• The Strategic Perspective

Setting Clear Expectations

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

This topic can be utilized for personal development, parenting, relationships, leadership… pretty much anything! I say this because when expectations are not properly set, you are setting up yourself, as well as those around you, for failure. This is about communication, or rather a lack thereof.

Many of the challenges we face in the workplace or at home are due to unset, or poorly communicated expectations. Generally, we don’t even realize this... unless we’re the ones being scolded for the outcome of a misinterpretation. The reason being is that we often let culture, social conditioning, our own personal experience and expectations placed upon ourselves, dictate our expectations of others. Quite simply, unless we are asking something we personally feel is complex or specific, we let our “lizard brains” do the work. That is, we don’t put much effort into explaining it. Furthermore, we don’t even consider the other person's interpretation of what we are saying.

As our world gets smaller and more diverse, the importance of setting clear expectations becomes greater and more challenging. Let me try and illustrate the point. Many times, when we attempt to set expectations, even with our significant others, we fail miserably. How many arguments have you been involved in because someone was expecting something different than what transpired?

If this kind of miscommunication happens in our closest relationships, is there any wonder why it also happens with friends, acquaintances, colleagues and perfect strangers… likely with completely different backgrounds and customs?

We feel that we are being clear in our language, verbal or otherwise, simply because we understand ourselves. This is a natural, narcissistic tendency where our perception is not always reality. All of us have an internal dialogue constantly running through our heads. However, this internal dialogue provides us with much more information… or misinformation, even subconsciously, than we lead ourselves to believe.

Communication is never a one way road. Nor is this conundrum. When expectations are not met, when something goes awry, the other person may be even more responsible (they simply may not have the skills required, although this post is about communication, so let’s assume they do). Perhaps you made a valiant effort into giving directions and setting expectations. The duty should then fall on the other person to ask for clarification, if needed. There are several reasons this may not happen such as pride, self-doubt, genuine misunderstanding, or fear of your reaction. To focus on what we can control in the immediate, let’s explore the latter.

If someone is afraid of how you might react, when asking for clarity, you may have played a role in creating this fear if you get frustrated easily. It is also entirely possible that this fear has nothing to do with you, but rather from past experiences in this other person's life. In either case, you have a goal and you need this person to feel comfortable asking for clarity. Therefore, you should always set this expectation first… and truly mean it.

I am reminded of my very first training session as a Volunteer Firefighter. It was in a classroom setting and taught by our Battalion Chief. Safety of course, is the utmost priority on any emergency scene and clear communication plays a huge role in that. The Chief really stressed this message by saying, “If you are asked to do something and don’t clearly understand what is being asked of you, say something! As emergent as the scene may be, you can’t rescue anyone if you misunderstood the directions and need to be rescued yourself. There is always time for clarification!”

For the past several weeks, I have been contemplating whether or not to leave public safety, to refocus solely on business. It has been a balancing act of my two professional passions for nearly 10 years and certainly not a decision to be taken lightly. I would be able to take on more clients or potentially, fill an in-house role, if the right opportunity presents itself. However, I can’t help but think of all the wonderful lessons working in emergency services has taught me. Out of all the skills I developed, clear communication was far and away, the most valuable. It is the most important skill for everyone to learn, regardless of vocation or position.

I wrote this post with the intent of calling out a common barrier in communication, one that often leads to headaches; about why clear expectations are not always received. This recognition, this lesson in mindfulness is the most important thing to take away. Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Remember this quote the next time you are attempting to set clear expectations. If it’s something of great importance, verification may be of value. Just try not to come across as condescending, or you might end up with an “intentional miscommunication”.