I’m sure you’re completely familiar with the standard way of starting training events: you’re asked to state your expectations for it. No doubt you’ve compliantly gone along with the request (we all have). But now I’m offering you 5 good reasons to be a rebel.
Expectations give a false sense of certainty
While there’s something beguilingly assertive in stating, “My expectations of today’s training are …”, this can be a disservice to ourselves and everyone else in the room. We can see what makes it so attractive: it gives us something to measure success against; it offers an important last-minute steer for the trainer about what to include or leave out; and it might even give a bit of a buzz to the participants who are, after all, the customers with rights in this situation.
But I was recently planning a personal development event, and automatically went for this standard question. But something felt off: I realized that I might be setting participants up for failure, not success.
The smarter and more effective question is: “What’s your intention for today?”
Why? Well, an expectation is “a strong belief that something will happen”, whereas an intention has a whole different flavour: it’s “a mental state that represents commitment to carrying out an action”.
So what makes an intention better? And how can you use intention to transform not only any training you attend, but your day, your work, your relationships, and pretty much anything else?
Set intentions instead
Here are 5 reasons to set intentions rather than expectations:
1. Intention implies how you’ll be for the duration of the event (or relationship or life) rather than what you’ll have at the end of it. This emphasis on the way you’ll think, behave and respond directs your attention to how you want to feel on the journey. And we instinctively know that the journey is the jewel.
2. Intention implies you are taking responsibility. You’re making a conscious decision to take an active part in proceedings, not hand everything over to someone else (the trainer, a boss, your partner). And while taking conscious responsibility might sound like harder work, it’s actually a lot less stressful. After all, research into Second World War bomber crews showed that the greatest stress was felt by the men in the back of the plane, not the ones up front steering the direction and making the decisions.
3. Intention implies you’re open to an unfolding process, not sticking rigidly to a fixed view of the way things should be. Being able to respond to things as they develop is a lot more empowering than thinking they have to happen a certain way otherwise they, or you, are a failure. Things happen; we learn how we feel when we’re open to responding flexibly; and we often find we re-define success on the basis of this.
4. Intention has a feeling-tone of being relaxed and open; expectation feels more tense and closed. The softer note of intention allows for more creativity and possibilities than the harsh note of expectation.
5. Intention engages our emotions; whereas expectation prioritizes rational thinking. Given that we’re driven by how we want to feel (everything we do is done at some level to make us feel more happy or just less sad), it makes sense to bring our emotions in from the start and use them throughout, rather than sideline them.
I’m not suggesting expectations don’t have their place (for example, it would be foolhardy to set up a contract without stating your explicit requirements), but maybe we can get expectations to work for us rather than unconsciously undermining ourselves with them.
How to set intentions for success
Try it for yourself. As an experiment, think of something you want and then test the expectations or intentions you’d like to set. For example:
* You’ve planned a family event, and taken a lot of care to ensure everyone’s preferences will be met. Rather than settling for an explicit or implicit expectation that things will or won’t go smoothly, try drawing your intentions into the foreground and holding them there for the duration of your time together.
Maybe your heart-felt intentions include enjoying each others’ company; acknowledging everyone’s unique contribution to this particular family; or giving people the space to feel truly relaxed and ‘off duty’.
* You’re steeling yourself for a dreaded ‘difficult’ conversation with a work colleague. Your expectation may be that it’s going to be hard going to get them to see your point of view and get them to do what you want.
Try setting the intention to listen, to be present, to find out what’s driving them to be ‘difficult’ and from this new information, find a mutual resolution.
* You’ve got a personal goal that you want to achieve and it means a lot to you. Instead of setting minute expectations for what the final thing will look like and how you’ll get it, turn your attention to the ‘why’ you want this thing, how you expect you’ll feel when you have it, and what it will allow you to do.
Take some time to visualize this and experience the sensations in your body as you answer each of these questions in turn. Let these responses guide your intentions for how you’ll be, the ways in which you’ll behave and how you’ll respond to the inevitable successes and disappointments of your journey towards this goal.
Taking personal responsibility in these ways can also affect others’ behaviour towards us; those closest to us can stop having to be mind-readers when we stop having unstated but real expectations and start embodying our intentions. Rather than passing the buck and wanting others to behave in a way that suits us, we’re free to be more honestly ourself and enable others to do the same.
I hope you’ll find that setting intentions can be liberating, in a way that having expectations rarely is.
Tell me …
How have you used intentions or expectations? What do you recommend others reading this try for themselves? Let me and other readers know in the comments below.