How much conflict arises simply because we all bring different expectations to life’s many situations? Expectations are comprised of our desires and assumptions that a given behavior, goal, communication, etc. will be accomplished in a certain way and within a given timeframe. Expectations usually include implicit rules about what needs to be done and how it’s done.
Most expectations we have for others are unspoken. We don’t tell our spouse that doing the dinner dishes means doing them right after dinner instead of the next morning. We don’t mention to our coworkers that we assume they will get back to us when they have made the client contacts we agreed upon. We aren’t clear with our kids that cleaning their rooms means more than stuffing everything under the bed. It’s not that we forget to mention these particulars; it’s just that we assume they would know – after all, it’s what we expect!
Expectations generally lurk within those things we think “should” happen. Often, “shoulds” imply an “if”, followed by a goal. For example, “You should finish the dishes right after the meal, if you don’t want the food to dry on them.” Or, “If you want to be on the top sales team next week, you should make the client calls this morning.” In common practice, though, the “if” and its related goal are assumed to be understood, leaving “You should finish the dishes this evening.” and “You should make the client calls this morning.”
And therein lies the problem.
When we assume a goal is mutually understood, without clarifying and coming to agreement on it, we run into difficulties. Using the examples above, we might feel safe in assuming that the person washing the dishes surely would prefer to rinse fresh food off now, rather than having to scrub them tomorrow, since that would be our own preference. But maybe they don’t mind the extra work of scrubbing in the morning, preferring instead to unwind now in front of the TV. The same with co-workers – maybe they care less about being on the top sales team than about having a reasonable amount of work to get done in a morning.
When you find yourself bickering with others over what should or should not be done, take a minute to clarify your assumptions: Experiment with adding the “if” and its related goal to the beginning or end of the should phrase. For coworkers, “You should call your contacts this morning” just sounds bossy; but adding the goal clarifies things: “If we’re going to have that information for discussion at the meeting this afternoon, you should call your contacts this morning.” Then you can decide together if the goal of bringing the information to the meeting is important enough to trump whatever other tasks might be on their list.
Birthdays, anniversaries, and particularly the upcoming holidays, can give rise to situations in which expectations cause conflict. We carry very specific ideas in our minds about how these occasions should look and there’s the added burden here of not wanting to have to tell others what we want – if they care, shouldn’t they just know? Well, not necessarily, though they may guess right sometimes. If expressing your holiday expectations would ruin them, try sharing them several months in advance. Then they know and you can more fully enjoy the dates when they come around.
There’s nothing wrong with having expectations, we just can’t expect people to know what they are. While it’s not possible to avoid all unspoken or unrealistic expectations, we should be on the lookout for the ways our unexplored assumptions create conflict in our lives, if we want to get along better with others.