Unspoken contracts are those unconscious agreements and expectations that get set up between two people or within a team. By understanding the concept of unspoken contracts, you can greatly increase your ability to shift how you experience interactions with others.
Understanding Unspoken Contracts: Unspoken contracts are established based on social norms, conscious and unconscious bias, core fears of who we are and who we are not, and power dynamics within a team or organization. As an example, social norms from the 1950's in America would have a man hold a door open for a woman. It was not a spoken contract; it was just expected based on gender. Conscious and unconscious bias relates to agreements we create, or expectations others have of us based on race, gender, social economic status and a myriad of other reasons. One of my favorite stories of unconscious bias is of a new teacher given her class list with a series of numbers after the students' names. She assumed these numbers indicated a class full of students with high IQ's. When the principal asked how she achieved such great results from the "low-performing class," the teacher explained her expectations were set on the assumption of high IQ, where the numbers next to the student names were just their locker numbers.
As human beings we all have core fears of who we are and who we are not with three main ones that show up: I'm not love-able, I'm not good enough, or I don't belong. My core fear is that I don't belong. I have a mind full of evidence that I don't belong along with an even larger resume of evidence that I do belong -- which still has me swimming in a pool of fear. The impact of operating from my core fear is that I work hard to find ways to belong rather than take a stand for what I want. For example, as a young girl I wanted to play golf, but it was an unspoken contract that only the boys in the family would be taught how to play. I worked with that unspoken contract and settled for being my Dad’s caddie. Years after I made the Olympic Track & Field Team my father got conscious about that unspoken contract and apologized for limiting what could have been a career in golf.
Power dynamics also influence the unspoken contracts we establish with others. As a coach, I've seen a team of people become caretakers for someone on the team that has trained them that he is not good enough. As helpful teammates they take care of him by buying into the stories of why he can't get things done. Once this was made conscious, the whole team engaged in holding this person as capable, and the team dynamics changed immediately.
Make the Contracts Conscious: Make a list of your key personal and professional relationships and assess what the unspoken contracts are with those people. For example, I am the one that always calls my high school friend. I don't mind, but it's helpful to look at what the unspoken agreements or expectations are.
Choose Your Contracts: Once you make the list of key relationships and assess what the unspoken contracts consist of, decide whether you will renew the contract, terminate the contract, or restructure the contract with new terms. Most of the restructuring work is internal because when you show up differently with others, the dance between you and others shifts. There may be some unspoken contracts where you will want to have a direct conversation with the other person, but most will shift with you changing how you show up and respond.