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The trouble with great expectations


Everyone seems to be disappointed with someone somewhere in our world. The voters are disappointed and quite disillusioned with the politicians. The politicians are all disappointed with each other. Trust between different groups of people is at a low ebb. Very few figures in the political world seem to be living up to expectations – anyone’s expectations. I often wonder what would happen if we had more skills to liberate people from our expectations.

The words, ‘You would have thought that…’ betray a disappointed human being -someone with a violated set of expectations about how human beings behave. Indeed, most times when you hear those words, you can be sure that someone has been carrying around a set of expectations not only about how human beings do behave but how they ought to behave.

The speaker of these words has usually just discovered that someone else has an alternative narrative – that the ‘someone else’ has looked at a particular situation from another perspective and has an entirely different expectation from their own. The speaker may sound bewildered and disappointed because what they expected to happen did not happen. There is often a tone of personal betrayal.

It is not only in public life where false and disappointed expectations are rife as causes of alienation between people. Between people who care deeply for each other and have each other’s best interests at heart. Here, hurt and a sense of betrayal arising from unmet expectations can be significant. Families are rich breeding grounds for such disappointments. Spouses disappoint one another when it comes to romantic behaviour, parents disappoint each other when their disciplinary methods are incompatible, children ‘fail’ to live up to their parents’ expectations, siblings believe they can expect a certain type of behaviour from one another...the list is endless.

My experience of good workplaces is that bosses and workers who actually spell out in contract form their expectations of each other have more successful working relationships. But not all situations and eventualities can be covered in contracts and all too quickly, at the first opportunity of a listening ear, someone else utters the same old formula, ‘You would have thought that….’

Family relationships are only contractual in the loosest sense. Very few families make any sort of pre-nuptial agreement and when they do, they are more likely to be devoted to material eventualities – who will get what in the event of divorce? – than to the fine subtleties of expectations in relationships. We tend to believe romantically that love, ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’ conquers all!

When I have uttered and then thought about the words, ‘You would have thought that…’ I have discovered that the words have deep roots. They go down to invisible and unspoken ideas – implicit - and unreal - expectations, hopes and wishes for very particular outcomes. My own life and my experience in working with others’ fractured relationships has taught me that healing this sort of disappointment can be a complex business. But it will not happen until people recognise that their narrative is rarely normative. It will only happen when we pay attention to alternative narratives. Nursing one's disappointments in private rarely achieves anything! Two people or groups need to bring their hidden hopes, fears and expectations out into the open. When they do this - and keep doing it - the outcomes can sometimes be remarkable, even miraculous!

Trying to be honest in doing this in my closest relationships, I have discovered that my individual expectations are often built on very flimsy assumptions about the world. My narratives are the products of heredity and environment, of age and, of course, our culture. Most importantly, I have become aware that although my expectations may have a rational element, they are anything but rational. My feelings have a far greater effect on my behaviour, my preferences and my expectations than I am ready to admit. And it is often non-rational to expect other people to share my preferences and expectations.

'Ass-umptions', as they say, make asses of us all. If we are prepared to examine and question our assumptions now and then, we may learn to be more understanding. If we are ready to ask ourselves, ‘What do I expect and, more importantly, ‘what has caused me to expect that’ I may learn to be more flexible and less regularly disappointed with the world. I certainly won't be able to solve the pressing problems of the wider world. But I would like to learn to give those I love this great gift – the freedom from the burden of carrying my expectations. That only leaves each of us with the business of living up to our own expectations - but that's another blog!


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