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Disappointed Expectations are a Source of Conflict

July 31, 2009

Anecdotally, if I had to pick a leading cause of conflict, I would say it’s disappointed expectations.

  • someone wants something done and the other doesn’t accomplish it
  • a lover misses a cue to be supportive
  • the boss had a particular deadline or quality of work in mind that was missed
  • children aren’t quiet when silence is needed
  • and so on…..

What is most interesting about mediations involving disappointment over expectations that aren’t fulfilled, is how often the person who disappointed did not know there were expectations he or she was supposed to be meeting.Here’s a sample of typical dialogue from some similar stories, distilled into a flow:

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: You knew I needed that done by Thursday and you did everything else first. So when Thursday rolled around, there was no way you’d have enough time to get it done.

Tom: Why didn’t you say it was more important than everything else I was supposed to do this week?

Kathy: How could you not know it was a priority? I told you how important it was. And you knew I needed it for Thursday.

Tom: Sure, and then you asked for three other things so how was I to know the first thing was still the most important?

This could have been avoided with simple clarity about what was expected when. Tom expected to be told what the priorities were so he didn’t have to guess, and Kathy expected Tom to be an adult who knew those priorities through competence. They could spend the next years arguing about Tom’s inability to read minds, and Kathy’s refusal to treat him like a child, which is how each of them frames their point of view. The lesson for me from all the conflict stories in many mediations, is to be clear about expectations. Telepathy and micro-management are not the only options. Avoid disappointment; state your expectations and interests.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence      

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