I wanted to share an old blog post of mine from last Christmas – it was originally published on Leadership Think Tank but the message is such that I’d like to share it here with you as well.
“It’s Christmas season – one of those special times of the year when everyone from young to old are having loads of (un)known expectations. Christmas gifts, time off from work, days spent with the family, lots of food and for those whom been “nice”, a visit from Santa Claus – a vast variety. All these expectations “floating around” makes me think about how we in our everyday life are met with an abundance of expectations from others. We expect things from our spouses, our children, our friends, our employer, our employees, our public organizations, our government and even from God! We also put certain expectations on ourselves. Occasionally – or for some it’s actually quite frequent – we even construct expectations and rename them “goals” even though the two are different things. We don’t only have expectations on others but they are having expectations on us as well. Work expectations, legal expectations, educational expectations, relationship expectations, parental expectations etc.. The list goes on and on. Some of these expectations are necessary to support a functional society, organization and even family. And naturally, some of these expectations are met and others not. When these expectations are being met we usually feel good about “being right”, regardless of it was a positive or negative expectation that we had. When our expectations are not being met we react with disappointment, anger and in some rare cases even shut the one person that we felt didn’t “measure up” out of our lives, group, organization or society.
Why are we doing this? Why are we having these expectations on ourselves and others? What are expectations and why aren’t they always met? Well, my definition is that an expectation is something which we anticipate. In the dictionary it does state that it is also something we look forward to but in that case, do we for example look forward to someone disappointing us (to put it simply). Based on several factors we might anticipate it but probably not look forward to it. The human mind is a fascinating and complicated thing though so there might be times when people actually do look forward to having a negative expectation fulfilled. This creates the – for some people – satisfying feeling of “being right”. However, there’s only a temporarily success in such victory as it is important to understand that in the end, it’s all about reaching a mutual understanding where there are two or more “winners”. This by the way is only possible with transparent, honest, respectful and clear communication.
So why aren’t our expectations met? And what can or should we do about it? As I stated above, some expectations are part of and necessary to keep certain functions running and to keep us “moving forward”. Our expectations are based solely on our needs. We all have them. It is when we feel that our needs haven’t been met, that we experience that our expectations haven’t been met. This is interesting as the perspective taken is a purely selfish one – “my” needs or “I” expect this. And I believe that this is the first mistake, if I may call it as such, that people make. There is no relationship – not one – in which one successfully can be thinking and wanting to have the sole perspective of “me” and “I” in such way. In any healthy, functional and successful relationship there’s a giving and taking. Therefore, to take a self-centered and selfish stand leads nowhere but to conflicts. I am of course not stating that you should be a “doormat” or accept being treated badly. Neither am I saying that you shouldn’t have integrity. Quite the opposite, as it is when both parties are well in tune to whom they “are” individually, have a healthy self-image and a strong sense of integrity that they fully and compassionately can interact with each other. In the most successful and lasting of relationships this is what’s happening.
The second mistake that I believe is being made is lack of – or bad – communication. Needs surely have to be communicated. If you don’t communicate what you want, there’s no way the other party can even consider it. And in communication you need to be clear. For some reason however people seem to fear clear communication. We talk “around” subjects, we “fish” for answers and/or reactions, we joke, we say one thing but our actions, body language and our eyes say or show something completely different, we are vague and “double-talk”, we rarely ask for feedback that confirms that our partner has understood what we (tried) to say and so on. We communicate in all kinds of ways that leaves whatever we have “said” open for (mis)interpretation. Is this done (un)intentionally? Either way this is made by such habit and to such degree that if someone responds with questions in order to get clarification, we sometimes react negatively as we are feeling “pushed into a corner” or in other ways pressured.
Not long ago I had a meeting with a CEO of a national company whom actually uttered those exact words to me, that he felt “pushed into a corner” (he has kindly permitted me to share this “awakening experience” – his words – with you, for which I thank him dearly). At the time we were, for yet another round, discussing a subject on which it had become apparent that he needed to lead the way in a very clear way. Not only in order for me to be able to fulfil the assignment for which he actually had signed me up, but much more importantly in order for his organization to be able to move forward as his executive team felt there were no clear path to walk. In other words, everyone was running in different directions – from their own best ability – as he had not manage to communicate his, or rather the company’s, vision, strategy or goals in such way that his employees knew what he wanted. During our at times heated, hence the “pushed into a corner”, dialogue it became clear however that the reason for his lack of clear directions had been and was that he feared being the one taking the fall if things didn’t go well. He had (un)consciously been communicating in such way that there were plenty of room for (mis)interpretations. This naturally led his executive team to interpret his directions differently. And by that, take their own separate paths. The fascinating thing though, in reference to this article, is that it took me giving him a clear ultimatum – and to demonstrate that I was serious – before he actually could bring himself to state the real reason behind his actions. But by him doing so, which takes strength and courage, we could really get to the true core of the problem and work on a way to solve it.
The reason I’m sharing this episode with you is that it serves as a great example of the way too common intense fear people have of communicating clearly. We fear giving straight answers because by giving a straight answer we take a stand. And taking a stand has consequences that we might not be able to control – or even worse, we might not even have anticipated them. This is bit cowardice of course, in lack of a better word, although very understandable if you see it from a growth perspective. The real danger of it though lies in the fact that bad communication – which avoiding giving clear answers is – is the absolutely main reason for misunderstandings and conflicts, not only professionally but also privately. It can also hugely impact an individual’s life as we are not “putting all the true cards ont the table”. When I coach executives whom express deep frustration and concern that employees or other stakeholders “don’t get it, get things wrong or do wrong things” I always remind them of their own responsibility in communicating all expectations clearly. The facts are that if someone doesn’t understand what you’ve said or what you want, you’ve simply failed to communicate it clearly. You can’t put blame on someone else for not hearing what you are saying as it’s not anyone else’s fault or mistake, it is our own. Each and every one of us must take ownership of our own communication’s skills – or lack of such – before we possibly can pass judgement on someone else’s ability to listen or understand. We also need to be courageous enough to be clear! It’s a fact that we as humans hear things differently depending on our experiences and expectations. We therefore have to make sure that others actually have heard what we are saying. And contrary to what some might seem to believe, this is not only possible to do in an honest, respectful and compassionate way but it is also how it should be done.
What’s the conclusion then? As always, take one step back and ask yourself what you realistically could and should expect from others with grounds from what you put out in the world. We’ve all heard the the words: “- All I want for Christmas is…but you really don’t have to get me anything!” Confusing? Yes. Say what you mean and mean what you say.”