We sat in the driveway, my business partner and I, each peering out our opposite windows, each wrapped in the disappointing sense that we had failed one another while the uncaring car simply idled in the background. “We agreed on this,” my partner said, without turning her face toward me. “No, you told me how we were going to do this, and I said nothing” was my response as I also turned toward my own window. Somehow, she thought my silence meant I agreed. Somehow, I thought my silence would indicate I did not agree. Just as the view was different for each of us through our opposing windows, we had an entirely different and singular understanding of what we had agreed on. The spoken and unspoken expectations we had of one another had dragged us unwittingly toward this predictable moment of upset and disappointment.
We carry all kinds of expectations into our days – expectations about relationships, performance, quality, purchases, who takes the trash out – nearly anything we encounter in the details of our personal and professional lives. What makes expectations challenging is that they are unilateral, often unexplored, and are frequently made known in either vague or authoritative ways – or both. Most people resent expectations, although they may try in earnest to meet them. On the other hand, most people like to keep agreements that are co-authored – to have the chance to agree to what you can count on from them.
Take a seat in any break room, boardroom, meeting room, or bedroom, and you are sure to hear complaints, the drone of disappointment, and the bitterness of having been let down. You can hear the utter disbelief that the world didn’t come through for you or me (or Bobby McGee) in the way that it was supposed to, the way that it should have – the way that it would have if anyone cared enough! We might hear something like “he really let me down” or “she should have known better” or “I can’t count on anyone but myself” or, perhaps most poignant “If he really loved me, he’d know without asking.” When that is the conversation, we are living in the realm of unmet spoken or unspoken expectations.
And when we operate in the realm of expectations – when we engage in our relationships expecting that people will behave the way we want them to, want exactly what we want, understand how we see the world – we set the stage for one of two outcomes. We will either feel disappointed, or we will feel nothing at all! If others fail to meet our expectations, we will feel upset and disappointed. If others actually meet our expectations, we may not feel any excitement at all because that is simply, without celebration, what we expected. It is, at the finish, the very least they can do!
Disappointment can sink you like a stone, and yet, with a simple rearrangement in our thinking, disappointment can be significantly minimized if not eliminated.
What if our complaints could be turned into requests? When we first notice we are disappointed and hosting a complaint, we can choose to ask ourselves if we have a request of that person. Is there something inside the complaint itself that assists us in recognizing what it is that we want or need to bring about success and dissipate the potential for disappointment? What if we simply, then, made that request?
Of course, making a request does not assure an agreement will be established. It does open the possibility of co-authoring a strong, solid agreement that reflects everyone’s voice. Making a request is bold, and courageous, and an act of integrity. It is the first step in negotiating an agreement that brings all the invisible barriers and potential to the table.
But what if a request is made, and the answer to the question “can you agree to this” is no? That’s when we can ask questions that can point us toward agreement:
- What are you willing to do, if it isn’t this?
- Here’s what you can count on from me. What can I count on from you?
- What would you need from me (and/or the organization) to support you in an agreement like this?
- What do you think we would need to do to make this even better?
- What might get in the way of us keeping this agreement with each other?
We can use our imagination and perception to create an authentic agreement that can be honored by everyone because it was formed by everyone.
Before closing the deal, check on the strength of the agreement. People may mumble that they agree when, in fact, there is still something standing in the way of their being “all in.” If the phrase “I’ll try” shows up anywhere in the conversation, there is no real agreement. Trying suggests that there is doubt, disagreement with the overall direction, and a remnant of unwillingness that puts the agreement at risk of being broken.
Of course, there are still times when even an agreement that seems strong is broken. This is the time to review the agreement in slow motion:
- What was the actual response to the request?
- What exactly did they say they were going to do? Was it the same thing you were asking for?
- Was it a strong agreement with specifics?
- Is there something that was a little loose and left hanging?
Expectations are hard on the human heart and mind and allow us to shift blame to anyone else but ourselves. Agreements offer us the opportunity to co-author the path by which we move life along in more effective and generous ways and enhance our self-esteem by the simple act of taking personal responsibility for our yes’s and no’s. Agreements tap into the creative process, honor the relationships we have at work and at home, rescue us from the disappointment of failed expectations, and save the time often spent in places like an idling car on a gray winter day staring out the window wondering what went wrong.
Carla J. Rotering is a pulmonary and critical care physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com