We used to be experts at asking for what we want.

In fact, we felt so entitled to the object of our desire that we’d burst into tears if it wasn’t signed, sealed and delivered immediately.

Watch any three-year-old in a toy store if you’ve forgotten what it’s like to voice your desires clearly. “Want! That! NOW!”

So what happened?

When did we stop asking for what we want? Was it a single traumatic event? Or was it the quiet, daily creep of other people’s priorities taking over? Because really – when you’ve got mouths to feed, bills to pay, deadlines to meet and a boss to please – who cares what you want?

I do.

And you should, too.

A lesson in feline social mechanics

The struggle with asking for what we want was brought to my attention this week by an unlikely source: my cat.

Crazy, I know. Hear me out.

I am servant to a particularly unique feline named Princess Nevadelia Lotus Blossom. She was homeless and nearly dead when she came into my life, but you’d never know. She struts around her kingdom with an undeniable air of entitlement.

Allow me to introduce her:

Delia is very good at asking for what she wants. All the time. And in no uncertain terms.

She sashays into a room and demands: “Love me. NOW.”

Delia is embarrassingly needy and vocal. When I let her out on the patio, she traipses into the neighboring apartments to demand petting. If you’re occupying “her” chair, she sits at your feet and howls until you move.

If you ignore her, she smacks you in the face with her paw. Repeatedly. Or she places her paw on your hand, gradually extending her nails until she has your undivided attention. She purrs innocently the whole time.

In exasperation, I told my partner that I wished I could get away with demanding love and affection as shamelessly as Delia.

He asked, “Why can’t you?”

Good question.

So the next day I walked into the livingroom and demanded, “Love me. NOW.” And what do you know? It works!

How to ask for what you want

Asking for what you want is scary.

Learning to do it is a process. Be gentle with yourself. It won’t come naturally right away. You’ll feel guilty, clumsy – sometimes you’ll want to take back your requests. But stick with it. It gets easier and the results are totally worth it.

Journal about it first

Prepare yourself for the conversation by writing about it first.

Journal in depth about exactly what you really want. Look at what’s working and not working for you right now, what you need more or less of. Get really specific and totally clear about the type of outcome you’re after.

In addition to journaling about the specific topic at hand, you may want to explore the deeper issues around asking for what you want. Our fear can be deep seated and resilient.

Here are a few journaling prompts to get you started:

  • What’s the worst that could happen if I ask for what I want?
  • What experience in the past is keeping me from asking for what I want?
  • Who around me is good at asking for what they want? (I can watch Delia and take notes.)
  • What amazing things are possible if I ask for what I want – and get it?

Don’t wait for a crisis

Don’t put off asking for what you want until you’re ready to explode. Ask when you’re calm and centered – when the stakes are low.

Say you could really use a vacation day from work. Request the day off in advance, when it’s still just a comforting treat. Don’t wait until you’re stressed out, in tears, exhausted, and ready to stab someone in the eye with a pencil, so you can dramatically wail, “I NEED A VACATION RIGHT NOW!!”

The goal is learning to recognize our needs and take care of them before they escalate into a hostage situation.

Start small

Asking to have your needs met is like a muscle – you have to work it with increasing levels of difficulty to get stronger.

Practice on the totally insignificant stuff. It seems silly, but it really gets you used to the process. And even though the rewards are different, asking for a cup of coffee, a foot massage or a raise are essentially the same process.

The more comfortable you get with asking, the easier the big ticket items will become. (Though there are some days I value a foot massage over a raise…)

Be totally transparent

I’ve taken many workshops on communication. One of the most memorable was taught by a professional negotiator and conflict resultion expert named Sandra Jo Palmer.

I adore Sandra Jo. She’s a spunky, white-haired dyke who doesn’t mince words. In one workshop we talked to our partners using an awkward, clumsy script. I complained that the conversation felt awkward and forced. She came back at me:

“So what? Tell him you know it’s awkward and forced. You can both laugh about it. It doesn’t change the value of the exercise.”

This blew my mind. You mean we can acknowledge our awkwardness, our clumsiness? We can admit it’s difficult for us to express our needs, that we suck at it right now?

You mean we can be human?

Now I use Sandra Jo’s tool of transparency all the time. I literally say stuff like, “I’m trying something new, where I ask for what I want. I think you really want to support me, so I’m going to tell you how. It’s very hard for me so this will likely be awkward and clumsy and I won’t do it perfectly. Bear with me.”

Expressing your discomfort takes the pressure off. Your conversation partner will likely feel more compassionate and willing when you show your vulnerability.

We don’t have to be suave and confident to get what we want. We just have to be honest and straightforward.

Oh, and we have to ask for it.

So what do you want?