Asking for What You Want, Part 2: On Being Unreasonably “Reasonable”

In which our hero spills a little more tea about how asking for what he wants can be difficult, and what happened when things got dirty. (Like, muddy-dirty. Not dirty-dirty.)

I’m currently spending a boatload of money for much-needed home repairs, including foundation and drainage work.  Part of that has involved making holes (covered by screens) on the front of my house, near the ground, to create cross-ventilation in the crawlspace.

However, when the crew busted through the wall to make the holes, they inadvertently created three new channels for water to move under my house during a heavy rain, which in Louisiana happens approximately every 15 minutes.  Since I hired them to help with drainage issues, creating a brand new drainage issue that had to be mitigated seemed counter-productive.

Because I am a determined and crafty DIY problem-solver (another trait I inherited from my parents), I was able to construct a solution with some garden edging and a pile of dirt that I relocated from under the house.  I was actually kinda proud of it. Still, I realized that (1) it was by nature a temporary fix, and (2) I had just paid a lot of money for this new ongoing maintenance project.

What I really wanted was for the contractor to create a lasting solution by replacing the breached concrete barrier with a new one. So I decided to ask for it. And as soon as I made that decision, I was aware of two things:  it made a lot of sense, and I was totally anxious about the request. Therefore, I asked myself, “Self, what’s up with that?”

Turns out, it was pinging a lot of My Stuff.  Being “reasonable” for me has always been a categorical imperative.  Typically, it has meant discounting my own desires and leaning as far over the line as I can to make things easier for the other person.  (Note: This point notwithstanding, under the appropriate circumstances I can also be a selfish jerkwad.)

The crew had done a lot of things right and I was extremely pleased with certain elements of their work. We were getting along. They had removed their equipment and were on the easy glide path toward project wrap-up.  To me, this request felt like a late-surfacing turd in the punchbowl of our farewell party.

Plus, it was reverberating with an old wound around not belonging. Maybe they wouldn’t like me anymore. I would not be part of the Good Guy club. Perhaps there was even some intimidation because they reminded me of the guys who, at an earlier age, would have picked on me in school.

And it was jangling my anxiety about getting it wrong.  That maybe this was a request that any reasonable person would understand was Just Too Much.  After all, there’s some weird stuff about how that front wall is constructed. I might have made the holes the same way they did.  Dammit, where was that manual on How to Do It Right?!? Plus, my well-worn Catholic synapses were in full-on flagellation mode: don’t be selfish, don’t put someone else out, just figure it out on your own.

In spite of all that resistance—and maybe because of it—I knew I had to bring it up whenever the crew returned later in the week to close out some last tasks.  Along with yet another emerging issue that would require them to suit up and slide back under my house on a humid Louisiana day and move some mud around. So, I put a note in the To Do list of my planner: “Practice asking.” And that ink was not even dry before the crew unexpectedly pulled up in front of my house. It was Go Time.

In my nicest and most imperfect way, I stated to the crew what I wanted.  I followed it up with a pleasant email to the business manager, acknowledging what had gone well, and noting these other issues that needed to be addressed.  No MAD AS HELLness. I phrased it as a joint problem we needed to solve, and enlisted their aid.

And here’s what happened: That day they slithered into the mud under my house and fixed the one issue.  And they returned the next day with a sack of concrete and wood forms and poured perfect new sills—better than the originals, to be honest.  Each task took them maybe 45 minutes.

As I said, I have always put a premium on trying to get along, on being the reasonable guy. I think that was encoded early.  I wanted this to be a successful project for all of us. I wanted them to feel good about their work, and I wanted to feel good about it, too. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to facilitate successful outcomes in this way, with doing my part to ensure that things go well for everyone.

But I can’t sell myself short. In order for it truly to go well for everyone, it has to go well for *me* too.  So this is my takeaway: If my working model of what is “reasonable” leaves me out of the equation, it’s actually kind of unreasonable.