When two or more people come into contact with one another there is already a set of expectations, social rules about how to relate to other people. These are part of culture. In addition, there are sets of expectations that apply to specific situations – consider, for example, the rules that govern buying something in a shop, ordering a drink in a café or a bar, and so on. Breaking these rules (jumping the queue, for example) can cause a lot of bad feeling and displeasure.
But there is more to it than this. When you form a relationship of any kind with someone, a set of expectations specific to that relationship will quickly develop. Having these expectations is generally a positive thing; it enables our interactions to run smoothly, with a minimum of tension. However, such expectations are not always positive. For example, in an abusive relationship, the expectations or unwritten rules will generally suit the abuser, but at the expense of the person being abused.
But, even in non-abusive situations, there can be expectations that are problematic for at least one person. Consider, for example, how many arguments between partners begin with: ‘Why is it always me who is expected to …?’ and it Is not just in our private lives that these things can happen. The workplace is full of sets of expectations too, mainly positive, but sometimes negative and unhelpful.
Bullying situations would be one example of this. The bully’s expectation is that they can treat you badly and, if you complain, they are likely to twist the situation to make it look as though the problem is you being unreasonable. But, again, it is not just in these extreme situations that expectations can be problematic.
However, it is essential that we realise that such expectations are not necessarily written in tablets of stone. Expectations can generally be renegotiated. For example, consider comments like:
- ‘I’ve noticed that it is generally me who does x, maybe we should think about sharing out that task in future. That would give me more time to get y and z sorted.’
- ‘I’ve been thinking. We seem to have got into the habit of x. Perhaps it would make more sense if we looked again at how we deal with these things.’
- ‘Have you noticed that you are the one who tends to do y? I’m quite happy for you to do it most of the time, but do you think there is any chance I could do it sometimes?’
Note that these statements are not hostile. They are not attacking or criticising the other person. They are genuine attempts to renegotiate expectations. The idea behind this strategy is that, if you are reasonable, supportive and cooperative in how you tackle the issues, you are putting gentle pressure on the other person to be reasonable, supportive and cooperative in return. There are no guarantees, of course, but this approach is used very effectively on a day-to-day basis by large numbers of people.
So, the first step is to identify what the expectations are that are causing you problems or holding you back in some way. The next step is to think carefully about how those expectations could be renegotiated to improve the situation. Where possible, try to think of ‘win-win’ outcomes – that is, changes that benefit the other person as well as you, thereby making it more likely that they will agree to what you are suggesting.
But, perhaps the most important point to note is that you don’t have to be a slave to other people’s expectations. You don’t have to agree to lose out.