Why being specific is important for getting what you want

Remember that scene in When Harry met Sally where Harry and Sally stop off at a diner on their roadtrip to New York?

Harry says to the waitress  "I’ll have number 3 please” and then looks on amazed as Sally explains in detail her very specific order: “…but I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice-cream on top, I want it on the side and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it - if not, then no ice-cream, just whipped cream but only if it’s real, if it’s out of a can, then nothing."

(Here's the clip in case you haven't seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnlm2e3EN78)

We laugh at that scene because Sally asks for exactly what she wants, and we see so few people do. 

Instead of knowing specifically what we we want and asking for it, we often just sit there, wishing and hoping. 

We know what we don’t want. 

We don’t want a 2 hour commute. We don’t want to be so tired or ill all the time. We don’t want so much work, such long hours. We don’t want to feel so miserable or bored with our work. 

When I ask clients to articulate what they want instead of the frustrating situation they're in, they often find it challenging. But positively knowing and asking for what we want, like Sally, means we are very much more likely to get it. 

Imagine you’re a cake maker and you have two customers. You can start making the cake right away, you have a cupboard stocked with ingredients and your apron is one. You’re ready. 

When you ask Helen what she type of cake she wants, she says ‘I don’t know’. So you ask her again and she says “I don’t want it to be horrible or ugly” And you reassure her your cakes are always tasty and very well presented. You press her and she says “I’d like it to be quite big and very tasty’. 

Conversely, when you ask Rachel, what type of cake she wants, she says “I'd like a three-tiered chocolate cake with pink buttercream icing and fresh raspberries on top”. 

Can you, as the cake-maker, feel the difference made by the Rachel's positive statement about what she want, with all the specifics?

A big obstacle for us is often that we think that what’s in front of us are our only options. Of course, if you don't make chocolate cakes, Rachel will have to go elsewhere. But as the cake maker, knowing that you cannot give her what she wants, you can say ‘No’ a lot faster and the process is much more smooth. 

We also sometimes feel as though it’s somehow rude or impolite to state our preferences. We don’t want to be seen as pushing ourselves forward. 

But stating what we like helps other people feel comfortable. Telling someone how to please you puts them at ease, because they don’t have to guess what will make you happy. If you’ve ever been on the end of a ‘polite’ ‘I don’t mind’ you know the feeling. You wonder, "Why don’t they just say what they want?" 

Why is it a challenge?

We’re afraid we’re not going to get it. We believe other people when they say we can’t have it. (We don’t have to listen to this by the way. There are plenty of people around who will affirm that you can have anything you want).

We’re afraid people will think us particular or 'fussy', with the implication that’s it’s a bad thing. We see it as 'selfish’. We’ve learned to believe ‘I want never gets’.

I spent a long time afraid to say what I wanted in case I couldn’t have it. I would say ‘Oh I don’t mind - whatever there is’ far too often, and then be jealous of someone who’d said what they wanted and got. We try and please but we dismiss our own needs in the process. 

My top tip for getting specific

One way I find helps me to be specific is to make a list with all the requirements I want. I do this BEFORE I start looking for or asking for opportunities. This stops me getting into ‘either/or’ thinking and listening to other people who say ‘It can’t be done’.

When my tenancy came up for renewal before I left for Italy, I knew I didn’t want to sign up for another 12 month contract because I wanted the freedom to be able to leave my job (and England), although I didn't exactly know when.

So I made a list of what I wanted. My non-negotiables were: a place with a contract but no agency fees, ability to pay month by month, plenty of space to work, good broadband, in my chosen area, 10 minutes walk from the tube station, with a friendly person or people, a good kitchen and within my budget.

I got the whole list plus the landlord was super flexible about everything (something I’d wanted but hadn’t actually put on the list!)

Do you know specifically what you want or is it a vague idea floating around in your head? What lists can you start making today?


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