Establishing Clear Expectations

I would venture to say that a primary root cause of two people finding themselves on different pages, generally “at odds” with each other, can be directly attributed to poor expectation setting. We see and experience this phenomenon in all aspects of our lives:

  • Leaders out of sync with their staff
  • Co-workers out of sync with their fellow team members
  • Service providers out of sync with their customer 
  • Spouses and partners out of sync with their significant others
  • Friends out of sync with their besties

…and the list goes on and on. Each of us brings our own unique set of experiences, knowledge, skills, perspectives, definitions, expectations, and baggage (yes, even baggage) to each human-to-human interaction. As we engage with each other, we oftentimes and mistakenly presume that the other party should:

  • Share our exact same perspective;
  • Act in the exact same manner as we would act; and
  • Be able to mind read to know exactly what we’re thinking, feeling, and expecting at any given point in time.

When the other party surprises us with offering us a different viewpoint, reacting in an unforeseen manner, or presenting us with a different outcome than what we had anticipated, we can experience a myriad of emotions, including frustration, anger, and hurt. When these emotions get the best of us, it’s not a stretch for us to react destructively rather than constructively by saying and doing things that either intentionally or unintentionally provoke the other person. 

When these situations escalate, as they oftentimes do, we then excel at telling the other person how wrong they are and how right we are. From there, it doesn’t take much to compromise the relationship as we whittle away at trust — the trust we have in others and the trust they have in us. Establishing clear, upfront expectations can easily prevent most of these scenarios. So how do you do that?

Establishing clear expectations requires the following:

  • Never assume that the other person’s mind reads or sees the world as you see it.
  • Specifically and unemotionally state what you need or want and why it’s important to you.
  • Be respectful in your interactions. Never say or do anything to cause the other person harm. 
  • Actively listen to the other person’s point of view. Be open-minded to the other person’s perspective and willing to negotiate if and as warranted.
  • Check to be sure that your expectations of the other person and his/her expectations of you are fully understood.

Before going further, it’s important to note that this article does not refer to extreme situations such as fundamental differences in our belief systems where we must accept and embrace diversity. This is about normal day-to-day interactions where Party A expects “X,” and Party B falls short (according to Party A’s standards). 

Usually, as Party A, we fall by failing to provide specifics to Party B — and when I say “specifics,” I mean “specifics.” It’s not enough to speak in generalities — I need you to communicate better… I need you to be respectful… I need you to collaborate with others… I need you to understand me… I need you to be there for me… I need you to follow through as you committed… I need you to <fill in the blank.>. 

In each of the above-mentioned cases… communication, respect, collaboration, understanding, being there, following through… the “I needs” are vague and can mean different things to different people depending upon our life and work experiences. In the first example, “I need you to communicate better,” specificity could look like the following:

  •  If I ask you to do “X” by “Y” date and you can’t fit “X” into your schedule, let me know so we can talk about it ASAP versus you agreeing to do “X” then not following through. It’s important to our relationship that we keep our commitments to each other.
  •  When you give me an assignment, please let me know what due date you have in mind so I can think through it and let you know if the date is feasible or not based on everything else that is on my plate. That way, you won’t surprise me, and I won’t surprise you.
  •  If you tell me that you’re going to do “A”, then you decide to do “B”, let me know ASAP so we can discuss it. I want to be on the same page as you.
  • Tell your team members what your plans are so they can evaluate how your approach will impact their work. It’s important that we effectively communicate with each other, so everyone knows what’s going on at all times. 
  • As soon as you learn new information, please share it with your team members, so we’re all operating with the same information. This way, we will all be successful. 
  • I need you to tell me what your plans are so I can then plan accordingly. That way, we’re both optimizing our time.
  • I need you to hear and absorb what I’m saying, so when we converse, please engage in eye contact with me plus provide me with feedback. That way, I know that my message is being heard and considered.

Being specific requires practice since many of us are wired to speak in generalities. Plus, we’re much better at (unfortunately) telling others what we don’t want vs. what we do want. As you deliver the specifics, do so in a tone of voice, word choice, and body language that is polite, respectful, calm, and matter-of-fact vs. highly charged and emotional. 

How you deliver the message is just as important as the message itself. And remember, once you share your message, actively listen to the other person, be open-minded and willing to negotiate, and check to be sure that your expectations of the other person and his/her expectations of you are fully understood. 

Establishing clear expectations is a two-way street — it’s a partnership — not a dictatorship.

Sarah Richardson

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