Clear and honest communication is the shortest distance to creating trust in relationships. Whether we are talking to colleagues in the boardroom, children in the kitchen, or partners in the bedroom, we are at risk of creating mistrust and unnecessary negativity when unspoken expectations are not met, and presumed agreements have been broken. When agreements are spoken, truthful and explicit, everyone understands the rules of the road.
Explicit agreements are verbalized commitments that are defined in specific and observable terms. For example, rather than telling your child that they will earn an allowance for cleaning up their room every day, an explicit agreement explains that they will earn their allowance by putting their toys in their closet by 8 p.m. A commitment to get together with your friend every other weekend might instead be defined as an agreement to meet at noon every other Saturday at a chosen coffee shop.
Explicit agreements prevent wasted time debating the specifics of an agreement as well as the negativity and frustration associated with ambiguous communication. When explicit agreements are violated, there is less confusion about the issue and the consequences of the violation. Most arguments emerge from the perception that agreements have been broken. The less explicit the agreement, the more room for misunderstanding and conflict.
Unspoken agreements are assumed commitments that have not been discussed. Unexpected and intense emotion may arise when unspoken commitments are confronted, especially if each party has incompatible assumptions. It may be as simple as believing that your friend doesn’t mind that you are routinely late, or that a co-worker doesn’t care if you “borrow” their milk in the company refrigerator. The truth is that you really don’t know how they feel about your behavior. To make matters worse, you may assume that the silence of your friend or co-worker communicates tacit acceptance of your behavior, and unspoken permission to continue the behavior. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, the other party may be steaming with anger.
Relationships are two-way streets that require both the driver’s attention and an explicit agreement about the rules of the road. Just because you wouldn’t mind, doesn’t mean they won’t. Your job is to observe your behavior and consider how your friend or coworker might feel in a given situation. If there is any question, check in with them to see if you are breaking the rules.
If you are the offended party, your job is to decide to confront it or let it go. Choosing silence because you do not want to appear petty or create conflict is a short-term solution to an enduring problem. Respond honestly when asked. Take responsibility for your words. If you say it’s okay, people will trust that you mean what you say, and will continue to take liberties.
The less explicit the agreement, the more room for misunderstanding and conflict.
Unfortunately, more often than not, neither party does their job. When these issues are eventually confronted, there may be disproportionate emotion and conflict. The offender usually apologizes for something they didn’t know, and the offended party similarly admits they should have mentioned it earlier. Ideally, an explicit agreement would be negotiated to avoid future misunderstanding.
Not one of us is without a list of unfulfilled expectations, and unintended infractions that we have committed against others. Yet there are some unspoken agreements that can have enormous consequences for the course of our lives. Expecting that your fiancé wants children as much as you do, counting on an annual raise, or presuming that your lover wants to marry you or anyone else, are unspoken agreements that, when made explicit, can leave you feeling unnecessarily betrayed.
Taking responsibility for defining agreements when possible, and keeping current about our assumptions with each other reduces the chance of unnecessary negativity and damaged trust. It’s our job to discuss our expectations in clear and behavioral terms, and to be aware of how our behavior affects others. Most importantly, we can only do our job when we are truthful about our intentions and honest about our reactions.
While none of us enjoy accidents, it is better to share an awkward fender-bender, than the enduring whiplash of an emotional collision.