How often do I find myself upset and complaining about a situation to a friend, and they ask me ‘well, how do you specifically want it to be different?’ and I have no answer? Uncomfortably too often.
Sure, I can say that I want more respect, or I want more support, or I want more help, but when pushed to get specific about what it looks like to have more respect, support, or help my ideas get slippery. Too often I see clients who know they want some particular dynamic in the relationship to change, but they can’t name specifically what they wish the other person would do differently. And this problem that I have, clients have, and I am sure you have from time to time is a huge obstacle to change.
Getting specific about what you want the other person to start doing or stop doing is essential to giving helpful feedback and making a request that is likely to lead to real change. Instead of “can you help out more around house?” saying “can you do a load of laundry today and pick the kids up from school?” Instead of “I need you to have a more positive attitude around the office” saying “when you are unhappy with some policy, can you present a concrete proposal?”
The problem with being vague is that it puts the onus on the other person to figure out what you really want. If I tell my co-worker to simply “be more positive”, it is now up to my coworker to figure out what that means. Does it mean make more small talk? Does it mean don’t bring up complaints at all? Does it mean leave my personal life at the door? Does it mean take on more work? And it’s likely that in the frustration of trying to figure out what you are asking them to do, this coworker will give up trying and will simply start ignoring your request for “more positivity.”
On the flip side, perhaps you do know what you want but you stay vague and non-specific because you’re afraid of hearing no. “He might say no if I ask him to pick up the kids…but he’d only be a jerk to say no to helping out more around the house.” But this avoidance of hearing no will only set us up for more disappointment. Because when your partner says yes to your vague request, you think they are saying yes to your very specific desire. But since they didn’t actually say yes to your specific desire, they may interpret their actions as totally being more helpful around the house even if they never actually do what you specifically wanted them to do. This is a classic way in which we construct expectations, fail to communicate them clearly, and then get frustrated when our expectations weren’t met.
So it is important to spend time thinking about the specifics of what you’d like others to do. Take time to visualize what it would look like for your co-worker to be more positive (what would they be doing? what would they say? what would they not do? what would they not say?). And remember that the best way to get your expectations met is if you tell people what your expectations are.