Managing Expectations

Has anyone ever given you a hard time for not receiving their phone call or answering their email quickly? It’s as if they think complaining about it will make you respond better, but is that ever the case? Do you remember your response at the time verbally and/or internally in that situation? If your response was anything like mine, your first thought might be you are not at their beck and call. Second, they are calling you at their convenience (which is fine), but expecting you to respond because it’s important and/or urgent to them without considering your situation. Third, they are implicitly stating whatever they are calling about is more important than what you were doing in that moment. Fourth, they forget your phone is for your convenience (not theirs).

I think it’s fair to say most people who call us on the phone expect us to answer. The assumption they are making is we would be available to answer (no matter what we might be doing) because they are always available to others in their life, but that seems presumptuous and unrealistic. Regardless of what we may be doing in the moment, we don’t need a reason to justify why we can’t respond to them.

This is only one example of mismanaged expectations, but I think you get the idea. The same could be true for accepting/rejecting random requests on social networks or with anything really.

Here are some reasons why we need to learn to manage expectations with others:

It’s easy to get upset when our (implicit) expectations aren’t met, but why should others be responsible for keeping up to our expectations when they may not be aware about it?

We make assumptions about others when we don’t clarify expectations upfront. We do this based on the similarities in values and beliefs to a point that any disagreement between us makes us question our relationship. What we forget is no matter how similar two people might be, they are never quite the same (and that’s a good thing).

Similarly, others make assumptions about us all the time based on who they are. They have implicit expectations from us (?). When we don’t meet them, they take it personally and feel violated, but that’s not entirely our fault.

Here’s what I wrote earlier:

A lot of times, we have conflicting or vague expectations in our relationships between each other. Having our (implicit) expectations violated is a chronic problem in most relationships, but we never think about clarifying our expectations with others. We expect others to know what we expect (and want) without telling them explicitly. Of course, there are times where we understand them and know their expectations without making it explicit, but that is rare. Assuming that they know all but the important expectations would be presumptuous, and that is not how relationships work.

Relationships cannot exist without expectations. We might say we don’t have any expectations from the other person, but we do. After all, it takes two to tango. In order to sustain relationships, there has to be some amount of value exchange (give and take) between any two people without which the relationship wouldn’t work.

I am using the term “relationship” in a broad sense here. This could be between any type of relationship — parent and child, friendships, you and your partner, etc. If a relationship is important enough to you, it’s worth thinking about (and doing something about).

In order to maintain our relationships, we need to clarify expectations with others from time to time (more on that later). This is not a one-time activity, but something that requires consistent renewal. When we clarify expectations with others, it helps us build trust, which is the currency of our relationships.

Managing expectations doesn’t always have to be something “big” in its application. Often times, it’s the little things in our everyday lives such as when to expect a response through phone or email. For instance, if we keep answering calls and emails all day, we wouldn’t be able to do what matters to us. We’ll always be beholden to others. That’s the last thing we want. Remember, we can’t help others at the cost of our own well-being. In order to help others, we need to help ourselves first.

Personally, I will almost never allow myself to answer a random phone call for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is I don’t have the phone on me most times. I return phone calls as per my convenience. When that doesn’t work for others, I suggest we schedule a time that is mutually convenient.

Unless we learn to set clear boundaries in our lives, there won’t be any left. It’s not others’ fault as much as our own responsibility for doing so. Keep in mind we are not trying to change others (nor do we want to), but we are showing them (through our actions) what is acceptable to us and what isn’t. They may choose to accept or reject it, but regardless we aren’t going to make their problem our own. We need to learn neither to give nor to take sorrows.

Here are some ways we can better manage expectations with others.

Stop making implicit assumptions about others. When in doubt, communicate. Learn to clarify expectations with others. One way to do that is to do a monthly exercise, where you and your partner each make two lists: first is a list of expectations that you promise to fulfill, and second is a list of expectations that you will try to fulfill without promising now. To learn more about this exercise, please read my earlier draft.

While it doesn’t always need to be this explicit, it needs to be clarified at least verbally. For instance, my mother and I have agreed to talk on the phone at certain times during a given week. This is not to say we can’t speak any other time if/when an urgency arises, but we respect each other by giving ourselves the space and to not let ourselves take our time for granted. This also means when we talk to each other, we are fully committed to our conversation without feeling rushed or interrupted.

Here’s how clarifying expectations might play out at work at the onset of a project:

One way to do that is to figure out what things really matter to you and to the other person and establish protocols as to what is and isn’t acceptable with the other person. Doing this early in a work project, for instance, saves a lot of problems in the later stages. This is especially useful for people with opposite personality traits.

You could set boundaries at work. For instance, you could talk to your employer about your work hours. If you don’t plan on working past 5pm and on weekends, then that needs to be known to them. When in doubt, communicate. It never hurts to be explicit. It goes without saying you should have the confidence to manage expectations with those in your life at any time.

When you’re setting expectations with people, it’s not about now alone, but more importantly for the future. For example, if you go to your barber and tip him x amount for y service, he’s going to expect that in the future as well. The expectations we set for others aren’t always explicitly stated.

I wrote earlier:

Remember what you do for others now sets up expectations for them in the future. So, when you do something for them now, they’ll expect you to keep doing that in the future because you are essentially teaching them that. Rather, they are learning it from you.

Avoid making other peoples’ problems your own. When we don’t behave how others expect us to, they will inevitably try to make it our problem by saying/doing anything to justify themselves, but it’s up to us not to fall into that trap. The other thing is to stop trying to explain yourself. You don’t have to justify anything to anyone, particularly when it’s unwarranted.

In any relationship, we can’t expect one person to keep depositing and the other to keep withdrawing. That would create an imbalance in the relationship and wouldn’t sustain. After all, you can’t clap with one hand. I used to believe no matter what the other person does, our actions are up to us, but there is only so much you can do before the relationship goes south.

An excellent way to manage expectations in your relationships is to seek consistent feedback from those who are closest to you. Improving our relationships doesn’t have to take time, but it requires courage and willingness to ask others to improve so we can be a better partner, parent, friend, or child. We need to listen to them. We shouldn’t be so busy in our lives as to forget those who matter to us.

It’s worth noting that it’s harder to maintain deep relationships with the few than it is keep shallow ones with the many. While both approaches may require the same effort, it’s always up to us what we choose.

Never make a promise you can’t keep. If you can’t (or won’t) do something, it’s better to say it outright than to keep thinking about it later and regretting the choice you made earlier.

In order to help others manage their expectations about us, we should take our time before committing to a project. If you’re the kind of person who needs to think things through and almost always regrets saying yes too soon, then you should take as much time as you need without feeling rushed.

There has to be some set of expectations between any two people in order to sustain a relationship. It’s better to clarify those expectations ahead of time to ensure both of their needs are met. We need to be upfront about helping others manage their expectations about what we can and cannot do.

We can learn to be more assertive; that means being polite and firm. We need to set boundaries where required. Other people’s urgency is not our urgency. While they may try to make it our problem, it’s not until we make it so. Their problem is not our problem.

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