My client was experiencing overwhelm. He had several clients demanding things all at once, and a team of people who needed answers from him now, if not yesterday. He vacillated between feelings of irritation toward clients and staff and feelings of inadequacy because he couldn’t be all things to all people all at the same time.
As we worked to untangle the very real needs of his clients and staff from the patterns of communication and expectations that were at the root of his emotions about how these demands are were handled, one thing became clear; he wasn’t getting what he needed in order to give everyone else what they needed.
In any relationship we have spoken or even written agreements, but we also have tacit agreements and expectations that we’re often not aware are in place. No matter what formal or official terms we’ve set, it’s this invisible code that is most likely to control your operational norms.
Even day-one of a relationship, these expectations might well override the agreements you’ve established because all parties in the relationship have a history of interactions to draw from. If they see a behavior from you that reminds them of something they’ve experienced from a previous employer, co-worker, advisor or even parent or life partner, it won’t matter what you’ve said or written -- their subconscious expectation is that their interactions with you will play out much the way they have in the past with someone who wasn’t you.
As time goes on, if you’ve said or done nothing to counter those expectations or establish different ones then the “unwritten rule of engagement” gains power until it’s an accepted fact that that is how things are “always going to be” between the two of you.
And that was largely what had happened for my client. He’s unwittingly trained his clients to set fires because he’s always there with a water bucket. So if they want his attention, they report a fire.
He’s unwittingly trained his largest client to make commitments based on what he wants to believe can happen, because my client has always been willing to throw on a cape, stay up all night and make the impossible appear by the deadline.
He’s unwittingly trained his team to tackle him with questions the minute he comes in the door from a meeting because they’ve observed how deep in his work he gets and how difficult it is for him to get back on track after an interruption. So they think they’re actually helping him by getting all the potential interruptions out of the way before he sits down at his desk, gets out the water bucket, or throws on his cape. With the best possible intentions on the part of all parties, several relationships, as well as my client’s state of mind, were at risk because of habits and assumptions he’d been encouraging all along.
Of course his next question was, “How can I protect myself from these expectations without letting anyone down?”
Obviously he needs to establish different expectations in all of these relationships, but he needs to do that while not only being seen as setting reasonable boundaries, but even as setting those boundaries for the mutual benefit of himself and the others in the relationship.
This begins with a simple understanding – when we are not getting what we need, the time will soon come when we cannot give others what they need either.
In each case we can ask ourselves, “What does this other person most need from me?” Then we ask, “What do I need from them in order to provide that consistently and sustainably without putting a strain on any of the parties in the relationship?”
Clearly these patterns won’t change overnight or after a single conversation. But he can begin changing the dynamic now by establishing the mutual benefit for the change. He can say to his clients, “I’ll take care of this as soon as possible, but I’ll be able to do better work for you in the future if you give me a heads up when you see these conditions since that usually indicates we have a fire forming.” Then the next time they hand off their fire to him (and they will) he can gently, but firmly remind them that they either ignored or didn’t notify him of the warning signs, so the results are going to be compromised.
He can say to his staff, “I want to answer your questions before I get into my next project, but I need 15 minutes after I walk in the door to catch my breath and make some notes from my last meeting before I meet with you.” Then when he comes in and they’re ready with their questions they shouldn’t be offended when he says, “Give me 15.”
What do you need to demand from the people around you in order to meet the demands they put on you? Have you asked for what you need?