A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I was casually dating an awesome girl. Or at least I thought that we were casually dating. At the time, I thought that as long as I was adept enough to avoid “the talk”, things would remain casual. Her thoughts were different. From her point of view, we had become serious right away. Needless to say, it was an extremely awkward situation when it became clear that we weren’t aligned in terms of the rules and expectations of the relationship.
And that’s when I found out about the danger of unspoken contracts. An unspoken contract is what happens when a lack of explicit verbal communication allows for each party to apply their own assumptions to a situation. A nonverbal contract, if you will. If those assumptions on the contract are not the same, there is friction as both sides begin to realize that the other party isn’t exhibiting the expected behavior.
Unfortunately, my relationship with this awesome girl didn’t work out. And as I’ve matured, I’ve realized that an honest discussion of your expectations at the beginning of a courtship saves a ton of drama and heartache.
The same theory applies to the workplace. A manager who isn’t able to clearly communicate her expectations to the people she’s managing will always be frustrated. An employee who isn’t able to communicate his goals to his boss a couple of months before his review risks being disappointed by the outcome.
Unspoken contracts are also dangerous in athletics. If a teammate is expecting someone new to the team to run a specific route when faced with a zone defense, it should be communicated. It should not be assumed. Otherwise you risk not having your receivers running the patterns that allow you to break the zone.
WHY IT OCCURS
So why do these situations occur? The answer is simple. We assume that other party is able to figure out what our goals and expectations are. We think that the environment, our personality and our behavior are enough to indicate our intentions.
And we are either too embarrassed or too shy to express our thoughts verbally. So we rely on subtle non-verbal cues to hint at our intentions, hoping that they are enough. But the truth of the matter is that the other party is not psychic. They can’t know exactly what’s going on in our heads without us explicitly telling them.
HOW TO AVOID UNSPOKEN CONTRACTS
The best way to avoid unspoken contracts is to communicate your goals and expectations clearly and early on. If you want a promotion in 6 months, say so. If you want to casually date and have fun, be explicit. If you are looking for a long term romantic partner, don’t be afraid of “scaring people off” by being honest about it. In fact, I would say that it is even more important to let your potential partners know early on. As the stakes increase, so does the necessity to be brutally honest about what your expectations are.
I have been fortunate enough in the past 12 months to have friends and mentors to push me to be brave. They have pushed me to have the awkward conversations early on and not be embarrassed about admitting what I want. And in 90% of those “awkward” conversations that I’ve had, the other party is refreshed, impressed and grateful for my honesty. I know it’s not an easy step to take, but it does save a lot of frustration. Good luck!