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9 Ways to Ask for (and Get) What You Want

Practice your assertiveness, and a "no" can become a "yes."

According to the Rolling Stones classic song, "You Can't Always Get What You Want": If you can’t get what you want, you’re also unlikely to get what you need.

As infants, we usually do get what we want if we yell loudly enough. However, adults who throw tantrums when they’re feeling deprived are unlikely to have their wants satisfied. Instead, we rely on the learned patterns of behavior that, in the past, led to the results that most closely fill our needs.

Some of us are better than others at getting those needs met, especially under certain situations. As it turns out, women have a harder time than men at asking for what they want when it comes to salaries. By internalizing society’s stereotypes, women are less likely to take the risk involved in standing up to a supervisor and asking for more pay.

Requests for money don’t always involve your personal salary. People seeking to support a cause, charity, or educational institution are trained in making the “ask.” Their entire training involves learning how to bring us to the brink of making a donation which they are able to secure with the right clincher.

Marketers make their living by enticing us to want what we don’t actually need. For those products and services that we do need, their job is to make us want what they are selling. Successful marketers are the ones who have refined the art of getting people to say “yes” to a multi-billion-dollar-a-year science.

When it comes to sex, many people also find it difficult to ask directly about having their specific needs met. Either they are embarrassed, shy, or afraid of ridicule or rejection. Yet, in this most deeply personal of relationships, it would seem natural for people to be able to reveal their deepest desires, particularly in a long-term relationship.

In other aspects of interpersonal relationships, we are constantly looking for better ways to have our lovers, friends, family members, co-workers, and even strangers to accede to our wishes. Want a seat on a crowded bus but feel rude asking for it? Hoping to get a particular holiday or birthday gift from a loved one or friend? How about borrowing a friend’s favorite shirt, or a relative’s secret lasagna recipe? Need an errand done? How can you get your co-worker to do it during her lunch hour? Would you like a few extra points added to your course grade?

With such a large percentage of our lives spent requesting money, special treatment, and favors from others, it would seem that we would all benefit from knowing the secrets to having our wants fulfilled. I’ve put together this list of nine strategies that should get you the “yes” answer you would like, regardless of the situation.

  1. Make your request reasonable. In the so-called “foot-in-the-door” technique, people trying to get you to say “yes” ask you for some large favor or amount of money to which they’re pretty certain you’ll say “no” (such as charging $1,000 to a charity event). Then they follow this up with a much smaller request ($25), which is the amount they were actually hoping to receive from you. In order to avoid seeming cheap or uncaring, you agree to the smaller amount. The theory is that by starting with the ridiculously large request, the actual amount they want from you is tiny in comparison. Although this can be an effective marketing strategy, it can backfire, especially in personal relationships. Asking your boss for a 2-week vacation when all you want (or are entitled to) is two days off might get you fired. Gauge your target and pitch your request at close to what you think that person can, and will, do for you.
  2. Don’t pile on the reasons. Speaking of charity donations, research by Dartmouth psychologist Daniel Feiler and colleagues (2012) showed that alumni were more likely to give money to their alma mater when given a single basis for the request. The alumni asked to give for altruistic reasons (to help others) or egoistic reasons (to help them feel good), gave twice as much, on average, as alumni asked to donate for both altruistic and egoistic reasons. Find one reason to make your request, and give that the biggest play possible in order to ensure that you’ll get a positive response in return.
  3. Tell yourself you’re worth it. Studies of women who are reluctant to ask for pay raises show that they feel that, deep down, they aren’t deserving of a higher salary. Examine why you’re afraid to make the request you’re contemplating. Have you had a lifetime of experiences in which you were made to feel inadequate? Do you have hidden biases that tell you that people such as yourself (i.e. of your gender, age, education, ethnicity) should be satisfied with what they’ve got? Are you afraid that by doing well, you’ll be making someone else, such as your spouse, friend, or parent, feel inadequate? Looking into the reasons for your fear of asking might help you feel better and more prepared for step #4.
  4. Write down the basis for your request before making it. After doing a thorough and honest self-evaluation, you can use this list of reasons to bring with you, even if only mentally, to your negotiation. Obviously, if you’re making a request of a friend to run an errand or asking your lover to change his or her bedroom moves, you won’t be submitting a powerpoint presentation. However, you can at least organize your thoughts ahead of time so you’re less likely to feel rattled or embarrassed. On the other hand, if you can’t come up with enough reasons, then it’s possible that your request is in fact unreasonable. If you can’t tell whether it is or not, have a friend or colleague review the reasons with you and help you decide.
  5. Take the other person’s needs into account. When we’re looking to have our requests fulfilled, we often concentrate on how we’re feeling more than we do on how they’re feeling. If someone looks troubled, preoccupied, or stressed, then you’re stacking the deck against having that person grant your request by making it right then and there. Unless there’s an absolute emergency going on where you need your answer provided right away, you won’t have a choice. Apart from these situations, it’s all about the timing. On the other hand, if you’re constantly putting off the same request, and now weeks or months (or longer) have gone by, then perhaps it’s your own feelings of inadequacy or insecurity that are preventing you from stepping forward.
  6. Be nice. Asking for something with a smile is more likely to produce a result than making the same request in a gruff or disrespectful manner. In a written request, make sure that you start and end on a positive note so that you give the person you’re making the request of a favorable first and last impression. If this is a written request (which means that there’s nobody language to soften the words), re-read it and make sure you don’t sound whiny or complaining. Even if your request is based on a gripe, it’s best to frame your words in terms of what you hope to get out of the interaction rather than on the reasons that you may feel you’ve (even rightfully) been snubbed or mistreated. In an interaction with a stranger, such as when you want that seat on the bus, it’s particularly important that you show the consideration you expect in return.
  7. Be honest. Opposite to the “door-in-the-face” method is the “foot-in-the-door” where you start with a small request that you then follow up with the larger request that you had hoped to get all along. It’s a variant of bait-and-switch. Buyers want to look consistent, so once they’ve agreed to do something, they find it hard to pull out when they find that the price is higher than they thought it would be. Similarly, a person hoping to get a large favor done may slide into it by starting with a small, easily performed request. However effective this might be as a sales gimmick, though, it can make the person you’re interacting with feel resentful toward you. It’s also likely to produce a “no” in someone who’s wise to your manipulative ways. Express honestly what you need and why you need it, and assure the other person that there won’t be any rule changes down the road.
  8. Give the person a way out without damaging the relationship. Just as we hope people will always grant us our every (reasonable) wish, we also know that it’s not always possible for them to do so. If you make your request in terms of an ultimatum, then when you get a negative response, you may put yourself in the position of having to back off entirely, making you look foolish, The ultimatum also might force you into ending the relationship when that was not your intention at all. Again, as with #5, above, if you never take a stand, you won’t ever get what you want. Just don’t expect even the most well-reasoned argument to win your case the first time around.
  9. Don’t pout or sulk if you don’t get your way. Let’s say your request isn’t met with a resounding affirmation. If you have a long-term relationship with this person, the chances are good that (if you followed rule #8), you’ll have another chance to make your request. If you feel, and act, resentful, you’ll seem immature, petty, and whiny rather than as a reasonable adult making a reasonable request that might reasonably be fulfilled when the circumstances are more favorable. Ruminating over the disappointing outcome may also lower your self-esteem and can even make you depressed. You'll then start to question whether you should have made the request in the first place, meaning it will never be fulfilled.

You can’t always get what you want, but with the right request-making strategy, you’ll best express what you need.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo and feel free to join my Facebook group, Fulfillment at Any Age.


Feiler, D. C., Tost, L. P., & Grant, A. M. (2012). Mixed reasons, missed givings: The costs of blending egoistic and altruistic reasons in donation requests. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1322-1328. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.05.014

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