Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Expectations - Reducing Miscommunications

After Grubbs’ note about what women and men want, and after a long pondering of life, and relationships and the price of eggs in China I have come up with this thought:

90% of all of our relationship confusion, whether romantic or familial or professional, is a matter of unmet expectations. Either others do not meet our expectations, or we fail to meet the expectations of others. Professionally we can fail to ask the right questions about others’ expectations. Maybe we didn’t know what questions to ask? Perhaps we simply were too passive, tired or lazy to find out. Often we do not take the time to tell others what we expect of them, and when they fail to live up to the standard we have mentally but silently assigned we find our work experience to be frustrating and dissatisfying.

Undoubtedly, family can start, reinforce or structure our communication on both sides of an expectation. On occasions I have experienced expectations that were impossible for me to attain. I have often assumed expectations that did not exist. I have also had expectations of others that were not communicated or otherwise unrealistic. Sadly, unmet expectations have lead to arguments, hurtful words, alienation and emotional scarring.

By our late 20’s and 30’s we have grown accustomed to the pains of unmet expectations, particularly from those with whom we are most familiar. Most of us have been working over a decade. We have had horribly embarrassing situations where we did not meet the expectations of our employers. We are still working. We have learned to cope (healthily or not) with our families, our supervisors and our peers. We tend to nurture friendships that meet our expectations. We tend to avoid people whose expectations we do not meet.

New romantic relationships are the trump card. Even the possibility of new romantic relationships makes everything blurry. When you meet someone for the first time you have no idea what expectations they have of you, and you are just forming your expectations of them. Often you don’t even know you have expectations until you realize that your expectations are not being met. Because of the emotional power of romantic relationships and because of the emphasis society puts on sex (which seems to be a chicken/egg scenario), even the possibility of expectations being unmet seems to paralyze and dominate our actions. The simple word for this fear is rejection.

How do we change this discouraging scenario? How do we minimize misunderstanding and promote confidence and security in our relationships? How do we become satisfied employees and caring relatives? My answer: communicate expectations clearly! This is not simple. This will not happen by just thinking happy, cherry-pink, fluffy thoughts. Intention and practice will have to be applied consistently and honestly; an extra portion of kindness will have to be incorporated as well. But consider, once an expectation is clearly stated the listener has clear options.

The first is to unreservedly try to meet the expectation. For example, a friend calls after a horrible day at work. She states clearly at the beginning of the conversation that she just needs to vent. At that point I understand that my role is to listen not to criticize, repair or reconstruct the situation. I can decide at that moment to suspend all other emotional reactions and focus on receiving the information without considering what my next sentence needs to be. Alternately, when expectations are clearly stated from the beginning we have the opportunity to express our inability to meet those expectations or perhaps our lack of desire to fulfill them. If a telemarketer calls my house and tells me as soon as I get on the phone that they are trying to raise money for XYZ organization I know immediately whether I want to continue the dialogue. I usually try to courteously disengage. Sometimes we need to be able to do that with our relationships.

There are limitless examples of the complications of unclear expectations between the sexes. A man buys a woman a drink. She feels attractive. He feels empowered. She feels adored. He is thinking sex. She is thinking relationship. This is a hyperbole but makes the point. Among Christian singles a parallel situation exists. A guy is hanging out with a girl. He is thinking, “she is keeping me entertained until the real thing comes along” and she is thinking, “finally, this guy might be ‘the One’.” How can such a situation end anyway but badly?

So, here is my suggestion – practice stating (with kindness and humility) your expectations whenever possible. State clearly how the other person can meet your expectations or state what your expectations of yourself are in a way that allows other people to protect themselves’. Instead of passively-aggressively hinting at what you want, tell the other person. For example, “I hope I am not alone on my birthday” is less clear than, “Would you have dinner with me on my birthday.”

To all the men: please do not ask what a girl is doing tomorrow/next Friday/this weekend if you are just trying to waste conversational space. She interprets this as “he is interested because he wants to spend time with me.” When she tells you and you say, “That sounds like fun. I am going to the movies with my girlfriend” you have just rejected her by raising her expectations and then not following though. Strange, I know, but true. And that begs the question why you asked her such a thing in the first place. Why does it matter what she is doing with her time if you are not interested in spending more time with her? Think about your expectations before you raise hers.

Conversely, girls, don’t flirt just to have your egos stroked and then make up nonsensical excuses when he asks to see you again. You have created an expectation that you are incapable of following through on. This is not kind; it is manipulative and leads to passivity. If you are interested in him, and he asks you out then respond with graciousness. If you are not interested then say something considerate and edifying, but don’t lead him on.

Wives, clarify for your husbands what you expect out of the 32-minute detailed narrative that meets them when they walk in the door of the house after they have worked all day. Do you need help? Do you just need him to listen? What is his role and how can he fulfill it. When he has satisfied your expectation, thank him! Don’t expect him to read your mind – he cannot.

Men, don’t expect your girl friends (romantic or platonic) to know you appreciate them. They won’t know unless you tell them. Friends, be kind and sensitive to one another. Treat another person the way you want to be treated. Don’t expect more from them than you are willing to do yourself, and don’t expect less than what you want others to expect from you.

Basic, I know, but how much easier was it as kindergarteners at the park when you ran up to a new person and said, “do you wanna be my friend?” Or when you went to your mom and held out your arms for her to hug you. Expectations were clear then. And you responded without reservation because you hadn’t yet learned rejection. You were just beginning to feel the effects of unmet expectations. As adults we bear the full burden of all of our failures so let us try to reduce the confusion they cause. The more clearly you express expectation the less rejection you will give and receive, and less rejection would do us all a world of good.

No comments: