How to Ask For What You Want

06/12/2013 02:03 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

The dishes were still in the sink. All I could do was stand there, stare at them, and stew. My mind was going nuts.

He doesn't respect me!
I'm helping pay the rent and I can't use the kitchen!
Why can't people be more considerate?!

I had just moved into my dream location in Brooklyn and after six years of living alone, I was sharing space with a roommate. I'm not saying he's the slob and I'm the neat-freak (OK, maybe a little bit), but we did have some lifestyle differences and had yet to have a conversation about guidelines to live by. If I was going to be more at peace with my living situation, I was going to have to ask for what I wanted. In this case, getting the dishes done within 24 hours.

For many of us, it can be hard to ask for what we want. Whether it's getting help, asking for that vacation or for more intimacy, it can sometimes feel like you're putting your neck on the chopping block. There are several possible reasons for this. We assume that people should just know what we want and that we shouldn't have to ask for something. It's like that moment when Jennifer Aniston tells her significant other in The Breakup, "I want you to want to do the dishes!" We may think that we'll jeopardize our relationship with the person that we're asking from and that things will be awkward or uncomfortable afterwards. Or, that people will think less of us for what we want or think that we're too demanding. We predict all possible ways that we will be rejected and convince ourselves that it's easier to just bite the bullet and live with the status quo. But is this what we really want?

Skillfully asking for what you want requires a shot of vulnerability and that can seem scary. But when you don't ask for what you want, you risk much more. You may spend a lot of time and energy stewing about the upsetting situation and being resentful. These bitter emotions can put tension in your relationship with the (unsuspecting) person in question. And, not speaking up for what you want may lead to dissatisfaction that contaminates all other areas of your life.

Here are some pointers on how to effectively ask for what you want:

Pick a time when you're not emotional
When opening a dialogue, you'll want to refrain from being defensive, angry, or sarcastic. This will promote an effective and honest conversation.

State the situation in a neutral way
"Hey Bob, the dishes need to be done. The sink is getting full." Resist blaming the person. Have you noticed that when someone says to you "You never ______" the conversation is over because you may shut down, get defensive, or stop listening? Don't make it about them, make it about the situation.

Make known the consequence
"Bob, when the dishes aren't washed, I can't use them when I need them." Most of the time, people just aren't aware of how their actions impact others and so bringing their attention to the consequences of the situation makes for a more effective conversation.

Use "I feel" statements
"I feel frustrated and annoyed when I can't use the dishes and when the sink is full." People aren't mind-readers. They are usually caught up with their own feelings and thoughts. Stating your feelings honestly and openly is an important step to resolving not necessarily the issue, but your own emotions about the issue. It's therapeutic to just say how you feel without keeping the emotions bottled up inside.

Acknowledge and respect
"I understand that we have different lifestyle habits and I'd like to set some guidelines that we can both follow so that I don't have to remind you more often than I would like." This is the magic step because when you make sure to acknowledge the other person in a collaborative manner, it reinforces that it's not about them, or your demands, but about both of you coming to an arrangement that benefits both of you.

Make a request
"When you have a chance, would you clean the dishes today?" After setting up the dialogue, you still need to directly express what needs to be done. This is the part that people are scared of most because if brought up by itself, it may come off as demanding -- but now that you know that there's a lot of set-up prior to making the request, it frames the request that's more palatable and diplomatic.

Then, be quiet and listen to what the other person has to say. What you've done up until now is set the tone for discussion and it's your turn to listen to them. I learned that Bob liked to soak his dishes and that he normally does them late at night. I made sure he understood the consequences of that action (wakes me up, since my space is so close to the kitchen). In the end, we had a better understanding of doing the dishes that suited both of us.

At the end of our conversation, Bob verbally acknowledged the request I was making and has been more active about making adjustments to accommodate both of us. Every now and then I'll give him a gentle reminder, but I'm no longer afraid of asking him to do it. As a result, I'm more confident about expressing my frustrations and dissatisfactions and when I do, he addresses them efficiently. I'm happier, more relaxed, and more at ease.

Here's the thing: this whole time, it hasn't only been about getting the dishes done. It was about coming to a mutual understanding with my roommate in an honest manner. It was about being comfortable enough to express myself in a way that also respected him. It was about being strong enough to own my feelings about certain situations and then saying something about it. In the end, asking for what you want is about owning your wants and needs enough to communicate them fully with someone.

Now I'd like to hear from you! What are you afraid of asking for? What's holding you from asking for what you want? Tell me in the comments below, I want to know!

Catherine Chen, Ph.D., is a Health Coach who believes that you are important, no matter what you achieve. She works with high-achievers to move past the guilt, frustration, and overwhelm that prevents you from living a life of passion, purpose, and ease. If you liked this article, sign up to get updates and tips to find your personal awesome at