Communication, Relationships

When is a “plan” Not a Plan?

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
— every military strategist in the history of conflict, ever.

In today’s statement of the blisteringly obvious: relational communications can fall apart in a mind-boggling number of ways. “Mere words” are asked to convey an awful lot of things, from disparate meanings to unspoken intentions to the severe gravitas of emotional expectation.

When relational partners agree that change of some kind is necessary to improve the workings of their relationship, they have to use words to navigate both the agreement that change is necessary (a potentially massive undertaking in and of itself) and to create an understanding of WHAT change will look like. Early on in my practice, I noticed something perplexing: clients would talk amongst themselves and with me about ideas for how things could change, and somewhere down the road a deeply-emotional conflict would often develop from those early conversations. I also noticed this same pattern happening on less intense levels, where a conflict, or at least confusion, would arise from an errant set of expectations shaped out of a previous discussion or negotiation.

“I thought we had a plan.”
“I thought I knew what the plan was.”
“My partner didn’t stick to the plan.”
“I didn’t know there WAS a plan.”

Plan, plan, plan… something about the word was getting lost in translation, somewhere.
In more recent years, I’ve been working with emotional flags as triggers for examining expectations, the often unvoiced aspects of these relational navigations and negotiations. If someone is feeling disappointed, frustrated, annoyed, etc., my first question is always, “What were you EXPECTING?,” then looking at how (or even if) those expectations were communicated upfront. Often the precipitating conversation(s) will have discussed ideas, but the translation between what is an idea and what is The Plantm is generally shown to be where the wheels come off the wagon.

What then is the problem?

When we discuss ideas, especially in a context that has some emotional weight already present, it’s a surprisingly easy thing to attach some of that emotional weight to an idea that we then champion. We put effort into presenting and defending that idea, and if it seems like there’s a sense of support or buy in from our partner in that discussion, then we often presume we have buy-in, and therefore that we have established The Plantm, a locked-in, presumably-mutually-agreed-to set of intentions for forthcoming actions. So imagine now what happens when one person walks away assuming there is The Plantm, and getting emotionally invested in that Plan, and emotionally attached to a specific (probably the desired) outcome of The Plantm… only to find out later that the other person walked away from the same conversation believing that, while they had a great discussion about ideas, that they had NOT established any explicit commitments or even agreements to what next steps might entail.

In short, a plan is NOT A Plantm without that explicit agreement to the intended steps and a clear delineation of who’s taking responsibility for what and a mutual agreement about timelines and success criteria. I know that sounds like an awful lot of work just to make a plan for who’s going to take out the trash every week, or who’s going to drop out of the workforce to take care of a special needs child, or who’s going to have to go to therapy because the relationship needs work. The truth of the matter as I have witnessed it repeatedly over the years (and as I have been guilty of doing in my own relationships), is that a plan is NOT A Plantm just because one partner has started to emotionally invest in a specific outcome. Even a discussion that ends on a generally-sympatico attitude about the topic does not constitute a Plan unless and until there is EXPLICIT buy-in from ALL involved parties as to the details of execution, and that’s where things often fall apart.

“Achieving consensus” does NOT mean “achieving consent”.
“We have an idea” does NOT mean “we have A Plantm.”
“We are in general agreement that this thing needs to happen” does NOT equate with, “We have a detailed set of intentions with clear ownership of who will do what, when, and to what success criteria”. Yet that’s where a lot of relational discussions get hung up. “We are in agreement that this thing needs to happen” will often get taken away by one party to mean, “And now this thing will happen when and how I expect it to.” Except it oftentimes does not happen that way… hence the sense of disappointment, annoyance, irritation, etc. If the relationship has already been plagued by those kinds of feelings, this can read like further proof of the relationship’s unviable status.

When I’m working with relational partners who have been tripping on these kinds of unspoken expectations, we work backwards from the point of recognizing the disappointment. “What were you EXPECTING?” is my first question to the disappointed partner. We have to look at the difference between a general consensus on ideas, a detailed design of steps for actually implementing those ideas, and the actual consent to participate in that implementation process. (In corporate-speak, it’s the exact same process as having a customer come forward with a feature idea, the business teams collaboratively designing the internal development process and budget and scheduling to implement that feature request, then the business and the customer explicitly signing off on a contract for that development process. We all need ideas as a starting point, but ideas alone are a terrible finishing point. We need a structural understanding of what the intentions are and what the process will be, in order to provide informed consent to participate in that process. And we can’t trust that the process will even get started without that explicit, informed consent.

In short, a plan is NOT A Plantm unless and until we have active engagement and consent on all of these items. Anything short of that is a lot of Wishful Thinkingtm with a forecast of heavy Disappointment & Dissatisfactiontm.

So if in your various relationships you find you experience a lot of disappointments around people not executing to plan as expected:

  1. check in on your own expectations; what were you expecting?
  2. had you (or even, how had you) communicated those expectations?
  3. did you and the partner discuss ideas, or did you create a detailed set of executable intentions?
  4. did you both leave the discussion with explicit consent to deliver on this set of intentions, according to mutually established criteria?

If you can answer Yes to all of the above, then you absolutely had A Plantm, and you can both sit down to look at where things went wrong within the process. If you answer No to any or all of the above, then you did NOT have A Plantm, and can start to look at the steps where things didn’t follow the plan-development process to implement changes in what IS being communicated, or how.

(And yes, there is a whole different conversation about managing expectations when one partner’s ability to either communicate OR to deliver on explicitly-negotiated expectations is vastly different from the other partner’s, and how to set realistic expectations accordingly. That’s a topic for another day.)

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