Disappointed Expectations are a Source of Conflict

Question posed: In your experience as a Conflict Doctor, what is the most common cause of conflicts?

Answer: My analysis of the leading cause of conflict is disappointed expectations. Some examples of what we desire that someone else doesn’t deliver are:

  • what you want accomplished doesn’t get done
  • someone you love fails to meet your needs
  • the quality of work you want falls short of your standards
  • children aren’t quiet when you need silence
  • and so on…..

Another interesting observation about disappointment over unfulfilled expectations; the person who disappointed, often did not know the expectations to be met. Here’s a sample of typical dialogue:Kathy: I can’t count on you to follow through with anything you commit to.
Tom: What did I commit to that I didn’t do?
Kathy: I needed to send that report to the client by Thursday and now I don’t have time to review it before it goes.
Tom: No, you told me it was due Thursday, not that you had to have somewhere by Thursday, so I had it to you on Wednesday.
Kathy: No, I told you the project was due Thursday and complete except for your report. I assumed you’d figure out due on Thursday means due at the client. Why should I have to spell it out?
Tom: You gave me a deadline to complete the project with my report on Thursday. I assumed Thursday was your deadline to me, not the client deadline to you. I know you need time to read it, so I met the Thursday deadline you gave me.

Assumptions mistaken for expectations

Both Kathy and Tom made assumptions instead of clarifying expectations.

  • Tom expected his deadline to be specified so he didn’t have to guess what Kathy meant. Tom’s point of view is he shouldn’t be expected to read minds. If she had just said she needed it Wednesday to go to the client Thursday, the problem would’ve been avoided.
  • Kathy expected Tom to know the project flow for the client not just for his one task. Kathy’s point of view is that she treated Tom like a professional colleague who would question unclear instructions. If he had the client’s interests in mind instead of just his piece of the project, the problem would’ve been avoided.

Kathy and Tom could spend years arguing and blaming. In fact, both points of view are correct. Kathy could’ve been more clear she had two deadlines: one from her to Tom and one from the client to her. Tom could’ve asked clarifying questions.

Reality of vague, confusing, imprecise, and judgmental language

Language can create conflict or it can heal relationships. How you word a sentence can make a big difference in how well your expectations get met. Some suggestions for wording explanations well are:

A question beginning with the word ‘why’ can be a vague question. Specific wording gets a better outcome.

  1. Why should I have to spell it out?
  2. What were the possible questions you could’ve asked to clarify your understanding of the deadline?

Multiple nouns in one sentence and a generality in the next sentence has potential to confuse.

  1. There are reports needed to meet deadlines to complete this project. Make sure you do that. (What does ‘that’ refer to?)
  2. The reports to be reviewed by Wednesday must get to the client Thursday to complete the project. Make sure you complete your report before Wednesday so I can review it.

Imprecision is high risk for disappointing. Precise expectations means knowing what success looks like to you.

  1. The project is due Thursday and complete except for your report.
  2. The client expects the completed project on Thursday and I need time to review your report before I send our package on the deadline. Please get your report to me no later than noon Wednesday.

Judgmental language is a trigger and judgmental tone of voice is accusatory. Neither are helpful in getting your expectations met. Triggers and judgmental tones of voice are ripe for disappointing you and causing conflict.

  1. I can’t count on you.
  2. I assumed you’d figure it out.

Conclusions about common sources of conflict

Lessons from all the conflict stories in my thousands of  interventions to avoid disappointment are:

  • be clear about expectations.
  • telepathy and micro-management are not the only options.
  • state your expectations
  • go with interests to explain your position.
  • understand the effect your language has on your clarity.

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