Think back to a recent interaction with someone that left you feeling a little agitated. Maybe you have to go back 5 hours or 5 days, but my guess is you don’t have to go back too much further. Perhaps something didn’t go as smoothly as you anticipated, or you didn’t feel like you were on the same page. Hold this interaction in mind. And then consider:
Did you have expectations that were unmet?
Was/is it possible for you to make a request to improve the situation?
I had made arrangements for three trips from Colorado to California to participate in a year-long service-learning project. During an informational call with the team, it became clear that all of us might not be needed after all. I immediately felt anxious, and I started imagining that I would receive the message, “We have enough volunteers who are local, thanks anyway.”
I paused, took a couple of breaths, and acknowledged that I had expected to be included and hadn’t realized that my (or anyone’s) involvement would be in question. I voiced my fear that I might be axed from the team, and a fellow coach on the call asked, “Have you made a request, Cyndi? You can do that.”
Ah, right! Though I saw my expectation, I was caught up in the emotions of fear and worry and had forgotten that I could make a request. With this emboldening reminder, as soon as our call ended, I contacted the person I needed to, requested to be included in the group, and explained my thinking. Within minutes, we had an agreement, and everything was settled. I felt heard, valued, empowered. I stepped out of being a victim.
Expectations vs. Agreements
Coach and author Steve Chandler (www.stevechandler.com) is a wise voice on the difference between expectations vs. agreements. He is clear that he considers all expectations toxic and has never seen them be useful. In his audio talk on this topic, Steve says,
You can have relationships based on expectations or relationships based on agreements. Expectations are cowardly and self-defeating. They are cowardly because by expecting things of others, I place all responsibility outside myself. I expect my co-worker to do his job right, I expect my family member to behave a certain way, and the list goes on. When I am unhappy it’s because of them. Expectations lead to disappointments. It’s a miserable life expecting so much of others and suffering so much disappointment and betrayal.
Agreements are courageous and creative. They honor the other person. They are co-authored between two composers….People honor agreements to a far greater degree than they live up to expectations. They feel stressed when their head is full of expectations of them. They feel pressure and resentment. They rebel. (Ever notice? Do you have children? Employees?) But create a good agreement? Both sides win.
So - how do we create a good agreement? We begin by shaping a clear request. I rely on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) approach as a way to arrive at a clear request. In this model, we take time to reflect on what we observe, feel, and need in any given situation in order to fully understand what our request is. In some conversations, it's important to talk through all the components out loud; in others, we need internal clarity about what we are noticing, feeling, and needing, but can go more directly to the request.
One thing I appreciate about requests is their bi-directional empowerment. Remember: a request is a step toward an agreement, and there has to be room to negotiate. Otherwise—especially if you have positional power or authority in a situation—a request is just a verbalized expectation. We empower ourselves when we make requests. And, we empower others when we invite response and listen for their requests in return.
It might be obvious, but a final important note is that requests and agreements require real-time conversation, not text or email exchanges. So, if you find yourself in that agitated space of disappointment or disempowerment, set up a time to talk and sort out an agreement. With practice, making agreements will become a proactive approach to communication.
As I coach, I support others with making requests and crafting agreements almost every day. I believe that honing this set of skills is critical for changemakers, and I recognize that it requires practice and courage. May this post serve as reminder, support, and provocation. One relationship at a time, we can get rid of toxic expectations by transforming them into requests and agreements.