What do Komodo dragons have to do with expectation and assumption?

I had a conversation that made me think about how often (at home and in the office) we have expectations of other people that when not met, cause us to become upset and make assumptions about their thoughts; motives, and behaviour.

My partner and I had been together less than a year. We were still figuring each other out. One evening we were watching a fascinating documentary on the Komodo dragon and how it bites its prey – in this case, a wildebeest – injecting a slow-acting poison, and follows it around for days until the wildebeest is too weak to do anything but lie down exhausted. And then the dragon begins its feast. Grizzly stuff!

In an unusually sappy moment for me, I turned to my partner and asked: ‘If we were wildebeest and I got bitten by a Komodo dragon, would you save me?’ I was expecting him to pick me up, cuddle me and say ‘of course I would; I’d lay down my life for you’. Instead he said, ‘No way! I’d be out of there as fast as I could run!’

Slightly stunned at the response, I asked him why. The answer was that he was imagining he really was a wildebeest and that’s how a wildebeest would respond. I had been using it as a metaphor to test his strength of human feeling.

That was the conversation.

Our expectations and assumptions can ruin the best of intentions and scupper potentially rich relationships because, most of the time, they are hidden. We’re not aware of them ourselves so what chance does the other person have?

Examples are all around us, every day. Recently I was having some work done on the front of the house. As I work from home, I was absorbed in what I was doing but I took the time to greet Sam, the young workman, when he first arrived at 9.00am. He was an employee of a local firm I trusted and used often. Two hours later, I had to go out. I bid adieu to Sam and went about my business. When I returned several hours later, the work had been done and Sam was gone.

Later that evening, I got a text from Bill, Sam’s boss, ‘It was really cold today, Sam was at your house for six hours working and you never even offered him a cup of coffee’. A bit puzzled I replied: ‘I left the house after a couple of hours and had no idea Sam would be there that long’. Bill’s response: ‘You could have made him coffee when he arrived’. OK, time to pick up the phone and talk – not text.

Seems that my expectations and theirs were different. I expect people to ask for something if they want it and given, as I recall, Sam actually arrived with a Timmie’s cup in hand, it didn’t cross my mind to offer him a cup of coffee. I also didn’t know it was going to take him six hours. I expected the job to take about two hours as that’s what was quoted by Bill. I said to Bill, ‘Sam could have knocked on the door and asked for a coffee if he wanted one’.

So we had opposing expectations at play: mine – if you want something, you ask for it, and theirs – if you’re working at someone else’s home, you wait to be offered hospitality.

If I hadn’t have cleared this up with Bill, both he and Sam probably would have made assumptions about me – perhaps that I was mean and uncaring. If we had just left it at the text and hadn’t had the conversation in person, I may have assumed that Sam was ‘soft’ for not openly stating his needs and Bill was passive aggressive because he didn’t want to talk to me in person.

I am neither mean nor uncaring and Sam is not soft; Bill is not usually passive aggressive. We simply had different expectations.

Another more unfortunate example comes from a Canadian colleague of mine; a trainer, who had been booked to deliver some workshops in the US. The company who booked him had an expectation that he had his US work visa, and assumed he did because they did not ask. He expected that he wouldn’t be questioned at the border; he further expected that if there were any questions the company who contracted him would step up. He also assumed it would be OK – but carrying workbooks, a projector, a laptop and other accoutrement of a trainer made it obvious he was travelling for work; he was turned away and the company did not step in to help.

The result? The company who booked him had paid thousands of dollars gathering its top leaders from all over the US to attend this two-day workshop now had a room full of highly-paid executives twiddling their thumbs. And the trainer – he got banned permanently from the US.

The simple fix to this of course is to clarify your expectations and assumptions. For me, if I’d told my partner the Komodo was a metaphor he would have answered entirely differently and it would have saved us an ‘interesting’ conversation.

But then again, I would have lost a powerful illustration for clarifying expectations and questioning assumptions.

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