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Managing Expectations to Avoid Conflict

Mediation and Business Consulting by Kathleen Kauth.

Expectations are part of living as a human being.  If we pay for a product or service, we expect it to behave as advertised.  If we are in a relationship, we expect to be treated a certain way.  

People have expectations of us too.  If you are being paid to do a job, it is expected that you do it well.  Expectations are a back and forth connection between parties about how something or someone should function.

Expectations are based around what most of us feel are common understandings of the world around us.  However, they are actually very individualized — what might be a realistic expectation for one person may be completely foreign to another.  

When expectations don’t match experiences

Every salesperson knows that you should always underpromise and over deliver.  This is how you manage expectations.  When people feel that expectations have been exceeded they have a much more positive feel than if expectations have not been met.  

When people feel expectations have not been met, they feel cheated and angry.  

Communicate to set expectations

Now, many people will say that they feel like someone should just know what they want, without having to say it.  It can sometimes become a sort of a test “If they really knew me, they would know what I want.”  This is ridiculous.  

Expectations cannot be assumed.  They must be stated clearly and up front.  This causes a lot of stress for people who fear it might lead to a conflict if they say what they are really interested in, or capable of.  However — conflicts never diminish with silence — they grow.  If you are in a relationship (with someone providing a service, in a job, or personally) it is extremely important that expectations are stated up front.

Setting the stage

Setting the stage ahead of time by discussing expectations is a great way to determine if parties are compatible.  If one person expects flowers and chocolates at Valentine’s, but the other person in the relationship doesn’t like Valentine’s and prefers to buy all the chocolate at 75% off the day after — a discussion needs to be had!  

The tricky thing is, you don’t know someone’s expectations until you start talking or until someone fails to meet them.  When you come to an issue where the expectations don’t line up — it is a resolution point to be addressed.

Ways to resolve expectation differences

These are tips that apply to any situation where expectations are possibly not being met.  It can be a work issue, neighbor issue, family or personal relationship issue.

  1. Identify the expectation of each party about an issue (focus on only one issue at a time).
  2. Be willing to discuss and listen to each other about that expectation.  Both sides need to be clear about what they expect.
  3. Writing it down so both parties can see it always helps.  What you hear is heavily influenced by your filters.  Seeing it on paper (or a whiteboard!) is helpful for both parties to understand exactly what is being discussed.
  4. Think through your stance — what are you willing to be flexible on, and what is your line in the sand.  How willing you are to be flexible most likely is affected by how important the relationship is to you.  

Understanding your bottom line and why it is important to you will help determine how you will respond to expectations set by you and placed on you.  Communicating what is expected and addressing differences in expectations right away will provide all parties with the information they need to make appropriate decisions about the relationship.


Kathleen Kauth

Kathleen Kauth is President/Owner of K.T. Beck Enterprises, LLC a Mediation and Business Consulting firm which focuses on using Mediation techniques to help individuals, families and businesses resolve conflicts. With areas of interest in Eldercare and Business Mediation, we are able to provide a wide variety of personalized services.   MORE >

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