Are you guilty of setting unspoken expectations?

Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments. ~Neil Strauss

Photo by Kathryn Scanland

Unspoken expectations. When I think about the various scenarios of “conflict” I’ve come across over the years, it nearly always comes back to unspoken (or very ineffectively communicated) expectations. This is true if it’s a CEO who lets someone go who has accomplished everything in their job description and even hit their goals for the year. There was still an unspoken expectation that just wasn’t being met. Or if it’s two colleagues who seem to persistently rub each other the wrong way. They each have expectations of the other’s behavior, which is typically to act/think more like they do.

When the expectations aren’t met, disappointment follows. The more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.

Brene’ Brown in her recent book Atlas of the Heart describes the disappointment of unmet expectations this way. “Disappointment is one of the most frequently experienced emotions, and it tends to be experienced at a high level of intensity.” She has codified an approach with her team to minimize unspoken and consequently unmet expectations. They call it “painting done.” This means to “fully walk through expectations of what the completed task will look like, including when it will be done, how it will be used, the context, the consequences of not doing it, the costs—everything you can think of to paint a shared picture of the expectations.”

3 Steps to Avoid Unspoken Expectations

Borrowing from the folks at Crucial Learning, here are three steps to better communicate expectations.

  1. Start with facts and what you expect, specifically (think “painting done”)
  2. Describe why it’s an expectation or concern
  3. Ask a question to invite them into the dialogue

It’s especially that last step, to invite them into the dialogue, that is very frequently skipped. Sometimes, that’s appropriate. However, many times we need to give our expectations a reality check, and that can happen through dialogue.

That dialogue can be challenging, which might be causing us to avoid it altogether. If that’s the case for you, I’ll borrow from Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes, for how to keep that dialogue moving toward shared expectations.

4 Principles to Keep the Dialogue Moving Toward Shared Expectations

  1. Separate people from the problem/issue
  2. Focus on interests, not positions
  3. Generate options for mutual gain
  4. Insist on using objective criteria

As Neil Strauss said, “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments.” I say, “Shared expectations are adaptive gratification.” And that requires leading with bold grace.