How to instigate and facilitate conversations about expectations

This article in a nutshell: We all have expectations about every thing that we face, whether or not we’re conscious of those expectations. Understanding what another person’s expectations are is invaluable information to have, if you want the process of relating with that person to go as smoothly as possible. This article outlines ways of instigating and facilitating conversations about expectations without 'making it weird'.

Very often we are tripped up in our relating with others by our unspoken expectations. These expectations run the gauntlet from what we each need, to how we think things will or should proceed, to ‘what good looks like’, to what ‘normal’ relating to each other looks like.

Expectations are driving our behaviour, and thus our relating with others, whether or not we acknowledge it. It’s somewhat like change management – if there is a big change then you can be assured that people will be reacting to the change, whether or not you undertake a formal change management program… if you choose to do no formal change management then you’re choosing not to strategically influence people’s response to the change. Similarly, in relating with others you can be assured that people will be operating from their expectations… if you choose to not talk about what is driving each person, then you’re choosing to remain blind to all of the factors that are influencing the quality of the relationship and your experience of that relationship.

Expectations are often unspoken for several reasons:

  1. We don’t realise that we have them, because we are still operating from a belief that others think like us or that we all understand ‘how things work here’;*
  2. If we don’t realise that we have expectations, then we certainly don’t know what they actually are; and
  3. Even if we did know what they are, we don’t know how to bring them up without ‘making it weird’.

I frequently have upfront conversations these days with the people in my life about the expectations that I have which will influence our relating well. That might sound confrontational, but it rarely is. There’s an art to creating a safe space between two or more people, where the participants are able to explore what they really think about - and what they need in - a certain situation.

How you go about doing this effectively can depend on underlying power dynamics between individuals. For example, the way I approach a member of my team or my boss (where formal lines of authority exist) would be different to how I approach a peer, client, friend, family member or a lover (where there are no formal lines of authority, but where expectations run rampant).

Regardless of power dynamics, I structure these conversations as follows:

  1. Open the conversation confidently – if you don’t act like it’s weird, then the other participants will likely follow suit;
  2. Seek to understand from the other person what they need;
  3. Articulate what you need; and
  4. Keep the conversation light, open, exploratory, curious and non-judgemental. Create space for different options to emerge.

For example:

“You know, I’m conscious that at some point in this process we’re probably going to find ourselves in conflict if we don’t have a chat upfront about how we expect that this is going to go. So I thought perhaps we could explore what we would need from this for it to be a ‘good’ thing, like, “how do you prefer to be communicated with? If I’m struggling to get what I need from you, what would be the best way to approach you about that? What are your pet peeves when working with people?”

For me:

  1. I don’t like things sprung on me, so email works well for communicating with me, or if you’d prefer to have a face-to-face then I’d like to have that scheduled in before-hand with a small heads-up about what it’s in relation to. I prefer not to talk on the phone, though texting does work well for me.
  2. If you’re struggling to get what you need from me, just bring it up every day until I give it to you – that won’t annoy me, it’ll help to keep it on my radar. If it’s a really detailed, form-oriented kind of thing, offering to sit with me or finding some way to make it fun will always help me to get through it quicker.
  3. My pet peeves when working with people include when people don’t renegotiate time-frames that they know that they won’t be able to keep - I need a heads up when that is going to happen.

How about you?”


  • How people like to be communicated with (“are you more of an email, phone or face-to-face person?”);
  • What they need when they’re in conflict with another person (“How would you like me to approach you about any issues I’m experiencing?”);
  • What’s particularly important to them when relating with another (“What would you need from me in this interaction for it to be considered a good experience?”);
  • What particularly presses their buttons when relating with another (“Is there anything that particularly presses your buttons when working with people?”); and
  • What ‘really good’ would look like to them when it came to your interaction (“If you had it all your way, what would the end result of [this interaction] look like?”).

is invaluable information to have. You will be able to hurdle a huge number of invisible obstacles that otherwise would have tripped you up without you even knowing they were there.

* and, behind that belief, we tend to hold the more insidious belief that we are ‘normal’. Check last week’s article for more of a spiel on how we think our ways are self-evident.