“What do you want?” is not a trick question

I wasn’t a straight A student (I totally flunked art) but I did pretty well, by which I mean to say that I have always liked being asked questions and getting answers right. Honestly, I’ve realised that my favourite phrase to hear, coming from my husband’s mouth, is: “You’re right.” (It’s rare.)

But there’s one question, no matter who is asking it, that has stumped me for as long as I can remember.

“What do you want?”

I’m like: is this a trick question? What do you mean, what do I want? What do you want? What do you want me to want? What’s okay to want? What’s within the acceptable framework of wantable? If I tell you what I want, are you going to eat it in front of me and not share? 

But more than being suspicious of the question, I’m just stumped by it.

I am not sure what I want. I don’t really know. I want world peace. I want us to solve the climate crisis. I’d really like to spend time with some friends again. I want my people to feel safe and happy. Me, personally? What do I want? Hmmm. Let me get back to you.

Recently, it’s come to my attention that it’s pretty important to know the answer to this one, in part, so you can parent well and partner better.

In the Strengthening Families workshop series, that’s currently being offered for free to Pemberton-area families, through the Sea to Sky Community Services Society, the facilitators are sharing tips on how to elicit the kind of behaviour you want to see in your kids.

First, you check that your request is age and developmentally appropriate – so your expectations don’t wildly wound them, for being so unrealistic or so patronizing. Then, you say, clearly and positively, “I want you to hang up your towel to dry after your shower. I want you to clear your plate away after dinner. I want you to try at least three bites of the meal I make for you, before saying you don’t like it.”

It’s challenging to reframe our asks, from the negative, to the positive, because often, the offending behaviour has become such a trigger that all we can see is the thing that irritates us (mouldering pile of wet towels on floor, dishes left everywhere awaiting some magical house elf, scrunch-faced refusal to eat anything that isn’t pasta doused in nutritional yeast and butter…) It’s like those optical illusion puzzles that contain a beautiful young woman and a crone, depending on how you focus… sometimes, for the life of you, you just can’t see anything but the pile of mouldering towels, and it’s impossible to reframe that vision to what you really want, which is towels hanging like flags announcing “we are drying out now!” from the towel bar.

Esther Perel, the guru of relationship intimacy, has also said this skill, of speaking what you want, is crucial to the health of intimate relationships. 

“How should people fight, when they cannot physically separate?” asked The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme of Perel, from the captivity of lockdown with her significant other, two months into the pandemic.

Perel is a psychotherapist, author of Mating in Captivity, and host of the podcast Where Should We Begin. She told Syme, “I think that couples, by definition, go through harmony, disharmony, and repair. This is a dance that we do no matter what. By definition, we fight. What matters is how you fight.”

The disharmony isn’t a failure.

Which is good to know, to normalize.

How do you navigate through it then – be you intimate or just housemates? Perel says: stay focussed on the task. “When you want to talk about the dishes, don’t end up talking about five different things, two of which are years old. Don’t “kitchen sink” it. Keep yourself to the one thing that you’re upset about at this moment.”

Also, says Perel, “make a request and not just a protest.”

If you need to get something out of your system, call your friends. Vent as much as you want. But go back to your partner and be strategic. “Because you don’t just want to get it out of your system. You actually want a change.”

If you’re conscious of the fact that your friends are taxed enough right now to not have capacity to hold space for your venting, pout the vent into a journal (burn it afterwards if it makes you feel better.) A circle of trees or a flowing river, I have found, also have excellent capacity for receiving outbursts of emotion with a kind of steadfast judgment-free witnessing.

Apart from loving just how fantastic and BS-free Perel is, I was really impacted by this: Make a request, not a protest.

Which brings me back to my perennially unresolved question. What do I want? 

I don’t know. Usually I know what I don’t want, when I see it, and I can react to that. (The socks! For the love of God, why is there a pair of socks dangling on the back of the armchair? Or on the kitchen counter?) For the record, this is incredibly unhelpful. Working in creative situations and agencies, this unhelpful feedback happens a lot. The client doesn’t really know what they want. The designers try and telepathically intuit it, and then the client is able to clarify what they want a tiny bit more, because they have something to react to, and they mostly provide a kind of negative guidance – not that, not that, not that… endless course corections which become increasingly disheartening for the designer, who poured their best creative energy in to the first round. 

I still don’t know the answer to the question. But I have an image in my head, of a person who knows what she wants. She’s not a tyrant. She’s not a petulant child. She stands in mountain pose, grounded and dignified and gracious, and the air around her seems clearer, for her own sense of clarity. And the people who love her feel at ease, because they know how to show her love, and they know it’s safe for them to ask for what they want to. So I guess I can start there. With that image in my head. I want that.

It’s a beginning.

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