How do I ask my partner for exactly what I want? What does a clean ask sound like? In today’s episode of the podcast, I’ll give you The Clean Ask Formula to help you improve your relationship communication.
You think you’re asking cleanly, you’re not.
It’s a lot of work to overcome your fear and get clear. It’s so much easier to opt out of the work and expect your partner to do the work of relationship communication for you.
Lack of communication means you can’t get what you want
We treat relationship communication like it’s a game of tag. Tag! I got you. Your turn.
Remember River who wants to buy a house? River’s afraid Phoenix doesn’t want to invest in a future together. This fear dirties River’s ask and it sounds like this: “Housing prices are dropping around here.”
Phoenix can’t even find an ask in there—dirty or clean. It’s a statement, right? River hasn’t given a clean ask because River is held hostage by fear.
River is playing tag rather than communicating. Speaking words so Phoenix will say the words River longs to hear.
River wants Phoenix to respond, “What makes you say that, River? Why are you concerned with housing prices?” But see how this makes Phoenix responsible for giving curiosity to River? This game of tag makes Phoenix responsible for the relationship communication.
Relationship communication is giving and receiving
Instead of harnessing fear, River tagged Phoenix with a bunch of words strung together and essentially said, “You’re responsible for figuring out what I want and driving this conversation forward.”
There’s a big payoff for this strategy of tag: When your partner responds poorly, you get to feel like your partner is the incompetent one.
You got to avoid the tough work of overcoming fear and getting clear and you get a convenient place to blame, shame, scold or offer the ever-friendly cold shoulder.
Except you didn’t. You simply dumped a word-salad in your partner’s lap.
It’s understandable why you don’t want to do the work to make a clean ask. We all want to avoid that work. It takes time, self-reflection, responsibility. It’s so much easier to opt out.
The bummer is the alternative is worse: confusion, frustration, loneliness, and alienation.
Hence, the need for The Clean Ask to improve your relationship communication.
Here’s the formula for the clean ask:
State your feeling (which oftentimes is fear), then state your clear desire. That combination makes for a clean ask.
When you ask cleanly, you invite your partner to be a part of your shared life: taking out the trash, or venting about your bad day. Or letting your partner know you want them to kiss you.
A dirty ask, on the other hand, pushes your partner away. When you make a dirty ask, you alienate your partner with shame, accusation, or control and confusion. This makes for lousy relationship communication.
A dirty ask inspires alienation between you and your partner
Here’s a couple examples of the dirty ask:
- “Could we get the trash out on time for once?”
- “You should listen to me.”
- “You never kiss me anymore.”
A dirty ask never gets you what you want. Instead, it alienates your partner.
Remember, in episode 28, that we talked about fear’s many disguises? Now we’ll examine what happens when you disguise fear and get a dirty ask.
How your relationship communication fails
Let’s look at fear disguised as anger:
Instead of Housing prices are dropping around here, if River wanted to use anger to disguise fear, River could accuse Phoenix, “You never do anything around this house.”
We use anger and accusation to hide from feelings because it gives the illusion of power. We feel powerless to get what we want, so we blame and accuse. This strategy of dirty asking alienates your partner.
I have never met a person who was inspired to be more intimate because they were accused of failing. Have you?
When you disguise your fear as anger your dirty ask might sound like this:
- You never take the trash out.
- You always ignore me.
- You never show me any kind of affection.
If you hear yourself blaming or accusing on a regular basis, this is a chance for you to get curious about your personal agency and power so you can improve your relationship communication.
When anger is your dirty ask strategy for relationship communication, you might as well lock tender intimacy in a vault because you’ll never access it.
Is that true?
This is a magical phrase for your relationship and it comes straight from Byron Katie’s The Work. It works well to ask your partner, “Is that true?” when they accuse you of something that doesn’t feel true to you.
But the real magic of this little phrase is to use it with yourself. We all stew and chew on phrases in our brain and then those phrases leak out into a dirty ask like:
“You never take the trash out.”
This dirty ask leaked out because you’ve been chewing and stewing on questions like, “Why doesn’t my partner love me enough to know to take out the trash?” Your brain answers the questions you give it.
When you apply Is that true? to a thought like this one, it unlocks your anger and resentment. It does this because you are suddenly asking a different question and that engages your curiosity about something different.
“You never take the trash out.” Is that true? Never? Absolutely never?
Improve your relationship communication with curiosity
Now your brain serves up a time, 18 months ago, when you were willing to let the trash overflow so completely that there were literally eggshells laying on the kitchen floor. Your partner actually scooped up those eggshells and took the trash out.
The minute you let yourself find a singular exception to “never” your curiosity revs up. Are there other times my partner took the trash out? And suddenly your ask gets less dirty:
“You rarely take out the trash.”
This is still far from a clean ask, but you got unstuck. Remember that when your fear gets disguised as anger it’s like locking your partner out. Out of the possibility of ever getting it right.
Anger stops the flow of relationship communication
By questioning the veracity of “You never take the trash out,” we’ve gotten the flow started again.
Now let’s look at how we can take “You rarely take the trash out” and turn it into a real live clean ask.
First of all, what feeling do you have?
- You feel overwhelmed
- You feel like it’s unfair
- You feel taken for granted or put upon
- You feel resentful
So, let’s get that feeling out in the open because a feeling is the first part to a clean ask.
“Sweetheart, you’re making me feel resentful.”
Close! You’ve articulated a feeling: resentful. But let’s apply Is it true? here again. Can you be absolutely certain it’s true that your partner is making you resentful?
Hmm. Tempting. I hear your certainty. “Obviously! It’s my partner’s fault that I’m resentful because they never rarely take out the trash.
Why curiosity is better than certainty if your goal is good communication
The magic of the Is it true? tool is curiosity rather than certainty.
Once you find the exception and realize your partner MAY have taken out the trash ONCE, you can also get curious about what created a situation wherein your partner was inspired, all on their own, to take out the trash.
You found it! You neglected the trash so thoroughly that your partner finally saw the overflowing trashcan. This begs the question: is your partner MAKING you resentful? Or is it your penchant to empty the trash early that’s making you resentful?
I still hear you, “Rebecca,” you’re saying to me, “You’re being ridiculous. Are you telling me that I have to live with eggshells on my floor all the time in order for my sweetheart to empty the trash?”
No. I’m not telling you that.
But I am asking you to consider that option.
I am asking you to get curious about that option. Because it’s in this expansive, audacious curiosity where you’ll find the clean ask. (And I promise to deal with the unfairness of the overflowing trashcan more in Episode 33 Build Boundaries.)
When you can get curious about where your resentment is coming from, you’re able to ask cleanly. Curiosity replaces certainty. You’re no longer certain that your partner NEVER empties the trash. And now you’re no longer certain that your partner is MAKING you resentful.
Now you’re free to find a clean ask: “Sweetheart, I’m feeling resentful.”
Revealing how you feel is good relationship communication
This is a great first half of the clean ask formula. You’re articulating your feeling. You’re owning your feeling. And your feelings can’t be wrong.
If your partner disputes your statement, “I’m feeling resentful,” I invite you to say, “This is just how I feel. I’m not blaming you. I’m including you in my life. Part of my life is my feelings. I’m feeling resentful.”
If you’ve had a long history of blame in your relationship, it may take some time for this to sink in. Your partner may have built a big brick wall so they feel protected from your angry outbursts and your blame.
Be patient. Keep owning your feelings out loud rather than blaming your partner for causing your feelings. This takes time. Especially if you need to go through a period of reparation in your relationship communication.
In the meantime, let’s create the second half of the clean ask formula: feeling + desire = clean ask.
You’ve got the first half, the feeling, “I’m feeling resentful.” Now locate your desire. At first it might still sound dirty:
“I want you to take out the trash for once!”
This is an improvement over “You never take out the trash.” It’s still shy of a super-duper clean ask. But let’s look at the improvement:
“I want you to take out the trash for once” is a desire. “You never take out the trash” is not a desire. It’s an accusation.
When you get to this stage of a clean ask, “I want you to take out the trash for once!” celebrate. Celebrate because your anger is flowing rather than blocked.
Why anger can be effective in relationship communication
Anger is a facilitative emotion. It begs for change. The women’s suffrage moment was fueled by anger. The civil rights movement was fueled by anger. Anger announces an injustice and begs for change.
Anger isn’t afraid to ask for what it wants. Anger is demanding. Clear. Welcome the clarity that anger offers you. It’s helping you to improve your relationship communication.
Then, even as you welcome that clarity, continue to clean up the accusations and blame. Now you’ve got a clean ask:
“I’m feeling resentful. I want you to take out the trash.”
Here’s the tricky part: Leave it there.
We want to punish our partner, or justify our own needs. Don’t.
You have waited so long to make the clean ask that there is a waterfall of feelings behind it. When you open your mouth to give a clean ask it’s like breaking the dam and that entire waterfall of feelings wants to come rushing out. Don’t let this happen.
Just stop at the clean ask.
Then watch as your relationship emerges from shame, and blame, and confusion.
Want to learn how to finish cleaning up your dirty ask? Listen to the podcast.
Why does this help? Because each of us tend to have a pattern when it comes to dirty asking (I ask why a lot, for example, “Why is it my job to empty the trash all the time? My friend, on the other hand uses hyperbole: always and never)
How do you ask your partner for what you want?
When you can recognize your typical style and then identify that as a dirty ask, the next time you offer a dirty ask you’ll go, “Oops! That was a dirty ask.” You may not catch it in the moment, but you’ll see it eventually.
The goal is to shrink the amount of time between when you voice the dirty ask and when you catch that you’re offering a dirty ask. From years, to months, to weeks, to days, to moments, to that magical place of BEFORE the dirty ask comes out of your mouth.
So, pick a dirty ask from long, long ago. And pick a situation that’s lost its juiciness. This allows you to observe more easily.
After you’ve identified that historic dirty ask and you can see your pattern, now intentionally wash that dirty ask and make it clean.
Identify the feeling and articulate that without blaming anyone. Then identify the desire you have and articulate that.
Viola! You are getting better at the clean ask already!