3 steps to getting what you want

Step 2 of 3: Know what they want

Writer Jennifer Underwood recently put out an article on “how to ask for what you want and increase your chances of getting it.”

It’s good. In it, she asks, “how often do you really just ask for what you want?” and encourages us to do so,

“Directly, boldly, clearly. Without shame, or guilt, or apology, or passive aggressive hinting.”

That’s a beautiful and important step.

And when that’s all we need to get what we want, awesome. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we put ourselves out there and ask and still don’t get our needs met.

This is the article for people who have trouble getting what they want even after asking.

Even after sharing their feelings. Even after speaking their truth, being vulnerable, articulating clearly, and coming from an undefended place.

In those cases, “asking” is only part of the picture.

Because on the receiving end of any ask is: the other person.

Step 1: Know you what you want

Most people at least do some legwork here, but few have a good handle on the full picture. In bold are the most important points.

  • know what you want
  • know what you don’t want
  • know your values
  • know your fear(s)
  • know what you’re willing to give up in exchange
  • know your limits, and what you’re not willing to give up


In relationships: I only want 2.5 things in a partner, and the #1 thing — emotional stability and self-esteem — is 100% non-negotiable. I do not want manipulation, toxicity, or over-attachment.

I am all-in on these 2.5 things. I will compromise on almost anything else — there’s a lot I refuse to fight about— in order to get them. But I will not yield on my #1 need, or anything related to it.

I value self-sufficiency — in myself and others — and I’m protecting myself against toxic love more than I am afraid of being alone.

At work: I want freedom of movement. I don’t want structure or prescription. I’m willing to give up “security” and status markers like “title” to get this.

Step 2: Know what the *other* person wants

Presumably, someone is a gatekeeper to you getting what you want. A partner, a boss, a client, another business. Sometimes it’s the universe, but the universe is still comprised, in part, of people, and one or more of them can help or hinder getting you what you want.

We have to understand:

  • what they want
  • what they don’t want
  • what they value
  • what they fear

You will eventually find out what they’re willing to give up, and may even bump into what they’re not willing to give up, but finding these out are, overtly or subtly, part of the negotiation dialogue.

Step 3: Talk in terms of their interests

  • Give what they most value to get what you want back

Underwood pointed out that,

“People feel drawn to helping… people lean in and they genuinely want to give to you. They want to support. They want to love. They want to engage in a connection that will feel rewarding, for both of you.”

And this may be true. Sometimes. But if you’re playing the “support” card and betting on other people’s compassion all the time, you’re not playing with a full deck.

As Dale Carnegie argued in How to Win Friends and Influence People, you have to talk in terms of other people’s interests (as well as “try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”)

The higher the stakes, the more important this is.

Let’s talk about a few examples:

Jobs, interviews, offers and raises

We don’t go into job interviews saying, “I want you to give me some money.” We also don’t negotiate for raises by talking in terms of our expenses or financial goals. (Dude, if you are doing either of these things, god help you.)

We talk in terms of what we can offer them — our skill set, our strengths, our value-add as a member of their team.

And it goes the other way at work, too.

A corporate client once tried to woo me away from the consulting agency for which I was a contracted employee by offering me a full-time position, and tried to persuade me by selling me on the respective “job security.”

They might as well have offered me Cleveland Browns season tickets. Because while job security is awesome to many people, it just isn’t my motivation. Needless to say, we didn’t continue the dialogue.


All of the worst arguments for staying together came out of my breakup with my boyfriend of five years. Like when I first broke the news to him and he countered, “but I want you!”

It’s the first thing most of us would think, and the first thing many of us would actually say out loud. It’s understandable from an emotional standpoint, but pretty limp from a position of rhetoric and negotiation.

When someone’s breaking up with you, they’re in a position where they don’t care as much about what you want anymore. I mean, maybe they care about you in an abstract sense as one human being to the next, but they’re no longer emotionally and personally invested. Maybe they’ve been hurt, maybe they’ve been left high and dry — I don’t know. But they’re operating from a position of self-care here. If they’re breaking up with you, they’ve already crested that point of being willing to sacrifice their own wants and needs to satisfy yours.

This isn’t the time to profess your love (unless, of course, hearing you do is their specific ask.) If you want to persuade them, you have to take the time to understand their concerns and fallout, and address that directly.

Getting commitment

Maybe you want a label. Or you want to take the next step. Meet his parents. Get engaged. Whatever.

You can state these needs any which way you’d like, and maybe he’ll even be “drawn to helping” enough that he’s motivated to satisfy them for this reason. But if your ask doesn’t honor or acknowledge your partner’s interests, you won’t get very far.

Why does he want? What are his values and wants and needs and motivations? What’s he averse to and afraid of?

Your goal shouldn’t be for him to begrudgingly call you his girlfriend or put a ring on it. Your goal should be for him to do it with delight, and excitement.

And the only way he’ll do that is if he feels like his interests are being taken care of, too. A partner who’s getting his needs met, too, is going to beam with happiness about it to anyone willing to listen.

Asking can work, if he’s on the same page.

But asking won’t work if he’s not. You shouldn’t want that pity text, and you definitely shouldn’t want that drag-ass, obligatory ring. You want him to be dying to do those things, in part for you, out of sheer joy and love and excitement for all you do for him, too.

There’s no such thing as “tough conversations”

The only exception being: firing or breaking up, when the other person’s interests can no longer be at play.

Outside of that, there is no “tough convo.”

If what you want honors both people’s interests, there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable asking. And if it doesn’t honor both people’s interests, you shouldn’t be asking for it.

Whether you are building multi-million dollar software programs or winning the long-haul hearts of prospective partners, the method is exactly the same:

Know what you want. 
Know what they want. 
Frame the former in terms of the latter.

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