To learn how to tell the difference between a true request instead of a demand you practice visualization. First, imagine yourself making the request and the other person happily saying “yes” in response. That will probably be easy and feel pretty good.

Then, visualize the same scene, only this time with the person saying, “no.” Note how that makes you feel. What does their response do to you? Allow yourself to feel everything the no response brings up inside you. When you’re fully within the emotion, name it. Then ask what that emotion means. If you are feeling anger or resentment, then those emotions suggest you are really making a demand. If you feel disappointed, but you are at peace with that, then you know you are making a true request.

If you discover it’s a demand, then most likely you have a basic need that’s not being met (see NVC tool 2.1). In which case, you need to work through that need until you can rephrase the question as a true request.

When you ask someone to do something and know they are saying “yes” because that is what you are expecting, you can never be at peace with it. You will never know if, in the future, the person will resent it and hurt you in some way. To work through a demand, you can continue your visualization and allow yourself to mourn the need you discovered is not being met. Stay with the feelings until they pass, until you can make peace with them. Only then will you be able to discover a way to rephrase your request that will allow the other person to answer according to their free will.

Let’s say your partner frequently looks at their phone when you are eating a meal together and it bothers you. So, you say, “Please stop looking at your phone when we eat together.” If you partner senses you are invested in whether or not they agree to stop, they may stop—with resentment, that will likely bubble up at a later date in an argument. However, if they don’t interpret your request as you forcing them to do something, they will be more likely to reply with “Okay, I’ll put it away,” with ease, or say, “No, I’m waiting for an important message to come through.”

If you stop to go through the visualization exercise, you may realize you’re asking not because you want to control their phone use, but because the need to feel connected with your partner is being hampered by the other person’s distraction. In which case, you could voice your request in such a way as to let the other person know about your need and make the connection whether they are using the phone or not.

Sometimes, a demand arises when there is an unbalanced power structure, like with parents and children or management and staff. In which case, it can be helpful to re-phrase the demands in the context of boundaries. For example, an employer could demand that an employee work for eight hours each day or, it could be phrased so that “the frame of reference for this engagement is eight hours each day.”