Recently, I heard a story about a man who worked at the UN. After 27 years of service, he was finally taking retirement. At his exit interview, he was asked by a Human Resources Manager for “feedback” on working conditions in his department. Was there anything that could be improved? The man thought for a while before answering: “Well, I guess a more comfortable chair would’ve been nice.” The answer is funny but also very revealing. Here was a man who sat for 27 years in a sub-par office chair without thinking about asking for a replacement. I don’t think it makes him a passive boob; I think it makes him human. Many of us struggle to ask for even the most basic things that would make our lives easier. Why? Why is it so hard to ask for what we want?
Well, there’s a delicate balance to be struck. If you never make any demands at all, you can easily become invisible. But do it too often or too stridently, and you’re seen as “entitled,” greedy or even obnoxious. I think this balance is particularly difficult to navigate for women who are often socialized to serve rather than to deserve in the workplace. Thankfully, things are slowly beginning to change, but we still have a long way to go. As we approach the end of 2017, many people are in review mode and looking to make changes in their lives and work. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you get what you want.
Clarify your needs
What is it that you really want? While it might seem straightforward, it can be surprisingly difficult to articulate what exactly the need is. Because it generally requires some internal exploration of uncomfortable feelings which most of us will do anything to avoid. But “uncomfortable feelings” are often the guide to our unmet needs. When someone says to me “I want this promotion” – I will often ask “why?” What does this promotion signify for you? The feeling of “wanting a promotion” is often secondary to the unmet need for respect, recognition, support, autonomy or any number of other personal needs. Digging a little deeper, asking ourselves the hard questions, can help us understand the root cause and then respond accordingly.
Own your right to have needs
There’s healthy and there’s unhealthy entitlement. Healthy entitlement means giving yourself permission to want certain things, even if you may not get them. We all have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. We have the right to be told the truth and not lied to. Whether or not we actually get those things is a separate issue, but healthy entitlement says, “I have a right to expect them.” Of course, claiming our rights requires effort, and may be met with resistance. Nobody gave Rosa Parks permission to sit at the front of the bus; she had to claim it. While most of us will not face this kind of extreme resistance, we can still expect a certain amount of pushback any time we assert our individual needs. Bottom line: you get what you’re willing to accept.
Be willing to risk disappointment
Very often we don’t ask directly for what we want because we fear the answer will be “no.” Or we fear that people will not like us if we make demands on them. So instead we may ask indirectly and complain when no one can read our minds. Or we don’t ask at all, and gain sympathy in the role of martyr. In my work as a coach, I’ve found some of the sweetest people I’ve met are also roiling underneath with a sense of deep frustration – unable or unwilling to simply ask for what they need. They feel like they never have any real impact on the people around them and deep down, this makes them feel invisible. Ask for what you want and yes, you may get turned down. But if you don’t even ask, you remove the possibility of a “yes.” The irony here is that people with integrity will only respect you more, not less, for having the courage to clearly articulate your needs.
Exercise your rights, daily
As with most everything, it takes practice to know how to ask for what you want, so work on building up the muscle. That cheeseburger not cooked to your satisfaction? Send it back and have it cooked the way you want it. Prefer to spend the holiday in your own home this year? Kindly explain to your mom why this is so, and that you’ll reconnect soon after the New Year. That couple chattering behind you at the movies, ask them politely if they could refrain till after the movie has ended. These are small, simple, reasonable requests that assert your individual rights and help you reclaim a sense of power.
We are conditioned to believe that asking for what we want makes us selfish or pushy, but this is patently untrue. Asking for what you want is sign of healthy emotional development and the more you practice it, the easier it becomes. So go ahead, ask for what you want. There is genius – even kindness – in being bold.