How to Ask for What You Want
In many situations for you to be able to get what you want or need you have to be willing to “ask for it.” That is, you need to be able to engage with others to request something specific – help, support, an answer, an action, an item, etc. Sounds simple; but reality is that few people ask for what they really want. Most merely ask for what they feel comfortable articulating and it is up to the person dealing with them (e.g., boss, spouse, friend, salesperson, customer service person) to read between the lines and guess what is going on and how to solve the problem or fill the need. Why is it so hard to ask for what you want and how can you become a better “asker”?
What Gets in the Way of Your Articulating What You Want?
Listed below are seven key factors that can keep you silent:
1. You don’t know what you want
A large majority of people don’t feel comfortable asking for what they want because they live with an embarrassing secret – they actually don’t know what they want. Sure, they may have some vague ideas about the end-state they want to achieve – for example, “I want to be happy, less stressed, financially independent, respected, etc.” – but they can’t seem to fill in the details sufficiently to identify concrete things they might be able to ask for.
2. You have a limited perspective on what is possible
What you think to ask for will be constrained by what you view as possible or probable. If you can’t envision viable options to investigate or pursue there are no opportunities to ask for help or support in making them a reality.
3. You are afraid of how others will react to what you want to ask for
Most of us are great at imagining the probable outcomes of our actions. Thus, if we contemplate asking for something we want we automatically rehearse the impending conversation in our head and role play both sides of the interchange. We mentally construct the content of the presumed response we will get, the tone with which it will be delivered, the emotional reaction of the other person, and the short and long-term implications on our relationship with the person asked. The problem is that we are often wrong in our predictions of the future because we imagine both sides of the conversation blinded by a single set of filters and assumptions – our own. We all too often prevent ourselves from asking for what we want because we incorrectly convince ourselves we won’t get it.
4. You subconsciously believe: “I shouldn’t have to ask”
Many people believe it is demeaning to have to ask for certain things (e.g., a raise or promotion at work; help with the housework or the kids at home) and cling to the conviction that these things should simply be offered by the other person. They further believe, “If you have to ask, then the response you get has no value.” People who hold to these assumptions simply won’t ask for many of the critical things they need.
5. You are an indirect communicator
Those who practice the direct style of communication come right out and ask for what they want in a straightforward way. For example, if they are cold they say, “Please turn up the heat.” Indirect communicators, on the other hand, believe it is somehow impolite to phrase things directly as requests or instructions and prefer to allow others the opportunity to “volunteer” their help. Thus a cold indirect communicator might simply comment, “It sure is cold in here,” hoping that the other person will “cooperate” by turning up the heat. Unfortunately such indirect requests are often not truly heard by the intended recipient so while indirect communicators might think they are “asking” they are, in effect, not.
6. You believe that asking for what you want is selfish
Many people believe that their own needs or desires are somehow inferior to, or less important than, the needs of others. They don’t ask for what they need for fear of appearing self-centered.
7. You don’t know how to ask successfully
There are lots of people who have an unfortunate history of receiving bad reactions from others when they ask for what they want. They know at some level that they lack the communication skills to be able to ask for things in a way that does not alienate or infuriate others so they find it easier to keep quiet.
How to Become a Better Asker
Here are five tools and techniques to increase your asking acumen:
1. Write down what you want
Here is one technique that can help in situations where you are not clear about what you want. While several other techniques also exist for gaining clarity, many require enlisting the perspective of another objective individual who can guide you through the discovery process, whereas this is a technique you can try all on your own. I have personally witnessed its power many times as I observed the following unusual phenomenon in my coaching practice: When I first have a complimentary introductory phone call with a perspective client and I ask them what they want to accomplish through coaching they verbally describe one set of objectives. If they subsequently sign up as a coaching client I email them a “Welcome Package” that asks them to write down the three short-term and three long-term objectives they want to achieve in our coaching - and what I frequently get back is a significantly different list! This happens not 10% or 20% of the time; it happens over 80% of the time. There is something profound that happens when people take the time and energy to think things through enough to commit them to writing – and the level of clarity is greatly enhanced. So next time you find yourself feeling vague about what you want to ask for, try writing it down first. Even if you subsequently decide to “say it in words” the very process of addressing it first in writing will likely lead to greater specificity and ease in your communications.
2. Get an outside perspective
I you are being held back by your own limited perspective of what you see as possible or of how others will react to you, then seek out someone who can help you see things from another viewpoint, brainstorm options, and role play possible interactions.
3. Stop hoping for “mind readers”
If you believe “You shouldn’t have to ask,” or if your requests are “indirect” and overly subtle, then realize that what you are doing is putting your future in the hands of “mind readers.” You are acting as if those around you can figure out what you want and then supply an appropriate response. By taking such an approach you relinquish your ability to control your own destiny and significantly lessen your chances of getting what you really want.
4. Re-think the concept of “respect”
Believing that asking for what you want is “selfish” is a reasoning distortion often born of a lack of respect for yourself and others. It seems fairly obvious that a lack of self respect can make you feel unworthy or less important than others and cause you to subordinate your own needs and “not ask.” What is less obvious is that not being comfortable asking for what you want can also arise from a lack of respect for others. More specifically, not asking can occur when you don’t respect others enough to share your honest thoughts and desires with them, or you don’t respect their ability to say “No” to you when they want to, or stick up for themselves in the situation. Rather than setting yourself up as the ultimate authority over who’s needs are the most important, or who can handle what in an interchange, try adopting the perspective that each person has the right and responsibly to honesty and straightforwardly express their needs and desires and negotiate an equitable solution.
5. Learn the skills for asking in a way that others can hear non-defensively
If you find yourself fearing how others will respond to what you ask for, or accumulating a history of receiving bad reactions to your requests, then most likely you are missing some key phrasing skills that will allow you to ask questions in a way that doesn’t push other people’s buttons. The good news is that these skills are learnable. For example, a simple but effective way to ask someone to do what you want in a neutral non-offensive way even in a potentially controversial area (e.g., to stop smoking or drinking in your presence or to stop making hurtful comments about your weight) is to simply say, “I ask that you…” - followed by what you want to ask for. Find an “effective communication” class, book or coach to help you grow your communication toolkit and your ability to ask for what you want will expand enormously.
The Bottom Line
Being able to ask for what you want, and to ask in an effective way that increases the chances you will get it, is a crucial life skill. It requires that you know what you want, are comfortable articulating what you want, and have the communication skills necessary to do so. If you don’t take control to say what you want you will be left at the mercy of others who will likely be more than happy to tell you what you need and what is best for you.