Assumptions, Expectations, and Boundaries

7898846_xxlIf you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it. But asking is sometimes the hard part.

“Let’s meet at ___ location at about 6pm.” What does “about” mean here? Does “about” mean, “I want you to meet me exactly at 6pm?” Does it mean that we might be there by 5:45, but that it also is acceptable if we aren’t there until 6:15?

“I like it when someone else takes the trash out.” What does that mean? Does that mean the person is hinting that I should take the trash out?

“Someone needs to design a flyer.” What does that mean? Is someone being asked to design a flyer?

“We need to clear the debris out of that room.” Who’s being asked to do this? What’s the plan? Am I being asked to help, or is this just a statement about the need to clear the debris?

“I have a train that is leaving at 6:30 am.” Is this even a question? If my intent is to procure a ride to the train station for myself, shouldn’t I be asking a specific question of someone? Something more like, “Hey, I have a train leaving at 6:30 am, would you be willing to give me a ride to the train station?”


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Back to the article….I experience that many people are afraid to ask direct questions, particularly when they are asking people to do something–or worse, to do something for them. It’s part of this whole cultural passive aggressive baggage that really hinders communication efforts.

Why are we afraid to ask for help?
I can speak for myself on this one—I’m afraid that if I ask for help that someone might say no. That someone might resent me or judge me for asking for help. That I will then be stuck owing that person or be labeled as needy. There’s a whole host of reasons. Every once in a while, my deeply-hidden people-pleaser rears its ugly head. People who ask for help are judged as needy and helpless, I think. People will resent me for asking for help.

Energetically, it feels better if I hint and then they offer. That way I’m not owing them, right? Or at least, it feels more that way. Many communications lack the specifics that would actually get us what we want.

“Let’s meet up at 6pm” is at least somewhat specific. However, if Person A said “Let’s meet around 6,” and then Person A gets pissed off that Person B didn’t show up until 6:15, that really isn’t fair. “About” is a pretty vague word. If Person A needs something to happen by no later than 6pm–such as a departure–what would work better is, “I need for us to leave no later than 6pm, so please be there by 5:45.” It’s more clear and puts their needs forward. They are setting themselves up for someone to fail them if they are vague.

Why might they be vague? Well, let’s face it, being that specific and clear can be taken as being confrontational in our culture.

Here’s something that makes it more difficult is when someone asks a question when they already know an answer. Here’s an example. Let’s say Person A knows they want to leave by no later than 6pm to get somewhere else by 7pm. But they first ask Person B, “What time do you want to leave?” If Person A already knows they want to leave by 6pm, why bother asking?

And yet, we learn how to do these polite things that actually get in the way and cause micro conflicts and set us up for frustration.

Similarly, we learn that to be clear and to hold boundaries is to sound controlling and bitchy. “We need to leave at no later than 6pm, so be there at 5:45, please,” can come across as sounding harsh and unyielding.

And yet, it puts forth a clear need. If it’s actually going to tick you off to leave at 6:05, or, cause you to risk being late, it’s really your responsibility to communicate that up front.

“Let’s meet around 6ish” is something we learn to say, but it isn’t really what we want. I experience that people get really ticked off at people who don’t do what they wanted.

However, you can’t know what someone wants unless they tell you.

Expectations Uncommunicated
In fact, I notice this a lot in relationships when one partner has an expectation of another partner but never communicates it. One partner I was with expected that if someone didn’t jump up to take care of a problem that was hinted at, that that person didn’t love him. We finally came to be able to talk about this after therapy. It was an expectation he’d learned from a family member. His frustration could be anything from, the laundry pile was too full, to, he wanted to go out to dinner.

He just held the expectation that if there was something he wanted me to help with, that I’d somehow telepathically know. And when I, of course, did not read his mind to know what he wanted help with, he’d get increasingly frustrated but not tell me that he was frustrated until he exploded in anger.

You can probably start to see how something that’s really fairly miniscule like doing laundry becomes a major conflict. We’d end up in this cyclical argument where ultimately he’d say, “If you really loved me you’d just know, I wouldn’t have to ask.”

Perhaps you too have had relationship arguments that just ran around and around the barn like this.

Expectations in Groups and Leadership
The point is–you can’t expect something of someone if you haven’t asked them or told them what you want. I’m using an example from friendships and romantic relationships, however, this happens in a group setting just as easily.

“Someone needs to design the flyer” is not asking anyone to actually do that work–but you can bet that the group leader who mentioned this is going to get upset when nobody reads their mind and creates the flyer. Or the silent expectation that everyone knows they need to be at the venue 2 hours early for setup.

If you don’t ask people to do something specific, you can’t expect them to know you needed the help. I talk to a lot of group leaders who get frustrated with people in their groups who aren’t stepping up to do the work. And yes–volunteers often drop the ball, it’s the nature of the beast. However, many of these group leaders are not properly articulating the question, they are not asking people to do a task.

Here’s a mistake I’ve made in the past–I’ve put out the email to “everyone” listing the things that need to be done for XYZ event, or the Facebook post saying, “Can anyone do XYZ?” And then I get no responses. What gets a better response is, “Hey Pat, I know you’re really a great graphic designer, would you be willing to design a flyer for the event? I understand if you are busy.” When you actually ask people for help, you might get it–and you might get the help you are actually asking for.

But if I sit there and angrily stew that nobody is helping me with tasks–and I never asked them explicitly to do those tasks–that one’s on me.

Sometimes the Answer is No
Going further, you can’t really expect someone to act in a way that goes against their nature, against their values. I’m not talking about high-minded values, I’m talking about, what you value in the sense of, where you are willing to spend your time, energy, and money.

I value having time to spend working on writing, artwork, and community building. I’ve simplified my life in order to reflect those values. I don’t value expensive food, going out for dinner, or drinking, for instance. A former partner of mine was an extrovert (I’m an introvert) and greatly valued hanging out with people, going out for dinner. He was a foodie, I wasn’t. He liked to drink, I didn’t. He would get mad at me for not caving to his wishes and coming out with him to social events that I didn’t want to spend the money on. They were events that I wasn’t going to enjoy, and I didn’t value spending my time or my money on them.

“If you really loved me you’d do things you don’t want to do because I want you to do them,” was among his ways of trying to manipulate me.

And here’s the thing–group leaders sometimes do this. Visionaries, stubborn group leaders, we do this, and we don’t mean to. It’s a mistake I’ve made in the past and I’ve worked to correct that. I’ve tried to pressure people into going against their nature, guilting people into doing something “for the event” or “for the group.”

Sometimes, when I ask someone for help, the answer is no. And as a group leader, I have to be ok with that, I have to respect someone’s “no.”

Manipulation and Expectations
Let me take a moment to step back and point out how putting pressure on people to do what you want them to do can be incredibly manipulative whether it’s a friend, lover, or someone in your group. The person who is trying to hold a boundary and say, “No, I don’t value that,” is made to feel horrible by the guilting.

When my own former partner tried to get me to do what he wanted, I began to  doubt myself. I was pretty clear at first that I was just holding a boundary. After a while, I began to wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Am I really that terrible?” Sometimes, my partner’s words led me to going against what I knew was good for me. In the context of a relationship, this can end up into a very abusive, codependent spiral. In my case, this exacerbated my existing depression and made it worse.

However, group dynamics and relationships are very similar, and a leader who is pressuring people to do things in a group–even for altruistic reasons–is still sliding on that slippery slope into an abusive dynamic. Pressuring people to taking on event planning roles might get your event done, but it’s ultimately not going to build a healthy group. I’ve learned that the hard way.

Groups are a Relationship
So when the group leader (Person A) really wants people in the group to volunteer to take ritual roles but nobody does, Person A is going to get frustrated. However, Person A didn’t communicate their need clearly, and then usually ends up browbeating people for not volunteering.

If they set up the expectation up front–or better yet, walked through what they need, and listened to their group members who might not want to take ritual roles–there would be less frustration all around.

Nobody likes the abusive dynamic of waiting for the group leader/parent to blow up at them. If the group leader puts out there, “We put on 8 sabbats, and I need at least 5 people to step in and take ritual roles each time or I won’t be able to facilitate the sabbat, how many of you are interested in volunteering?” and then perhaps also asks, “Are there any of you who really don’t want to ever take ritual roles?” and then listens to those folks share why, a conversation can happen. Negotiation can happen.

Maybe some of the folks don’t want to take roles because they are shy, but would be willing to take really small roles and learn to get better at public speaking work, but they are afraid to take on the bigger roles that the group leader is offering. Maybe some of the folks just have absolutely zero interest in facilitating.

Help people in your group build healthier boundaries–a healthier sense of self, and the ability to say no to you, the leader. And yeah, as a visionary, sometimes that sucks. Sometimes it means the event isn’t going to be as grand as your vision. I’ve been there. I have another T-shirt.

Organizing Events
Pagan Pride or another local festival is a great example. I hear from a lot of PPD organizers that they have a hard time getting volunteers, and have a hard time getting local people involved. They get frustrated when their local community doesn’t even show up for an event, or when local community leaders don’t take an active part.

But I wonder, how many PPD and festival coordinators actually work to establish relationships with local community and leaders by going to other folks’ events? Some do. Some don’t. How many festival organizers actually make the time to research local groups and go and introduce themselves? How many ask for specific help? Putting out a post, “I need help with XYZ day-long festival, I need volunteers,” is vague. “I need 10 people for 2-hour shifts at the info table greeting people” is specific.

I’ll be clear–volunteer management is not my strength. If I’m working with a skilled volunteer coordinator I can help break tasks down simply like that, but it’s not an area where I have as much skill. However, it’s an important factor in breaking down tasks because volunteers are much more likely to help when you outline exactly what you need.

Getting Other Groups Involved
Many Pagan organizers find it challenging to get other groups involved. One thing that I can say–and I’ve worked with a lot of groups in a lot of regions–is that most groups tend to get tunnel vision.

Now–sometimes this is just boundaries and focus. People only have so many hours in the day, and when you are running a small group or an activity as a volunteer, you may not have time or resources to do more. Remember–sometimes the answer is “no.” No is the answer you are giving when someone asks you to help with their project and you just never get back to them, it’s just an indirectly communicated no.

Event organizers and visionaries also get the tunnel vision of “I want everyone to like my project! I want everyone to want to donate time to this cool thing that I’m doing!” I see a lot of Pagan leaders do this. I’ve done it myself. What happens is, a leader gets a great idea for something, and gets upset that everyone is not as excited as they are, and that their requests for help aren’t met with overwhelming enthusiasm. Much less people jumping on board to read the organizer’s mind and take on tasks like vendor coordination and fundraising and programming.

However, the truth is, that not everyone is as excited about that thing as the person/group that came up with it. And other groups have other focuses. What’s also ironic–and this is something that I see a lot too–is that the folks organizing a bigger cool event, like a Pagan Pride or other day-long festival, get upset when more local leaders and groups don’t get involved, but then those organizers themselves don’t reciprocate and support what other groups are doing.

I have seen local event organizers get snippy when more people don’t support their event, and then they themselves plan fundraising and other events and other events right over the top of what other groups are doing. They don’t do it out of malice, just carelessness.

But what it can look like to a local Pagan leader is something like, “So you want me to donate my time and energy to your event, and then you just scheduled a fundraiser at the same time as my open ritual/class/event/thing and you never come to my events. Nope, not going to support your event.”

Which…is part of why we have so many petty conflicts, because scheduling accidents happen and people take things personally, but a lot of it boils down to awareness. Keeping track of what other groups are doing is a mighty challenge, and we have little infrastructure for it.

There’s that old saying about assumptions, and it really is true. Whenever we have an expectation or assumption about someone else–an assumption about their motivation..”They are doing this because they hate me, they are out to get me,” or an expectation, “Why aren’t they doing this thing that I need them to do for this event?” In these instances, we’re setting ourselves up for conflict and failure.

So what can we do? First is strengthening our own healthy boundaries as leaders, and working to help members of our groups strengthen their boundaries. Then there’s checking our assumptions. Is that true? Or are we just pissed off? There’s our expectations; did someone fail to live up to your expectation? Did they betray you? Or, did you never effectively communicate your expectations to your group members?

What we can do is work to be better. Notice the places where we’ve been hitting our heads against the wall and are frustrated, and work to change things so that it’s better next time. For an excellent resource on boundaries, I recommend the book “Where You End and I Begin.”

If you want things to happen, begin by asking for them. Clearly, and without ambiguity. You might get a yes, you might get a no. But at least you’ll know, and you aren’t setting yourself to be ticked off at someone later for dropping the ball. When a volunteer drops the ball, it often means that they should have said “no,” but they felt pressured to say “yes.”

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: Boundaries, clergy, communication, communication skills, community, community building, expectations, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, personal transformation