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Mastering the Fine Art of Hinting

Susan Dunn, MA -- Does being direct and not hinting insure you'll get what you want? No. But neither does being indirect and hinting, and the chances are higher if you're direct. And being clear about what you want is a lot better for your sense of personal power.

Currently circulating the Internet is "Man's Rules". The sender requests you send it on to all females, so that women will "finally understand men." It's a list of things men want women to understand, and like all humor, it makes a point. Then again to men it might not be so humorous.

And here we go on communication...

Point number 6 is: "Ask for what you want. Let us be perfectly clear on this one. Subtle hints do not work! Strong hints do not work! Obvious hints do not work! Hints DO NOT WORK!"

So I could end the article here, except this isn't about male and female communication, it's about hints. It's about communication:

-- Communication is much harder than it appears to be. Assume you're being misunderstood, and also assume you are misunderstanding are two good basic assumptions to make.

-- The more you care about the person and the relationship the harder it is to be direct, because the stakes of the turndown are higher.

-- Men aren't the only sex that doesn't get "hints."

-- Hints DO NOT WORK.

Now let me elaborate.

Hard & Harder

We need to get something straight from the beginning. All the coaching, all the psychology, all the Charm School, all the Emotional Intelligence, all the seminars, lessons and eBooks in the world will not get you what you want all the time.

That's a sad fact of life. So the more you want it, and the more you want it from a certain person, the more the risk.

There are many situations where we feel we MUST have something. A compliment, a reassurance, or a word of comfort from our partner. A project deadline met at work. A contract signed. A larger part of the pie. For our child to wear the pink dress instead of the dirty blue jeans. A date. A marriage.

Never is it guaranteed. The more vague and "hinty" you are about it, the less likely you are to get it, however. Here's one reason why. If the person has it to give, and wants to give it, they'll give it. If not, they won't. Any "vagueness" leaves you in that territory where they can pretend to give you something you pretend you want. And ah, the resentment.

It's easier in the long run. Take your "nos" upfront and move on. Either into a more convincing argument or on to another source, or downgrade the "need" to a "preference."

Men & Hints

I don't see this as particular to the male of the species. It can exist between the sexes, that's for sure, but I'm afraid to break the news that I think it happens between all people.

I've had male bosses tell me things that were completely incomprehensible to me. They might as well have been "hints" for all the sense they made. I consider "Produce a pleading", when I don't know what "pleading" is, to be "hint."

Just because women are traditionally ahead in empathy and in the area of personal relationships, we consider asking for nurturing or comfort to be hints, but it doesn't remain just with females.

I think men ask also "hint" for things. They ask for something else when they don't know how to ask for what they want, or what it's called, and in that sense, it's a "hint."

Take kids for instance -- always a safer topic, right? When your three-year old scoops his plate off the table and on to the floor he's "hinting" that he doesn't like something. I almost wrote "doesn't like what's being served," but it could be anything with a three year old, and that's the trouble with "hints." Maybe it wasn't the carrots, but the plate or his little sister.

When your partner complains about the way the house looks, or the way the dinner tastes, it may be a "hint" that he'd like more affection. Ya know?

When you tell your administrative assistant, "Go run this off and collate it for me," you are "hinting." There are two ways to collate. (Yes, there are. Did you know that? See how hard it is?) And what happens after that?

My doctor told me the other day, "Take this PRN." That's a hint. What does "PRN" mean?

Does being direct and not hinting insure you'll get what you want? No. But neither does being indirect and hinting, and the chances are higher if you're direct. And being clear about what you want is a lot better for your sense of personal power.

Come on and hawk it up like a hairball. You've probably discovered in intimate relationship communication by now, you're a lot better off to go ahead and say it. If you don't because you fear it will harm the relationship, it might. But not saying something that important will definitely harm the relationship. Somewhere down the line not saying "Don't kiss me like that, kiss me like this," becomes "I want a divorce." Who ever meant for it to go that far?

Clear up your communication as best you can, and work on your tone of voice. We're all in this together!

Tone of Voice

Sometimes people think being "direct" means being loud, demanding, or forceful. Maybe you think it should be accompanied by pointing fingers and pounding fists.

Not at all! It often works well to soften your voice when you're preparing to be direct. After all when we hear something loud and threatening (always a personal perception and personal threshold), we're geared to fight or flight and we don't receive or process information well.

Don't know about you, but I tend to stumble into all my greatest learning experiences. I remember the first time I got a sore throat when I had a child in the house and couldn't talk above a whisper. He did everything I asked, like a little lamb. I’ve also tried it at work. I find I have exceptionally peaceful days when I have a cold and can't talk loud. Hmmm.

Hints Don't Work

It is the hardest thing in the world to come out and say what you want, clearly and distinctly, in a way that can be answered "yes" or "no." It's particularly important when it matters most -- when it's emotional, and involves someone you love.

Asking for something you want emotionally puts you in a vulnerable position. It's high-risk. If the answer is "no," all hope has been removed. However, it defines you as a person with choices who makes demands and has boundaries. It frees you to go and get what you want elsewhere, or to redefine what you want. It gives you knowledge and information. It takes you out of the fantasy world of wishing and hoping, and puts you clearly on the path to being an agent in your own life and getting what you want that can be gotten!


Susan Dunn, M.A., Psychology, is an Emotional Intelligence Coach. Visit her site at for coaching, Internet courses, and ebooks on emotional intelligence for career, relationships, transitions, resilience, personal, and professional development. To receive a free ezine, contact her at:

© 2007 Susan Dunn, M.A.

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