Why would anyone ask for something they don’t want? Sounds a little crazy, I agree, but don’t we do it all the time?

‘I don’t want you to put your toothbrush in the toilet’ said to 3 year old daughter who complies by grabbing my toothbrush and throwing it in the toilet.

‘I don’t want you hanging around with that gang’ said to adolescent son who agrees and joins a rival gang.

‘I don’t want you to lie to me’ said to my partner who then goes silent and doesn’t tell me anything.

You get the picture?

It can be easy to fall into the trap of asking for what we don’t want because it’s usually clear what’s happening we don’t like and unclear what we want to happen instead.


There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with asking for what I don’t want, it’s just not very effective.

For every need I’m currently seeking to meet there are many, many ways of getting it met. I’ve heard some people suggest there are an infinite number of strategies to meet a particular need. Even if I don’t quite go that far I still think the number is pretty big.

Let’s say I can think of an unambitious 10 possible ways you could help meet my current need. Only asking you to stop what you’re doing is like saying something like this:

‘I can think of 10 ways you could help me meet my current need. With a bit more time and creativity we might come up with some more if we brainstormed.

Not only am I not going to ask for your suggestions, I’m not even going to tell you my own ideas – you’ll have to guess for yourself.

But what I can tell you is what you’re doing right now is not one of them.

Doesn’t seem a very effective way to get my needs met!

There are at least three reasons it’s ineffective:

1.  Heard as a demand

When I only tell you what I don’t like you’re probably going to hear it as criticism and as a demand. When that happens you either grudgingly put aside your needs and stop, or you refuse and fight back. In neither scenario do we both get our needs met.

2.  Escalation

When my focus is only on preventing you from doing something I can easily get sucked into escalation leading to violence of some kind. As Marshall Rosenberg says, when we’re clear what we want to stop, violence is a logical response. Killing someone is a guaranteed way to stop anyone doing what they’re doing.

3.   Invites more of the same

As in the opening examples, when I don’t offer an alternative it’s likely what you do next will also be something I don’t want. Asking for what I don’t want invites more of the same!

The Alternative

The alternative is to develop the skill of asking for what I do want and staying open to your needs.

Translating this into a day to day situation:

I come home and see mess around the home and I see you sitting you on the sofa with your legs up, watching a popular soap on the TV. My habitual reaction might be to tell you to stop watching TV but this gives no room for you and gives you no information about what’s going on for me.

So I might say something like:

‘When I come in and see the unwashed dishes and those clothes on the floor I feel exasperated because I need support and care. Would you turn off the TV and spend a few minutes cleaning up together?

Perhaps it’s not about the mess at all but something else:

‘I’m feeling really wound up right now. I had a stressful day at work and need warmth and connection. Would you turn off the TV and spend a few minutes talking together.’

This requires me to be clear with myself first, and with you second, about what’s going on for me.

Telling you my needs and what you could do to help me meet them is no guarantee. It does, though, increase the likelihood you’ll want to support me getting my needs met.

Of course, you’re meeting some needs of your own by doing what you’re doing so I might get a ‘No’ to my request.

That’s a topic for another day!