
Brother: Picking Marley up at 2:30, but yeah I can come back later and pick you up
Me: Okay sweet. I’ll let you know shortly what time I’m planning to be there
Brother: You’re welcome
Me: Are you being passive aggressive?
Brother: Yes. You’re being unappreciative
Me: Okay, cool
Brother: If you want a lift you can ask again later and show appreciation
Me: Will do!

What happened here? It seems that he’s heard my request as a demand. I really don’t like communicating via text, either.

The Fine Line Between Requests and Demands

When we make a request, there is a fine line between requesting something of someone and demanding it. When our requests are heard as demands, the recipient sees only two options: submission or rebellion. Neither of these is what we are seeking as they are not compassionate responses.

Whether or not our requests are received as demands depends on a few things.

Firstly, the emotional baggage we have with the other person plays a huge role. The more we have blamed, punished, chastised or guilt-tripped the other person in the past, the more likely they’ll hear our requests as demands because of those past experiences.

This also extends to the experience the listener has had independent of you, but I’ve found that it’s more powerful if you’re the source of these alienating feelings.

Interestingly, this means that the practice of compassionate communication can sometimes be easier with strangers and those we don’t know so well. The lack of emotional baggage allows them to judge you less based on prior experiences.

Having our requests heard as demands by loved ones can be quite frustrating. This is why the next part is so important. Whether our requests are heard as demands also depends on our response to the response.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate what I mean by this between James and Jessie.

James: Hey! Do you want to go and grab dinner tomorrow night?

Is this a request or a demand? We don’t know yet and will be determined by observing how James responds to Jessie.

Jessie: I’m actually working on an assignment due in a few days, and wanted to have a good go at it tomorrow night. How about later in the week?
James: But we haven’t been out in ages!

Did James make a request or a demand?

Instead of empathising with Jessie’s need to perform fulfilling work and complete her studies, he’s laid out a guilt-trip to try and get her to comply with his demand. This kind of thing sets a precedence for future conversations James and Jessie will have. Jessie is now more likely to hear his requests as demands.

How might James have responded such that his request was actually heard as such?

Choosing to request rather than demand something does not mean we give up when someone says no to our request. It does, however, mean we don’t engage in persuasion until we have empathised with what’s preventing the other person from saying yes.

Marshall Rosenberg suggested that when we make a request of someone, we only want them to perform the actions if they can do so with the joy of a kid feeding a little baby duckling.

Sometimes I actually express this by saying,

“Please only do so if you can with the joy of a child feeding a little baby duckling.”

As a final point on requests; we must always keep our objective in mind. This isn’t the consciousness we talked about previously, although that’s important, too.

I’m talking about the overall objective of the conversation. With compassionate communication, our objective is to build a relationship based on honesty and empathy.

Our objective is not to have our requests satisfied (that makes them demands). The request being satisfied is secondary to the overarching objective of honesty and empathy.

When this objective is kept in mind, you can respond to the No’s of your requests in a compassionate way.

Unfortunately, in this case, there’s a lot of emotional baggage between my brother and me from past experiences. I think this makes it difficult for him to hear my requests as requests and not demands, and this continues to frustrate me.

The way to change this?

By showing him that my concern is that he do things willingly, not that he does as I ask. Also by expressing myself honestly and connecting with him to see what’s preventing him from saying yes. It goes to show, if you thought this stuff was easy – it isn’t. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.



Photo is of Bridal Veil Falls in Blackheath, NSW.


This post is a shorter version of a module in the Compassion Refresh Camp, a two-day hike through nature to reconnect you with your empathic and compassionate roots. If you liked this article, we think you’d like the Compassion Refresh Camp.

The purpose of the camp is to provide you with practice in communicating compassionately, giving you tools to bring back into everyday life and make your relationships more fulfilling.

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