Would you like to help me wash the dishes?
Please fix the chicken house today.
Are you willing to unload the dishwasher when you’re finished reading your chapter?
Word choice matters. Sometimes it feels like the specific words we use are more about style or attitude than actual meaning, but every word we choose carries a slightly different meaning, and is received in a slightly different way.
I remember when my kids were toddlers I became aware of the critical importance of deciding whether I really wanted to ask a question or whether it was more appropriate to use a statement. “Are you ready to go now?” vs. “It’s time to go now.” One is not necessarily better than the other. There are certainly times when it’s OK and important to find out whether a toddler is ready to go. But if you are not open to going later, don’t ask if your child is ready to go now. Choose a statement instead of a question.
Now I am becoming aware of the need to fine tune statements and requests even further. Sometimes I will ask my kids to do things that they don’t really want to do. Heck, sometimes I need to ask myself to do something I don’t really want to do. I may not want to do something, yet I’m willing to do it even though I don’t want to, because it’s important for my health, or it’s important to someone else. I am willing to get up off the couch in the evening and close the chicken coop and water the garden even though I don’t always want to because I value the health of the plants and animals in my care. Word choice can either acknowledge that, “I don’t want to, but I’m willing,” or ignore it.
In my NVC/Empathy workshops, our wonderful facilitator, Sarah Peyton, always begins guided meditations with a request to gently ask your awareness if it is willing to go to your breath. For a while I thought this was kind of unnecessarily gentle – I didn’t really understand why there was all this hesitation. If meditation involves going to your breath, then just do it! And then I read the draft copy of her new, soon to be released book, and realized that asking if we are willing leaves space to acknowledge that for some people it’s painful and distressing to spend time quietly paying attention to their bodies. Asking if someone is willing (and being OK with a no) creates a space in which you can simultaneously acknowledge that they may not want to do something and yet may also be willing to try.
It’s not a quick fix. There are still plenty of times when I ask if someone is willing to do xyz and I get “No” in return. But it opens a space to say, “Ok. What are you willing to do to contribute to cleaning up?” And most of the time my kids come up with something they are perfectly happy to do that I would never have thought to ask them. Like re-organzing the jars in the fridge door and labelling all the different compartments. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I’m willing to receive that!