How to Ask for What You Want

I want to tackle a basic communication issue: how to ask for what you want.

Interactions between tenants and landlords (and landlords and tenants, and co-tenants, and co-signers) are regulated by some laws, but the bulk of those communications are not about laws. Rather, they are a simple exchange between people, and sometimes they go well, and sometimes they go badly. 

Today, I'm giving you some directions to help it go well.

Do you ever have those interactions with another person, where something happens, you get irritated, and you don't say anything about it right away? And then, instead of that irritated feeling going away, it magnifies, and then you can't handle it anymore (maybe something else makes it worse while you've been holding onto your thoughts?), and then instead of calmly talking about what's going on in some productive way, you spew word-vomit vitriol? And unsurprisingly, it's not too helpful? I get a lot of practice talking to people in emotionally charged situations, so here are my suggestions to make it go better.

(I don't get any credit for coming up with this! I'm paraphrasing from these really neat folks.)

How to Ask for What you Want:

1. Observe: The first step is always to clarify what's going on. Miscommunications occur when people have a different understanding of what is happening. Making sure that you are seeing/hearing/noticing the same thing as the other person will eliminate new sources of conflict. 

  • "I see ____."
  • "I notice that ____."
  • "I hear ____."
  • "You are saying ____."
  • Repeat this step until you both have the same(ish) understanding about what's going on.

2. Say what you feel: Next, say how it makes you feel. This is the hardest part for me - you have to be a little bit vulnerable to make this work. You are making a connection in this moment, and that connection is what makes you a team, coming together and solving this problem (and hopefully, getting what you want). 

  • "I am feeling ____." List of feelings, to get you warmed up.
  • Note: "I feel that you ___" is not a feeling phrase. It is not an observation. It is a judgment, and one of the main things to avoid with this style of communication. When there is judgment, the other person becomes defensive, and defensiveness often turns into really big arguments. If you need something from someone, making them defensive does not often lead to what you want. 

3. Say what you need: A need isn't connected to a person. "I need you to do the dishes" isn't what I'm after here. Try: "I need for the kitchen to be clean," or, "I need to have access to the sink." 

  • "I need ____."
  • "I need [something] to be [different somehow]." 

4. Ask for help in meeting your need: You are on the same team. You are a group of people solving one problem. When you try to work together to resolve something, you assume the best of the this other person, and they are more likely to step up to that positive behavioral bar. When you engage in conflict in an oppositional way ("let's do it my way!" "No, my way is the only solution!"), you are less likely to get what you need.

  • "Can you help me figure out a solution?"
  • "Will you please ____?"
  • "Can we make a plan to ____?"
  • Note: Always do your best to get things in writing.


Pro tips:

  • Good listening is crucial for the other person to pay attention while you are talking. (If the other person doesn't feel heard, then they are much less likely to listen to you.) You can follow the same pattern reflected on the other person for really deep listening. For example: "You're seeing ___. You feel ___. You need ____. You are wanting help figuring out a solution to this problem."
  • Like a good wine, this post pairs well a previous post on Negotiation. Here, I've written out a structure for just the words, but "Negotiation 101" has information about setting yourself up for success in this interaction.
  • One of the goals of this style is to take the emotional combativeness out of an interaction. You want to leave the emotional connection, but take out the kinds of wording that is judgmental, or leads to defensiveness. Usually, it isn't a great idea in a tenant-landlord context to hash out past sources of conflict; it's better to focus on the problem at hand. 
  • This all works better if you talk as soon as you (calmly) can. The longer you wait, the more charged it becomes, usually.


Example 1: Roommates, where one has left dishes dirty in the sink.

  • Roommate 1: "[Roommate 2], I noticed that there are some dishes left in the sink."
  • Roommate 2: "Yes, there are."
  • Roommate 1: "And you're planning to leave town today?"
  • Roommate 2: "Yes."
  • Roommate 1: "I'm feeling tense about dirty dishes in the sink. If the dishes remain there for more than a day, we get cockroaches. I need for the sink to be free of food before tomorrow. Can you help me figure out a plan?"
  • Possible solutions: Roommate 2 does dishes, Roommate 1 does them but Roommate 2 will compensate somehow, they will only use disposable dishes in the future, they will make a schedule for cleaning the kitchen.

Example 2: Tenant is behind on rent, and needs to talk to the landlord about it.

  • Tenant: "Hi, Landlord. Do you have a minute?"
  • Landlord: "Yes."
  • Tenant: "I'm hoping to talk to you about January's rent. You may have noticed, but I haven't paid it yet."
  • Landlord: "I did notice that."
  • Tenant: "I am feeling really ashamed to say that I don't have the full rent right now. My work hours were cut back because of the holidays, so my paycheck is lower than usual. I need to figure out a way to get caught up with rent. Can you help me figure out a payment plan?"
  • Possible solutions: Tenant pays rent that he/she is able to pay, and they build a payment plan based on days that the tenant will receive future paychecks. Landlord might not be enthusiastic, or may feel that since the tenant brought the matter to his/her attention, the tenant is more likely to follow through on whatever plan they make together.

Example 3: Tenant is behind on rent, and the landlord initiates the conversation.

  • Landlord: "Hi, Tenant. Do you have a minute?"
  • Tenant: "Yes."
  • Landlord: "I'm hoping to talk to you about January's rent. I haven't received it yet, and I was hoping you could tell me what's going on with that."
  • Tenant: "I'm trying to figure it out. My wallet got stolen on the bus last night, and I won't be able to call my bank to figure out if my account still has the rent money in it until tomorrow morning, since today is Sunday."
  • Landlord: "That sounds pretty concerning. But you're taking steps to figure out if you can pay the rent?"
  • Tenant: "Yes."
  • Landlord: "I'm edgy because my mortgage payment is due in a few days. I need information pretty soon about the  rent payment, so I can know about paying the mortgage. Can we figure out a communication plan for the next couple days?"
  • Possible solutions: Tenant discovers he/she has all the rent and pays it. Tenant discovers he/she only has part of the rent, and that's enough to meet the landlord's initial needs, so they work out a payment plan for the rest. 


Please note: These are all my words, but these are not my ideas. This is a paraphrasing of Nonviolent Communication techniques. There's a lot more to learn in their books and on their website. Any mistakes here are mine.  

Also: If you are not safe, then that's a way bigger problem. You should take care of that before you worry about how to phrase things. Here's a place to start, to get yourself safe, or you can call 800-799-SAFE (7233).