In my counseling office, I see a lot of damage done because people don't know how to ask for what they want, or don't think it's OK. Not asking for what you want means you'll eventually resent somebody, and that leads to a lot of strife. So today, I thought I'd give some hints about how to ask for what you want. To really be successful, you need to understand the difference between asking and demanding, and how to approach different people.
The Importance of Wanting
If you don't know what you want, you'll have trouble getting it and experience a life-long feeling of deprivation, disappointment, scarcity, and resentment. When you aren't able to express what you want clearly you'll have difficulty feeling generous about your partner's wants and needs.
In your relationship, asking for what you want in a helpful, non-threatening way helps both you and your partner understand each other. If you don't know what you want, you won't realize if you achieve it. If you don't know what your partner wants, you can wind up with a false or one-sided solution, that will leave one or both of you feeling unsatisfied, overpowered, or manipulated. In couple counseling, when I ask partners to state their wants they often discover to their amazement that their wants are quite similar, and the problem disappears. The conflict between them was only their lack of understanding and communication.
Being clear about what you want is like putting all the true facts on the table, just as you lay all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle out, so you can see them better, and more easily solve your puzzle.
Difference between Wanting and Demanding
Much of the confusion about expressing wants occurs because no distinction is made between wanting and demanding. Stating what you want is an effort to communicate clearly, so you and your partner can both be satisfied, while demanding is insisting that your partner give you what you want, without regard for his or her wants and feelings. You can tell the difference because when you are asking, you can handle getting a no answer; when you are demanding, you get upset if what you're asking for is denied. When you ask for what you want, you need to have a back-up plan in case the other person doesn't agree.
Women need to know how to ask men for what they want directly, and in a rational, not emotional manner. Men respond much better to "Honey, will you take out the garbage?" than to a whiney "The garbage can is overflowing, and it smells bad." or "I have to do everything around here." The indirect request is a female style of communication that works well with other women, but doesn't work well on men, because our thought processes are different.
Men need to learn to listen to women's feelings when they want something. Women do not always respond to a direct request, they do better when feelings are talked about. Saying "Wait till the game is over, honey." will be received by a woman as disregarding her feelings. "I'm sorry it's bothering you, sweetheart, I'll take it out as soon as there's a commercial break." will let her know you care about her feelings, and she'll be happier with it, even though the result is the same.
How NOT to Get What You Want: (Common Mistakes):
Exaggerate your want: The fear that you may not get what you want may cause you to say you want more than you really do, ("I want you here all the time"). This is confusing to both you and your partner, and because your wants are exaggerated, makes it look much more difficult to reach a satisfactory solution than it really is.
Overstate your need: The fear that you won't get your wants met may cause you to state what you want as if your survival depended on it ("I'll just DIE if you don't come with me"). This causes your partner to feel suspicious that he or she is being manipulated, and resist cooperating with you.
Argue for or justify your want: Anxiety that your wants are not important enough to be satisfied may lead you to present them as a persuasive argument, with an overwhelming flood of reasons why you should want them or that the wants should be satisfied, ("I should get more of the money than you do, because ......."). This can provoke your partner to object and argue in return, rather than listen.
Not say what you want: Belief that you won't get what you want anyway, or that differences in wants will cause a fight, may lead you to say you "don't care" or "it's not important" or just be silent, when the truth is you'll resent not getting what you want.
Understate your want: Fear that your partner will be upset, hurt or unhappy if you say what you really want may lead you to ask for something else ("Let's ask your sister to go with us" when you really want an evening all alone together.) This confuses your partner, and makes it impossible to get what you really want because you haven't said what it is.
The Importance of Knowing What You Want
You may be wondering why being clear about what you want is getting so much emphasis here. Many people have serious trouble knowing what they want, feeling comfortable communicating it, and stating it clearly. Many people have difficulty solving problems because they do not know what they want, or, if they do know, cannot express it effectively to someone else.
We often grow up suppressing our desires -- sometimes to the extent of not even being aware of them. Most of us learn in early childhood that:
Wanting is selfish and that we should be polite and let others wants come first ("Be polite, let Susie have the toy")
It isn't OK to want ("Don't even ask me for a cookie just before dinner")
We want too much ("of course you can't have a new toy, do you think I'm made of money?")
If we get what we want, someone else will be deprived.
These internalized criticisms and restrictions make us anxious about getting what we want and even convinced that we won't.
In addition to all these other restrictions on wanting, you may have the idea that the consequences of wanting are bad (no one will like you), and so it is too scary to know what you want. Because knowing what you want sometimes means you risk being disappointed and many people have an exaggerated idea of how bad disappointment feels (if I don't get what I want I'll be miserable), they avoid wanting at all.
Steps to Getting What You Want:
If you have difficulty in knowing what you want and communicating it, try these steps:
1. Get clear about what you want: You can't express what you want effectively if you're not clear what it is, so before approaching your partner, your boss or your child with a request, think about it and make sure you can write it down in one clear sentence.
2. Create a good atmosphere: If asking for what you want is difficult for you, don't do it without preparation. Make sure you and the person you're asking both have time, and invite the other person to sit down and talk with you.
3. Simply state what you want: Don't preface your statement with a lot of disclaimers – they make the other person feel accused of something. Just ask, politely, for what you want.
4. Be prepared to accept a "no.": Remember, if you can't accept a no answer, then you're making a demand, not a request, so have a backup solution. Find a way to get what you want for yourself, even if the other person isn't cooperating. For example, if you don't get that raise you deserve, maybe it's time to begin a job search.
5. Listen politely to the other person's answer: Whether the other person says yes, no, or something in between, listen carefully to what he or she says. Don't get all caught up in a lot of worry and noise inside your head – pay attention. You need to know what the answer is.
If you follow these steps, you'll find you're successful a good percentage of the time, and when you aren't you have a backup plan – so you really can't lose.
Adapted from Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media) ISBN# 978-1-59869-325-6 © Tina B.Tessina, 2007