The New Year is a time that many people make resolutions to improve their lives. It is also a time when people experience sadness and regret over what wasn’t accomplished or even started in the past year. “What did you expect?” is the simple question that connects the optimism of improvement and the pessimism of procrastination. Expectations are baked into everything we think and do, which is why they are often unexamined.
Expectations can include wishes, beliefs, motivations, aversions, etc. anything that shapes your worldview. A worldview is literally “how you look at the world” and is the silo where your expectations are stored. Expectations can be looked at as what we need from ourselves and others (our world) to be productive and feel satisfied. It makes sense that unexamined expectations are often the source of our disappointments.
Self-understanding is critical to identifying and managing expectations. In my coaching practice I use a self-assessment tool, the Birkman Method™ that is like a personal GPS for understanding expectations. Through working with the Birkman Method for more than 20 years, I have identified several common reasons why expectations can get in the way of satisfying relationships and a greater sense of achievement. Here are two that you might recognize:
Your expectations are contradictory. You and others are unable to predict what you want because your expectations are contradictory, like the two-headed llama, “Push me - Pull you”, in the Dr. Doolittle movies, whose heads faced in opposite directions.
One client got very annoyed if asked how she was feeling. She thought that her feelings were none of anyone’s business. She felt it was her prerogative to share how she was feeling and she disliked being asked that question. And yet this same person was often disappointed when others didn’t acknowledge the difficult or celebratory events in her life.
In her Birkman report this contradiction showed up clearly – two fundamental expectations were at odds. She never connected that her being very selective about confiding her inner feelings would get in the way of her expectation that significant others would give her genuine praise or gentle criticism.
The Ah-ha moment about her contradictory expectations resulted in her being less defensive and more open about sharing feelings. She understood that in order for others to get her, she needed to share more about herself.
You believe that you should not have to tell people what you feel is obvious. The more intense our expectation, the greater our inner certainty that “it’s obvious.” Even very logical people make the assumption that others are psychic and should just know.
Feelings of certainty were central to one of my client’s sense of himself. He was a man who would withdraw or become verbally aggressive when others did not agree with him. He felt that others were being intentionally “stupid” about something that was easily understood.
He expected others (at least those he considered the smart ones) to think just as he did. The Birkman Report helped him see that he was a very unusual thinker who could take a problem apart, look at individual parts, and then reassemble those parts into a viable solution. We used to joke about him noticing when “everyone in a meeting went stupid” and how that was actually a signal that he needed to provide others with a roadmap on how he reached his conclusion and then invite others to ask clarifying questions.
Learning to interpret the old feelings of annoyance as a call to action, rather than more evidence of others’ “stupidity”, opened many doors for my extremely smart-but-isolated client. He began to appreciate his unique problem-solving talents and his colleagues began to look forward to hearing his one-of-a-kind point of view.
Try This At Home (or Work)
I find people with an “it will get done, don’t worry” attitude very challenging because of my high standards around planning and being organized. My worldview is “leave no mess behind.” A favorite strategy for managing the gap between my expectations and what others can realistically provide is to remind myself to breathe deeply. The act of intentionally breathing in and then out usually distracts me from getting stuck in feelings of annoyance or frustration, delivers extra oxygen to my brain, and gives me a minute to think about what I can do differently to accomplish my goal.
The self-coaching strategy that follows has helped me learn to see my expectations as strong preferences, rather than as requirements. I ask myself a few targeted questions, then answer them out loud or in writing. Below are steps to help you identify and then follow your own good advice:
Recognize and understand your expectations.
Expectations need to be vetted. Ask yourself, “What are my expectations about this situation?” Once you answer, then decide if your have conflicting expectations that require a choice to be made or unrealistic ones that need a rewrite.
Example of an unrealistic expectation: “I want to be the expert and know everything.” Rewritten expectation: “I want to find out what I need to know to get the job done.”
Example of conflicting expectations: “I want to get the proposal in on time and meet the deadline. “vs. “I don’t want to be rushed.”
Identify the hurdles and helps to your expectations being met.
Example of a hurdle: Harsh self-criticism when mistakes are made that sinks your energy and initiative.
Example of a help: Exploring rather than escaping after making a mistake. Figuring out what you would do differently.
Regularly communicate your expectations to others in a positive way.
Tone can be even more important than the words you use when speaking. When texting or emailing, tone is conveyed by using neutral phrases that won’t trigger defensive reactions.
Example: “Thank you for the update,” is a quick, neutral response that acknowledges you have received the email, and gives you time to think before sending a more in-depth response.
Negotiate realistically with others in terms of what they can give and what you can accept.
Example: “Let’s agree on a specific time for you to send the report for my review. I would like to receive it before 4:00 PM. What do you think?”
Don’t take it just personally when your expectations are not met. Most of us have a tendency to feel disappointed, frustrated, or annoyed around unmet expectations. Learning to interpret those feelings as signals that you’re taking things just personally, allows you to be curious and ask yourself “What would I see if I was an objective outside observer?”
A quote from the French author Anais Nin summarizes the self-knowledge needed to understand expectations: “We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”
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