Subvert Expectations This Year

Most of us do the many of the same things in the same way every day. We take the same route to the grocery store, we have the same routine in the shower, we turn to the same meals for dinner.

Routine is helpful—it lessens the number of decisions we need to make every day. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to decide whether to wash my hair or my face first every time I get in the shower. Having some stuff just be on autopilot is necessary.

But. (You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?)

We also have engrained habits that affect how we communicate. Most of these are good, or at least neutral. They’re serving us well. Others,  though, may be undermining our real objectives. These habits could prevent people from connecting with us or from understanding our true message.

I’ll give you an example. Years ago I was coaching a woman who was giving a presentation that included some tough news. She smiled through the whole thing—constantly and unvaryingly. She smiled when we chatted, she smiled when she described in more detail the bad news she had to give in the presentation, and she smiled while I gave her feedback.

Finally, I said, “I am noticing that a smile is your default expression, no matter what you’re talking about. Did you know that?” She nodded. I said, “I’d like you to try giving the presentation without smiling. Don’t change anything else.”

She froze for a moment, then said she was willing to try.

The change was astonishing. With her face unsmiling, more neutral, her voice dropped in pitch, and though I had not asked her to change any of what she said in the talk, she intuitively simplified her message. Looking at me directly, she delivered the bad news. I heard and understood it much more clearly than when she had delivered the message before, through a smile.

This client’s smiling habit was deeply ingrained, and I’m not qualified to explore with her the psychological reasons she adopted that habit in the first place. What I did share, though, was this: “Everyone at work is used to your smile. You have trained them to expect it. You know, now, that you can deliver news without smiling, if you choose to, and that ability to choose is very powerful. Be aware that, if you choose not to smile when you speak to someone, it’s going to have a big impact.”

The expectation of the people she worked with was that she would smile, no matter what. She could upend their expectation by the simple act of keeping a more neutral expression.

We have all trained those around us to expect certain things from our communication style. It may not be as extreme as my smiling client, but there’s something. What do you think they expect? What might you learn from subverting the expectation? How could your habit be keeping others from understanding you more completely?

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