I seem to be managing expectations lately, my own and those of my divorce mediation clients. When I’m dealing with my own, I don’t often clearly identify my expectations until I realize that they haven’t been met. With my divorce clients, I am more easily able to see the situation of unmet expectations.

As someone who deals with conflict for a living, I have come to the obvious conclusion that when others don’t meet our expectations, relationships suffer, sometimes irreparably. I make this blanket statement regardless of the nature of the relationship.  It could be a marriage or a business partnership, a landlord-tenant situation, or adult siblings caring for aging parents.  We create a standard in our own minds of how we expect someone else to act, and when they don’t meet the expectation, we are, at the very least, disappointed, and at the very worst, furious.

When you start a sentence with the words, “You should have . . .” or “You need to . . .”  what you’re really saying is “I expected you to …” And that is where the trouble begins.  So, let’s take a look at how to manage expectations, beginning with the understanding of how we create them in the first place.  It’s actually quite simple.  We either base our expectations on the past, or they are an assumption for the future.  Because our parents taught us manners, we teach our kids to say “please” and “thank you.”   When they don’t, we’re disappointed in them — they didn’t measure up to our expectations.  Similarly, we assume we’re going to get a substantial year-end bonus check based on our performance, but when the number doesn’t match our expectation, we’re miserable.

Rather than set your expectations too high, or your standards too low, I offer you balance as an alternative. Set reasonable expectations for yourself as well as for others.  It’s reasonable to expect your kids to say “please,” but it’s also reasonable to expect that sometimes they might forget. It’s reasonable to expect a nice bonus in recognition of a job well done, but it’s also reasonable that the number might not match your expectation.

Marriages end when partners fail to achieve balance in setting reasonable expectations about each other.  If the optimistic young husband thinks he will turn his wife into an NBA fanatic, he might be disappointed.  If the neatness-obsessed partner thinks that enough nagging will get someone to hang up their clothes, it might never happen.  As a Mediator, I’m not tasked with helping people figure out what went wrong, but I am responsible for helping my clients to achieve balance in ending their relationship, as well as with their co-parenting expectations moving forward.  This can be tricky.

It’s no exaggeration to state that practically every solution to a conflict comes as a result of being open to reasonable expectations.  That being said, each one of us has the obligation to communicate our expectations, in advance, in order to avoid disappointment.  

Are you good at this?  What’s your secret?