Rubber Bands and Expectations
by Tom Sylvest, Jr.
Here’s a humorous tale from our home restoration. There are many tales. As painful as the process became I can find humor here and there as I look back over the years.
Dad as Sounding BoardThroughout the restoration of our home, Dad served as a sounding board. I could complain about the contractors, describe my frustrations with the mortgage company, and unload my skirmishes with my lovely bride, Kathleen. He patiently listened to my moaning and groaning. Sometimes he fed the flame stoking the fire with enthusiastic affirmation of my viewpoint. He calmed me down and offered an alternative way of looking at things just as often. He listened well and responded with wisdom, insights and guidance. Had I been 16 years old, there’s a good chance I would have known more than him. In my mid-sixties I’m astounded by my ignorance. Go get a sounding board. Everyone needs one.
Upended ExpectatioonsI tossed many subjects at my sounding board. One in particular received a lot of attention, “upended expectations.” Contending with expectations seemed to surround everything happening in the restoration process. Deliveries scheduled for one day didn’t arrive for a week. Contractors said they would be on the property by 7:30am for a full day of work. They’d arrive after lunch, work, then leave mid-afternoon. My excitement rose with the prospect of having an appliance installed only to discover I needed to rewire a wall requiring the drywall to be removed.
Deadlines died. Target dates meant nothing. Prospective milestones shifted beyond reach. Flood victims should receive participation trophies for playing in the upended expectation games in the months and years following the disaster.
The Resulting ConflictUpended expectations in relationships represent a major source of interpersonal conflict. Working with my teacher and mentor, clinical psychologist Edwin O. Timmons, I became an authority on interpersonal conflict and the principles and techniques of conflict resolution. Over the years I facilitated countless conflict resolutions in the workplaces of our clients. It would seem I could handle this stuff. But no!
Around our home’s restoration, conflict ran roughshod. Confronting upended expectations and the resulting conflict consumed my time, occupied my mind and permeated my conversations with everyone. My bewilderment overwhelmed my life. If someone asked me how things were going, I likely blasted them with a description of the last three conflicts. I can’t imagine my friends and family enjoyed hearing my woes. I tried to find humor in the distress I felt. I tried to turn lemons into lemonade. I imagine my attempts at complaining in an entertaining manner fell flat frequently. My motto became: “I try not to complain, but when I do, I try to make it entertaining.”
Contractors and their crews gave me the most source of conflict. It would be fruitless to share the list of all the mistakes, problems and concerns I encountered. One sample problem did stand out from the rest. The “starting time for work” issue annoyed me the most. This gave me frequent conflicts. For instance, when a contractor says he will start work at 7:30am, what does that mean? The contractor may think he starts work at 7:30am when he goes to Home Depot to purchase supplies for the day. On the other hand, I reasonably expected him and his crew to be on the property at 7:30am. If I don’t see them until the afternoon, I have been stuck all morning waiting for them. I get pissed. My expectations have been upended. I work myself up into a frenzy prepared to go to war.
My Education Fails MeI had the education and training to avoid upended expectations. I have a toolbox filled with the ways and means of effective communications. I could have avoided frustration and pain had I used my tools. I was the expert in communications. I knew the steps to clarify expectations and minimize conflict. I was equipped to define the relationships and commitments made to me. The delivery person, the contractor, the banker, the insurance customer service people, the building inspector, the adjuster, and the host of other folks with their fingers in my restoration knew their little piece of the work to be done. They just didn’t have the communication skills I had hoped they would have had. They moved their lips, but it wasn’t communications. I don’t know what it was.
I knew I had failed to use what I knew. I felt like a marriage counselor going through a divorce. I didn’t feel very competent. It seemed my stress blocked my access to knowledge and skills I had at my disposal. I knew better, but didn’t have a clue as to what to do.
I take most of the responsibility for the conflict I experienced. I thought when someone told me what they would do and when they would do it I could believe them. Silly me. I didn’t want to think people were liars, thieves and frauds. I didn’t want to be on my guard at all times. I didn’t want to be nitpicking and pedantic in my dealings. I just wanted folk to be straight with me. I wanted them to keep their promises. I wanted them to be on time. I wanted them to tell me when they couldn’t fulfill a commitment. I wanted them to inform me of any changes in plans. I expected way too much. I was the fool.
Resolving ConflictConflict resolution often depends upon changing the perspectives of the parties involved. That often requires redefining the expectations each party holds about a situation or circumstance. One party may need to specify the objective in unambiguous terms, identify the resources required to achieve the objective, define the constraints within which the objective will be reached, provide a timeline and time range for the completion of each task that supports the objective, and offer the possible and probable obstacles that could emerge preventing success. The other party may need to ask questions, seek clarification, demand definitions of unfamiliar terms, and restate the objective and all of the terms upon which the parties have agreed. Easy to say, but tough to implement. I could talk a damn good game. I just didn’t play it well.
This interpersonal work when trying to reach an objective is a cumbersome, time-consuming process. However, the process we had taught and used worked like magic. People who had haphazardly managed others for years had epiphanies during the seminars. We dove deep into setting standards, supervising others, delegating work, and imposing appropriate consequences. While it takes time and effort, productivity dramatically increases and the work environment markedly improves using the principles and techniques, education and training, and methods and systems we shared.
Complaining with PurposeAll of this I bounced off Dad. I gave him the particulars, discussed my frustrations and vented my anger. Over the months, he heard about every expectation I created. He expressed his pain in seeing me struggle with the dastardly folk keeping me out of my house. As supportive as Dad was there was not much he could do, but tell me I wasn’t crazy for feeling the way I did.
I use a saying frequently. I don’t know where I heard it. I don’t know if I made it up. I often attribute it to my dad. It has been around for years. It is, “Complaining is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.” I often apply this concept to myself. After a bout of complaining I use my guilt to drive me to productive solutions. I may rock for a bit, but I get out of the rocking chair and take positive steps no matter how small.
(I have learned the saying is attributable to Robert Eggleton, from one of his characters in “Rarity from the Hollow,” circa 2012. Frankly, I have been voicing this saying long before 2012. I know I used it when we rebuilt the house after hurricanes Gustav and Ike and that was in 2008. So I doubt this guy was its origin. I also doubt that I am the origin.)
In a conversation with Dad I stumbled upon a positive step in the middle of my complaining. The step I came upon had little to do with my organizational behavior training. A Sunday morning in October dawned following an LSU football game the night before. I woke early, fixed a cup of coffee and sat in my camp chair in the shade of our RV in the tailgate parking lot. I called Dad to visit, to talk about the game, to see how he was doing, and get him caught up on my doings since the last time we talked.
The conversation drifted to the house project and my most recent complaints. At some point we discussed expectations. I decided my biggest problem, the one that made me most miserable, centered on expectations. Someone would tell me they were going to do something, I’d get all excited, they wouldn’t do it, I would fall into a dark funk, and repeat as necessary. This expectation cycle ate my lunch, drove me nuts, and made me unpleasant company. I realized I had the power to overcome my troubles and ease my mind. The solution to it all was deceptively simple. I just needed a rubber band.
The Rubber Band PlanLarry Hagman, the actor from “I Dream of Jeanie” and “Dallas” television series, smoked cigarettes. He quit smoking by wearing a rubber band on his wrist and popping the rubber band anytime he felt the urge to pick up a cigarette. He successfully quit smoking and shared this technique in ubiquitous television commercials in the 70s. It’s a form of aversion therapy using negative reinforcement theory developed by B. F. Skinner. This operant conditioning technique I used on myself for other behaviors I wanted to stop. It worked for Larry and his smoking cessation efforts. I didn’t see any reason I could not use it on myself to reduce the stress of upended expectations.
I told Dad, “I need a rubber band on my wrist. Whenever someone like a contractor or delivery guy says he’ll do something or deliver something on a specific date or time, I could pop that rubber band to remind myself I needed to lower my expectations.”
“You’ll be popping that rubber band a lot, son,” Dad suggested.
We got a kick out of the concept. We came up with different humorous scenarios where popping the rubber band to lower expectations would come in handy. We imagined using it in the marital bedroom. We pictured deploying rubber bands when college football predictions got published. We thought about how they’d come in handy at retail outlets, online shopping venues, and movie theaters. We could see a huge market for rubber bands specifically designed to lower expectations. Then we realized we had set that expectation too high. We needed to lower our expectation for the marketability of rubber bands designed to lower expectations. We need a rubber band for even rubber bands.
We got a good laugh out of the rubber band idea and moved on in the conversation. Before long I explained to Dad that my new studio just needed flooring installed. I told him I talked to the flooring people and they intended to start Monday and finish Wednesday. I explained that after I sealed the floor I could move in within a couple of days. That meant I could be up and running by that Friday or Saturday.
Dad gently suggested, “Pop that rubber band, son!”