If you want better relationships, delete this word...expectations!

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by Cindy Petitt

Take a minute to think about a frustrating relationship you have with someone.
Your frustration probably stems from the other person not meeting your expectations, which may or may not have been shared with the person. In fact, most expectations are not explicitly communicated because the holder assumes they are self-evident—any reasonable person would hold these expectations. Therefore, too often we learn about the expectations of others and the importance of these expectations when we fail to meet them. Here (right) are some examples that may sound familiar... 

An expectation is a belief that something will happen, but it is treated as an obligation that transfers responsibility from the expectation holder to the people it is being imposed on, usually without their consent. I may expect people to show up on time, but another person’s cultural norms may treat time more casually. Without talking about our different expectations around time, frustration and conflict in our relationship will continue to grow.  

The solution is to replace expectations with agreements. If I want something from another person, it is my obligation to let them know what I want and to seek their agreement that it is reasonable and they will comply. Shifting from expectations to agreements opens the door to more engaging, fulfilling and productive relationships. With agreements you bring integrity into the relationship as well as shared understanding and ownership. It is important to point out that properly managed shared ownership does not dictate mutual agreement or dilute accountability. What shared ownership means is as I understand your situation and perspective better, I may change my expectations, and thus support a different agreement, or I may change what I do from my end to facilitate compliance with the agreement. 

According to Steve Chandler, a consultant with Fortune 100 companies, people don’t usually break their word when they make agreements that are based on a thoughtful give and take discussion. However, if the behavioral change you are seeking is significant and the agreement to change comes too easily, it may be a red flag that the person’s intentions are both positive and unrealistic.  This means there will be setbacks and these setbacks provide opportunities to explore what makes complying with the agreement so difficult. The focus of the conversation is shared learning. This looks and feels very different from a conversation that is focused on enforcement, punishment, or shaming the other person for their shortcomings.

One dilemma is our cultural expectation of instant results. Okay, I get it . . . replace expectations with agreements and all of our problems are resolved. In some cases, it will actually happen that way. For example, when a colleague came into the office early everyday, her manager immediately bombarded her with the latest crisis. She had an expectation that when she came in early, she was still on her own time. Her manager obviously had the expectation that when she walked through the door, she was on the clock. Once her manager understood how she felt and agreed that her expectation was reasonable, the problem really was resolved. In this case, it was an easy win. 

When you face situations that are not quite so easy to resolve, talk about the challenges, as well as what you will do when either person falls short. Otherwise, one of two scenarios is likely to result. Perhaps you will seethe silently and feel disillusioned, anticipating that nothing will ever change. Or, you may confront the situation in a way that is judgmental and shift all responsibility to the other person. In both of these situations, you are reacting to what is happening on the surface rather than seeking to understand what is driving the contradictory behaviors. Your actions will probably lead to abandonment of the agreement, which ultimately will erode the credibility of future agreements.

To start, why not just try saying something like, “What’s up?“ Approach the situation with compassion and curiosity. Acknowledge that you are fully aware that complying with the agreement is hard. Talk about the contradictory behaviors. What is likely to come out of this conversation is the discovery of conflicting goals or capacity issues. For example, conflicting goals around timeliness could be (a) the desire to comply with the agreement to be on time and (b) the desire to be fully present to situations that arise spontaneously. If someone comes to me just as I am leaving for an appointment, I don’t want to put the person off without first understanding what he or she needs and that makes me late. Talk about how to manage these conflicting goals. Now you are beginning to communicate at a much deeper level. You are using the violation of an agreement to continue to build understanding and shared ownership. You are strengthening the integrity of your relationship—in that you can take pride and experience joy.

Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.

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