The Trouble When No One Knows What You Want

I think I’ve found one way that Carnegie’s advice is a poor fit for everyday life. It takes us back to principle 3: arouse in the person an eager want. We’ve discussed this principle in terms of focusing on what the other person wants and finding ways to give that to them.

The Backstreet Boys never hesitated letting someone know what they want.

In some cases, this makes a lot of sense. Our two younger contributors noted areas where they focused on what their parents and teachers wanted and were able to find ways for everyone (themselves included) got what they wanted. And Lyn noted how asking others what they wanted changed the nature of some conversations and led to more positive feelings all around.

But recently, I ran into a circumstance where this principle didn’t work. Here’s what happened.

I run a research presentation group on campus (called a “brownbag”) that focuses on childhood adversity. At the last meeting, I met someone who works on campus, not in research but in student support. He described some of the innovative work he was doing around screening students for adversity experiences. To get to know him more and think about ways we could work together, I arranged a meeting with him, another professor, and me.

I started the meeting following Carnegie’s principles: I asked him what he wanted from this particular meeting. He answered as I expected he would: trying to make connections, gain more knowledge, etc. Our meeting continued, with good discussion and lots of learning.

But at the end of the meeting, when it came time to discuss next steps, there was a bit of a hiccup. The professor who came to the meeting does research with younger kids, so his tenure case wouldn’t be enhanced by working on research with college students. And for me, because all my salary comes from grants, I can’t spend much time on projects that are outside of where my funding comes from. In other words, unless this person had money to hand out or apply for, we weren’t going to be able to work together. It didn’t mean the meeting was a waste, but I think it came as a bit of a surprise.

I felt like Jerry McGuire at the end of our meeting, and not in a good way.

This is where Carnegie falls short. In a sales context, which is where his principles come from (even as they apply to broader life), everyone knows what you, the salesperson, wants. Carnegie thus suggests that you stop focusing on what you want (to close the sale) and instead focus on what the other person wants (a solution to a problem).

In a non-sales context, sometimes it may not be clear to the other person why you are meeting with them. And if they don’t ask YOU what YOU want (after answering the same question from you), then they may be ignorant that you have wants too, wants they may not be able to deliver.

I don’t want to suggest that money coming up at the end was a complete surprise or somehow offensive to this person. But I do wish I had had an opportunity to say what I wanted from the meeting upfront, rather than having it come up at the end.

Is this book about Carnegie’s third principle in the cases where the other person doesn’t know what you want but should?

What’s the solution to this problem? Is there a way to bring up what I want in a context like this? Or should I have not stated at all what I wanted until… well, until when? Is this a place where Carnegie is short-sighted?