Making Clear Requests

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]


In Collaborative Communication (aka Nonviolent Communication or NVC), we often discuss ways to make a clear and doable request, so folks know what we’re asking and, we hope, agree to do it. But we’re not always so precise about the distinction between requests and demands.

So what’s the difference?

Part of the distinction is about tone of voice: Are we speaking respectfully (request) or are we shouting (demand)? Another difference is the kind of language we use: Are we asking, “Would you be willing to come to work 30 minutes early tomorrow?” (request) or are we insisting, “You better get here early or you’re fired!” (demand). But here’s the most important part:

For a request to truly be a request, it has to be okay for the other person to say “no.”

You can ask politely, you can use the most beautiful language in the world, but if the other person says “no” and you’re angry (or enraged), and most especially if you deliver a punishment, that wasn’t a request—that was a demand.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to make a demand. If your child runs into the street and you see a car coming, it’s not time for a request. This is the moment to shout, “Get out of the road!” or grab the kid’s arm and pull them to safety.

But when you do make a demand, it’s important to be honest that you’re not giving the other person a choice—because no one likes deception—and be prepared to deal with the consequences.


During a workshop years ago, Miki Kashtan (cofounder of BayNVC) introduced a concept that I’ve found invaluable. As I understand it, every time you make a demand, forcing someone to do things your way, without considering their needs, you lose some of their faith and support. You can think of this as having a bank account that contains the other person’s goodwill. When you make an executive decision without including their input, the bank balance goes down. If you do this often, the other person—whether they’re a friend, partner, family member, coworker or client—becomes resentful and eventually the account goes bankrupt. If this person can leave the relationship, they usually will. If they have to stay, they’re likely to sabotage your interactions, either on purpose or unconsciously.

On the other hand, every time you make a collaborative decision that includes the other person’s needs, the bank balance goes up. Over the long haul, you gain their goodwill, building trust, connection, respect and loyalty.


For a request to be doable, it needs to be specific and measurable, so everyone is on the same page and understands the agreement. If you can also tell the other person what needs (of yours and/or theirs) will be met, that’s even better: this makes your question more compelling and increases the chances of getting a “yes.”

For example, it’s not effective to ask, “Can you help me out?” because it’s too vague. You and the other person may have completely different pictures of what “help” means. It’s much more useful to say:

“Would you be willing to proofread this client proposal and give me edits to make it stronger? I’d need to get your input by Tuesday at noon. And I’d want you to spend a max of 30 minutes on reviewing the document. Getting help with this would give me a sense of relief—and confidence that it will impress the client.”

Here you’ve made a very specific and measurable request; you’ve also told the other person what needs of yours (for relief and confidence) will be met. Everyone understands what’s being asked for.

In this example, you haven’t directly told the other person what needs of theirs might be met, but we can make some guesses. If your colleague reviews your document, it might satisfy their core values to: contribute to your well-being; offer care and support; have a sense of partnership and teamwork; be valued for their skill and expertise; and create a sense of reciprocity, by building trust that they, too, can ask for help when they need it.



Here are more details of a clear and authentic request. Your goal is to ask for something that’s specific and measurable, so there’s a shared reality and everyone comprehends the agreement. Think about exactly what you’d like the other person to do. When do you want them to do it? How much time will it take? Then tell the other person something about WHY you’re making this request. What needs of yours will it meet? What needs of theirs might be met?

1. Use positive language

Try to ask for what you DO want, instead of talking about what you DON’T want. This is both clearer and more engaging.

Negative language

“Stop nagging me all the time.”

Positive language

“Would you please tell me just one time what you’re angry about and then give me 5 minutes to think about what you’ve said?”

2. Make your request specific & measurable

Instead of making a fuzzy, general request, ask for the exact thing you want.

Fuzzy request

“Please be nicer to our clients.”

Specific & measurable request

“When you talk to our clients, ask them how their day is going before you jump into your list of questions. And please speak more slowly, instead of rushing through the conversation.”

Fuzzy request

“You need to be more responsible.”

Specific & measurable request

If a project has a deadline, I want you to email me with the info at least two weeks before it’s due.

Fuzzy request

“Would you help me with this task?”

Specific & measurable request

“Would you take 30 minutes to listen to my presentation and give me feedback on how to improve it? I need to do this by 5pm on Thursday.”

3. Identify what needs will be met—for you and/or the other person—if they do what you’re asking

In addition to making a specific and measurable request, tell the other person WHY you’re asking for this. How will it benefit the two of you? Why should they do what you’re asking?

Specific & measurable request

“Would you please tell me just one time what you’re angry about and then give me 5 minutes to think about what you’ve said?

Identifying the needs that will be met

When you tell me over and over why you’re upset, I get overwhelmed and I can’t process what you’re saying—and then I just start yelling. I want to understand what you’re upset about and I want to respond calmly. I care about our relationship and I don’t want to say something I’ll regret.”

Specific & measurable request

“When you talk to our clients, ask them how their day is going before you jump into your list of questions. And please speak more slowly, instead of rushing through the conversation.

Identifying the needs that will be met

I want our clients to feel warmth and welcome from us. And I want them to have a sense of spaciousness to ask questions. If we do this, I think we’ll build trust and loyalty with long-term clients who’ll help our business have financial security.”


When we make clear requests that include everyone’s needs, we increase the likelihood that the other person will want to get on board and help us. But even if they say “no” to our current wishes, by using this NVC process, we build trust and connection that will support us moving forward.


LISA MONTANA came to conflict resolution from the business world where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. With Collaborative Communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.

Lisa is a trainer at Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) and the Center for Efficient Collaboration (CEC). Since 2013, she has taught conflict resolution at San Quentin State Prison. She’s also been a lead trainer with a year-long mediation program based on Nonviolent Communication. In her private practice, Lisa’s business and organizational clients value her ability to solve problems efficiently and discern core issues in complex situations. Her workshops help participants strengthen their communication skills in a lively and supportive environment.

Lisa works with individuals, businesses and organizations around the country. She provides leadership coaching, conflict resolution, training, organizational development, DEI, and facilitation of group meetings and decision-making.

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Copyright ⓒ 2022 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission and attribution.