“My husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/partner needs to step up” – I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard this phrase during a coaching session or chatting with friends. What does that actually mean?

Within the context in which it’s discussed, it’s usually during an offload or a rant about that person’s significant other and therefore is not particularly complimentary – actually, who are we trying to kid, it tends to be highly critical of that other person. The said person appears to be slacking in some way or not up to the task in hand or more particularly hasn’t shown their resourcefulness in the past and now needs to “step up” and be what the other person wants/need them to be.

What if they can’t? Does that make them a rubbish person? What if they don’t know how? Does that make them any less responsible? What if they weren’t taught as they were growing up to take responsibility for stuff or to lead from the front – is that their fault? What if we just haven’t communicated what we need clearly?

As you can probably gather, I’m not keen on the term “stepping up” – it feels derogatory to me. Now I’m not saying that people can be let off the hook indefinitely not taking any responsibility for their actions or being accountable in any way, far from it. I just wonder if there is a better way to communicate our need for support? What about if we talked about “stepping forward?” Would that encourage someone to behave differently to support someone they love?

When I have talked to clients who have been told they need to step up (please note, they are usually told rather than asked) it instantly makes them feel both aggrieved and also that they are failing in some sort of way. “When she says to me I need to step up, I know that yet again I have misread the signs and haven’t given my wife the support she needs” admitted one client. “She says step up which makes me feel that I need to up my game but doesn’t tell me what it is I’m actually required to do.”

“What if she’d asked you to step forward” I asked, “how would that have made you feel?” “If she then explained what she needed me to do to support her, that would feel much better, it would feel that it was working together not coming from a place of failure.”

Some would argue that you shouldn’t need to be told what to do – I don’t think that’s entirely fair either, I know that in the past I have expected my loved ones to be mind readers and then been fed up when they haven’t achieved the impossible. So much easier to vocalise it rather than expect someone to guess.

The more I think about it, the more stepping up feels unpleasant. I think most of us recognise that we don’t always get our communication with others right and so often it’s the language we use, the intonation of our voice, how we pitch our needs in order to get them met. Little tweaks here and there could make all the difference to both ourselves and those around us.

For me, stepping forward is about standing in front of someone and saying, “what do you need? How can I help?” It then gives us the opportunity to tell that person what it is we are actually after, that gives them the chance to do what we are asking and then not only are your needs met, the other person feels better that they have been able to support you in the way that you wanted. No subtext, no game playing, no feeling of failure.

What other language could you change to improve the way you communicate? How could it make a difference to your life?