I have noticed in my own life that I become upset, frustrated, and anxious when I think first and foremost about my wants. Despite having a house, being in a good marriage, and being fit from getting to do a lot of running, I am always able to see more in my life that I want (or to see things in my life that I don’t want). I have noticed that I can become fixated on these likes or dislikes to the point where I cannot appreciate what I have. I start to look at what I have accomplished and rationalize why the things I want should fall into my lap, and why I should never have to deal with the things I don’t want.
This is not a helpful nor healthy way to view the world, and especially when it comes to our relationships, this can be a harmful way of thinking. When I fixate on my own wants I forget the value of the people in my life. Others become tools, objects to be used to obtain what it is I want, or to take on the burden of things that I do not want. For a person feeling discontent, this is the exact opposite way to view relationships in order to find a sense of stillness and happiness.
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Let’s cease thinking of our accomplishments, our wants. Let’s try to figure out the other person’s good points. Then forget flattery. Give honest, sincere appreciation.”
An interesting reality about humans is that our lives become more fulfilling and meaningful when we do things for others. It is not accomplishing things, it is not gaining more material possessions, and it is not obtaining fame which makes us the most happy. It is cultivating deep relationships and finding ways to help serve others which gives us the sense of contentedness that we seek.
Carnegie’s quote captures that essence. Focusing inward on our own desires and justifying the things we want and the possessions we have based on our achievements leaves us feeling hollow, and leaves us always desiring more. It pushes us to use people as means to our selfish ends. However, if we can turn this thinking around, we can see other people as valuable in their own right, and we can develop meaningful relationships with them. We can appreciate people for the things they do and find ways to be helpful to them, and this mindset will ultimately make us more fulfilled than a mindset focused on getting purely what we want out of life.
Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.
This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.
We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.
First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”
When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).