Learning to Ask
Do you ever have difficulty asking for what you want? I used to, and it’s taken a lot of practice to be able to change that. On a recent trip, I had a great reminder of how important it is to be able to build that skill.
When I got to the gate for my flight home, I saw an open seat at the end of one of the rows with electrical outlets. There were two sockets between each pair of seats, and at each of the two other seats in my row, there was a person using both of them- one for a phone and one for a computer. I noticed that the person at the far end had an iphone and a macbook, so I knew that they could charge their phone from their computer. The person in the middle had a droid, with a charger that I could see wouldn’t work from the USB port.
There was a time when I would have sat in my seat and silently resented these strangers because I wouldn’t have wanted to inconvenience them. I’d have kept quiet because I wouldn’t have wanted to speak up, to risk being thought rude, or to have my request turned down. Fortunately, I’ve grown out of that. I stood in between them both, faced them and said this:
Excuse me, but I’d like to charge my phone. If you (turn to person number one) charge your phone from your computer, and if you (turn to person number two) move one of your cords over, then I can charge my phone. Would either of you mind?
Neither of them did and we all got to charge our gadgets.
It got me thinking- how many times did I hold back from asking for what I wanted because I didn’t want to cause anyone any hassle? How many times did I make myself small because I didn’t want to risk having to deal with the other person’s anger? How many times did I keep quiet because I didn’t want to risk being rejected? And how many hours of my life went into quietly seething, and getting even more upset because the other person didn’t even notice how I was feeling?
There were lots of different reasons I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted, so it took quite a while to work through them and learn how to do it. I had to learn how to put my requests into words, how to hear a “no” without going into a rejection/shame loop, how to stand my ground in the face of someone else’s anger, how to collaborate to find a solution that would work for everyone, and how to talk with someone who has less-than-adequate communication skills. I also learned a lot about how patterns of gender, race, and culture shape what people think is acceptable to ask for, what kinds of responses are allowed, and some ways to navigate that.
With all of those pieces to the puzzle, it’s no wonder that it took me a while to feel confident in my ability to stand on my two feet without being either aggressive or defensive. It’s easy to tell someone that they just need to speak up but there’s a lot more to it than that. In art, music, and relationships, the most simple pieces often take the most skill to create.
Fortunately, I once received a piece of advice that has served me well. You don’t need to be perfect- you simply need to move in the direction you want to go in. When something gets in your way, you can look for how to deal with it, change directions, go around, or move through it. But you don’t need to wait for perfection to start that journey because all you need to deal with is whatever is in front of you. And when you’ve taken care of it, you can continue moving forward until the next hurdle.
So I practiced making requests of the people in my life. I started with the folks who I felt I could be vulnerable with. I told some close friends that I was trying to get better at asking for things and that I was going to try practicing with them. I started with smaller things and worked my way up to making more important requests. I asked for the opportunity for do-overs if something didn’t come out of my mouth as well as I wanted. I made mistakes and learned a lot about where my barriers to asking for what I wanted came from. I talked about it a lot with my therapist, with my partner, with my friends. I developed shame resilience and increased my ability to deal with hearing a “no.” And eventually, I got to the point where it wasn’t so difficult.
As I stepped up and got better at make requests, I also learned how to look for ways to make things work for everyone. And I discovered that I’d built some momentum. My capacity to have those previously-impossible conversations increased until I didn’t even hesitate anymore. And that’s when things started to get a lot easier.
So I don’t want to make it sound like it’s just a matter of walking up to someone and asking for what you want. There are lots of moving parts to that. But it’s worth the effort. And not only will it help you in your relationships, you’ll be able to get on a plane with a fully-charged phone, too.