One of the cornerstone distortions in love relationships, friendships and all other kinds of relationships is inaccurately seeing “the other’s” expression of a need as a demand. When we exaggerate the genuine expression of a need and instead experience it as a demand, it sets up the unfortunate and inevitable likelihood of misunderstandings. It can also compromise your own ability or desire to be responsive in a kind and cooperative way.
A similar, parallel cornerstone misinterpretation is when we hear perceptions as judgements. But hearing sincere needs as demands is more prevalent in love relationships and often, is more dangerous than the misunderstandings and conflicts that happen from turning perceptions into judgments.
Hearing needs as demands is one of the most serious communication problems
Every healthy relationship depends on both parties having an understanding, respect and response to each other’s core needs. Little else matters when you want to develop trust and intimacy than knowing and understanding needs and learning how to respond sensitively to them.
When one party hears the expression of a need as a demand it is a way of unwittingly defending against hearing the core elements of what’s needed by the other and hinders the development of a mature love.
For example, one partner might say, “I really would love us to spend more alone time together.” expressing a need to connect more deeply. But the other partner might hear it as “This is very obvious, and I’m tired of the pressure to spend more time with you.” This mishearing can happen even if this need hasn’t been expressed before or even just once in a while.
Mishearing needs as demands happens more frequently when we are not able to express our vulnerability or clearly express what’s happening inside us in a genuine way.
It is important to realize that we need to be just as attentive to how we express our own needs unwittingly as a demand, as it is likely to occur in either direction. Almost all of us can hear that there is a demanding tone more easily if it is presented toward us more than if we are the one that has been demanding.
It is also helpful not to see this in black and white terms, as either one of us frequently will partially express our needs with elements of being demanding. Being able to see the common gray area can lead to an important question that we can ask ourselves or each other.
“Could we do our best to express and hear what is being said in as soft a way as possible so we can hear or express the pure need?”
Rather than reinforce the likelihood of creating a conflict by assuming bad will and only hearing the demand, often it will be helpful to ask the other or even initiate ourselves to re-state what has been said in the most sensitive way possible.
Of course, again, it is important to watch how that is expressed as this too can be demanding or just expressed from our hearts’ pure need. There are many more examples that I could share — whether it’s time, heart, or companionship one seeks, the other can hear these needs as demands. These situations arise more frequently than most of us realize and are the beginning of misunderstandings that lead to alienation, withdrawal, disconnection, rejection, and a host of other feelings, including anger.
Why do we hear needs as demands?
In almost 50 years of my practice, this is a fairly common theme I’ve witnessed both in my office and also in my friendships and personal life. This helped me realize that it is so very vital that needs be seen as they are or it’s almost like cutting off an arm of intimacy from the body of the relationship.
Worse yet, these are only the beginning statements and when you track where this leads overtly or covertly, it frequently greatly limits how much intimacy there can be. The consequential isolation or fights that are defenses that have nothing to do with the original needs are extremely painful and toxic. This takes us farther away from what fosters intimacy both with ourselves and our significant others.
Clear identification of needs is crucial to help us through this. I’ve created two free introspective guides to help you understand and put a name to your needs. These guides offer you a list of 75 of the most common needs and 75 of the most common challenging feelings. This will assist all of us to be more literate and identify both our needs and the challenging feelings specifically that are contained in our defenses.
It’s essential that we see this danger so we can learn to not only hear and understand the original need but also fulfill it to the best of our capacity.
As is the case with perceptions and judgments, misunderstanding needs as demands can also have an enormous effect on political, corporate or other global relationships. While it’s a big leap forward, understanding how these dynamics work helps us learn how to de-escalate misunderstandings.
Here’s a personal example from my life that can help illuminate this better:
I had a kidney transplant 22 years ago and had a severe unusual reaction to the transplant medication which left me with severe insomnia. I was and have since been exhausted when I wake up every morning and felt this, especially during the first ten years. Indeed, I feel (felt) like I was 110 years old for a couple of hours, and these days it still exists thankfully it’s improved.
During some of this time period, I asked my partner at the time to stay with me and put her hand on my heart in the morning for some period of time. This was repeated and was heard as a demand, so it rarely happened. She loved in extraordinary ways that I will be grateful for the rest of my life. This was the exception to the norm. I’m sure the number of times I asked or needed this from her was a major factor but in the end, this led to a withdrawal on both sides.
For me, it was 90% need and 10% demand. For her, she heard it as 50% need, 50% demand. Now, she and I have become very close friends and our strong platonic relationship has given us both a chance to love each other and care for the world in ways that serve both our lives and the greater world.
How to express your need better:
But there’s one crucial aspect of my experience I want to point out — there’s a nuance to this discrimination between a need and a demand. When expressing my need, even though there was a part of it that was a demand, I was irritated that I had to ask. My partner, on the other hand, heard an exaggerated demand.
That’s why it’s not only important to see how an expressed need can be heard as a demand but also all of the relative ways it can play itself out. I knew at the time that I also felt upset that I had to ask, and so it was inevitable that a part of it would sound a bit demanding.
We need to learn to be more present, awake and alert when we express or hear both needs and demands because they can be the greatest source of intimacy or alienation.
I was grateful to be able to have the rare conversation afterwards to clarify this process with my then-partner.
I am hopeful that your takeaway from my experience will be to maximize both expressing your needs and hearing them when they are expressed to you. Also, when you feel someone is demanding it is so helpful to be able to express that your need is to have the other person express their need softer/different in a way that will make you more receptive. This can often work as an act of magic in terms of changing the degree of receptivity.
It is part of our ordinary human conditioning to misunderstand each other when it touches areas of vulnerability, anger or confusion, which is a universal part of intimate relationships and others as well.
The role of tone of voice
A significant element to pay close attention to that differentiates a need from a demand is the tone of voice in which it is spoken and heard. My suggestion is that you say to your partner, “This is how I believe I have said it,” rather than (with authority) “This is what I said.”
Similarly, it’s helpful to be able to skillfully say “This is what I heard,” rather than “This is what you said.” This act of goodwill and a lack of insistence about the needs being expressed or heard is integral to keeping peace and improving communication.
The danger of hearing a need as a demand might happen thousands of times throughout your life. That’s why it’s important to rehash the differences between them and learn how to express your need for clarification instead of being insistent about who’s right or wrong. Most of us don’t learn this in school, college or at home, but this is like is an advanced communication course that has benefits that multiply over time.
Discovering the difference between hearing needs as demands intellectually seems easy but it is something that we need to keep developing a deeper kind of listening for the rest of our lives to find greater love, foster peace, and connect better with each other.