Expectations vs. Reality – Communications is the Key!

Greetings to all!

If this is the first time you are reading one of my blog posts I am going to stop you right now and ask you to first read my March 25, 2020 post entitled “Keeping it all in perspective!” As a matter of fact, even if you have already read it, please read it again right now. There is no such thing as over-communicating! In “Keeping it all in perspective!” I talk about the birth, life, and death of my only biological son, Ian Joseph Sanders.

Ian Joseph Sanders, Fall 1989

The focus of today’s post is reconciling the oft times differences between expectations versus reality. I’ll get right to the topic…First, don’t lie to me now, did you read/reread “Keeping it all in perspective!”? I am trusting you! I’ll give you a minute to think about your answer. 60, 59, 58…OK, time’s up, we need to move on.

Speaking of “moving on”, let’s talk about the unpopular topic of death for a moment. As you know, I was the father of a beautiful red-headed baby boy with Down’s Syndrome named Ian. We chose the name Ian as it meant “warrior” and we thought it fitting for the son of a West Point graduate and grandson of a navy veteran. It is easy to see by the picture below which service Ian preferred, just sayin’ Mr. Wild.

My son Ian, adoring my ARMY shirt 1988 Christmas Present. Also shown with me is Ian’s grandpa, Robert Wild

As it turned out, Ian was appropriately named as he had five surgeries in his 29-month lifetime, the first being open heart surgery at the age of 6 months and a weight of just 11 pounds. He was a warrior all right as he successfully recovered from those five surgeries only to succumb to pneumonia.

To say Ian’s death was a shock is a gross understatement. The doctor had told us that Ian was recovering well from his pneumonia and that he would be most likely be well enough to come home by the next weekend (January 6-7, 1990). I stayed with him on Friday, January 5 till he fell asleep around 10:30pm. I had high hopes of coming back the next day after finishing my New York Times and Newark Star Ledger paper routes and bringing Ian home. Ian’s three sisters, his mother, and I had left all our Christmas presents unopened under the Christmas tree waiting for this reunion as Ian had been in the hospital since before Christmas 1989. Our excitement level and expectations were sky high!

But the reality was that our reunion would not be a happy one that weekend. While I was “out on the route” Saturday morning my wife took a call from the hospital. She was excited as she expected to hear that Ian was ready to come home! Instead, she heard “Ian has expired”. In shock, she said “WHAT?!!!” The doctor repeated “Ian has expired” and hung up the phone. (as a side note, I do not believe in revenge, but I do believe in karma. That very doctor was a New York Times customer of mine who was one of those constant complainers. That is, until his own son passed away three years after Ian died. Suddenly, the small, petty things didn’t matter to the doctor anymore. Karma?)

Expectations versus reality. I first learned about the relationship between those two concepts from the funeral director who hosted Ian’s viewings. He was also a trained psychologist. About a month after Ian’s passing, our funeral director invited Ian’s mother and me to join a handful of other couples who had recently lost a child to a “grief seminar.”

The counselor began by welcoming all of us to the seminar with the statement,” We all expect to bury our parents. We sometimes expect to bury a spouse or sibling. We NEVER expect to bury our child. And that is why each of you were invited here today.” He started his session by drawing a circle on a blank flip chart that was mounted on an easel.  Inside the circle he wrote the word “EXPECTATIONS


He then flipped the page to a blank sheet and drew another circle. In this second circle he wrote the word “REALITY

He then flipped to the third blank chart and this time drew two blank circles far apart from each other. He wrote the word “Expectations” in one circle and “Reality” in the other. He drew a straight line connecting the two circles and told us that the line between the two circles represented grief, stress, depression, anxiety or any emotion that exists when expectations and reality are not in alignment.

That made a lot of sense to all of us in the room.  What the counselor described next was the most insightful point I have learned in my entire life.

He stated that every day our mind records a snapshot of that day’s experiences and files it away in our memory bank. He likened our mind to a filing cabinet with an infinite number of potential files. He then mentioned that up until the day when our loved one passed away, our loved one appeared in that day’s snapshot. The day after our loved one’s funeral, the new snapshot no longer has our loved one in it. And the next day, and the next day, and the next. He stated that after hundreds of snapshots without our departed loved ones in it, our expectations slowly change. While we still grieve, we slowly become accustomed to the fact that we will not see our loved one (on this earth) anymore. In our flip chart scenario, this can be represented by the two circles coming slowly closer together until, eventually, they are almost concentric circles.

Grieving over time begins to align reality and expectations

Eventually (and experts say that this timeframe is three years for death of a loved one), the two circles converge to the point where one feels that expectations and reality are in harmony. This thought was both comforting and terrifying at the same time. Intellectually, knowing what was happening (and more importantly, going to happen) inside my mind and heart was enlightening, but the thought of it taking three years to get back to “normal” again was very depressing. However, once I processed that bit of information, I knew to expect a bumpy road, that it was normal to feel sad, normal to cry at the drop of a hat. But, knowing I would smile again SOMEDAY was encouraging.  Mind you, the grief is never 100% over. To this day I cannot make it through several songs without shedding tears. (“I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” by the Moody Blues, as well as “How Great Thou Art”).

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art

And when I think of God, His Son not sparing
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art

I can’t finish that song; I’m tearing up as I am writing right now. I’ll be right back……

It is good to cry. Whoever wrote the Four Seasons’ song, “Big Boys Don’t Cry” wrote a great song, but they were also dead wrong.

I mentioned earlier that the example of the two circles was the most important lesson I learned my entire life. I learned that the two circles, representing expectations vs. reality apply universally, not only to grief situations.  It applies in life relationships, both business and private. I took that concept and applied it with great success long after Ian passed away.

Those of you I have had the privilege of working with over the years remember my touting the story as it applies to customers…whether they be students, staff, or faculty who call into our IT help desk at Rutgers University or to large pharma customers with stratospheric expectations whose IT projects I was managing as a project manager at Bell Atlantic.

 The great thing about using the circles in describing customer relations is that it doesn’t have to be a drawn out three-year, one snapshot a day process. As a matter of fact, your customers won’t hang around that long!

The key to ensuring that customers’ expectations are in line with reality is that famous catch-all word “COMMUNICATIONS


I used to tell my direct reports (and my bosses on occasion) and my help desk staff that there is no such thing as over-communicating, especially when one is serving in a project management role. I would much rather communicate more than people like than to drop the ball thus widening the gap between customer expectations versus reality. Remember, the goal in all relationships is to create a world where expectations EQUALS reality!


And one other thing, remember that “bad news does not get better with time” Communicate clearly, truthfully, compassionately, and often.

So here we are, another silver lining moment. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, please read my May 6, 2020 post which begins with “Silver Linings Often Turn Gold…”). What started with the darkest memory in my life, losing my only son before his third birthday, led to counselling where I learned a life lesson that helped me guide all my relationships to this day. Remember, you can never over communicate. You can never over-communicate. And finally, there is no such thing as over-communication!

Please stay safe, healthy, and COMMUNICATE!

And most of all, ENJOY EVERY DAY!

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