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Have you ever felt disappointed when someone did something you didn’t approve of?!

I was talking to a client last month and he was ranting about a member of his staff who had handled a complaint from an important client “appallingly”. 

As he ranted more about how he was going to fire her, he said over and over again: “Why would she do that?!”

This is a common and understandable response when someone behaves in a way that is in conflict with our own idea of what’s appropriate and as a result (in our opinion) screws it up!

‘Disappointment’ creates feelings of anxiety, frustration, sadness and sometimes anger and our natural physiological reaction to those feelings (raised heart beat/blood pressure) often impede on our ability to respond rationally.

Whilst these sensations are a perfectly normal response to disappointment, the problem ultimately lies in our ‘expectation’ of how the other person ‘should’ have behaved, rather than their actual behaviour.  In other words, it’s our ‘expectation’ that creates the disappointment, not what they did.  Disappointment always points to an unmet expectation and unmet expectations are a common source of stress. 

Expectation itself is very healthy and useful!  It is the act or state of ‘anticipating’ and we certainly would not be successful without it.  Our expectations of other people are often a reminder of our own values and belief systems and again, that can be helpful, but often expectation in this context come’s with the assumption that the other person knows better.

I explained this to my friend and asked him what, if anything he was assuming about her?  What did he perceive her to understand that perhaps she didn’t? 

Interestingly, when he considered the question, he listed 3 or 4 things that she may not understand linked to the issue she had to deal with.  He realised in that moment that actually, she’d not handled it quite so badly.  As his expectation changed, so did the disappointment (coupled with fury!) and he left our conversation with the intention of ensuring that she had the tools she needed to enable her to be more effective next time.

I was reflecting on our conversation later that day and was reminded that we cannot control how other people behave, but, we can control our own reaction when they do not behave as we expect by asking ourselves what we are assuming they understand that perhaps they don’t.  It may be that actually there are no assumptions on our part and that our expectation was entirely appropriate.

My point is that the act of asking the question at least allows us to make that assessment before reacting from a physiological point and potentially screwing things up even further!

I called my client this week to thank him for this timely reminder.