Here’s the question I hate more than any other: “Will you do me a favor?” This question is especially tough when it comes from someone I’m close to, because, well, yes, I would love to do you a favor. So my reflexive answer is “yes”, or “sure”, or something affirmative like that.
Now I’ve made a promise. With my yes still ringing in the air, here comes the request: Can you drive me two hours to the airport? Or will you lend me $100? Or will you come over and spend 8 hours helping me figure out my computer? My preferred answer to all of these requests is NO. All of these requests are really outside of my abilities or time available or better judgment.
At this point, I have a couple of choices. Weasel my way out of the promise or just do it because I said I would. I did all of these because I said I would. Groan. There must be a better way.
Think about how you make promises for a minute. How often do you make a promise that you would rather not fulfill or cannot fulfill once you realize the entirety of the situation? How far have you gone to “keep your word”? If you are like most people, making a promise can be an almost sacred contract.
You will do anything to keep your word.
But what if keeping your word is ultimately the wrong thing to do?What happens if you discover that things have changed, you did not have all the information or you made the promise in error. That happens.
What if you are keeping your word simply because you don’t know how to break a promise? Now what?
This is almost the exact situation one of my clients recently experienced. He had decided to leave his company for a new one, and was ready for a move to a new city and exciting job. The day he was to sign a lease on a new apartment, his existing company made him an offer to stay.
He had not played one company against another, so the offer was a huge surprise to him. His original employer had done a reorganization and realized he was the most qualified person for a newly created role. Having him stay was far and away the best solution. When he heard the offer, he was delightfully surprised--- and then he remembered all the consequences.
His biggest dilemma was dealing with the string of promises that he had made, the biggest of which was to the new employer, who was counting on having a position filled. (In a nice job, but not his dream job.)
He also had to talk to his wife and of course, there was that apartment expecting to fill an empty unit. He is such a man of his word that he almost declined. Breaking promises is not in his repertoire. Keeping his promises meant he would have missed the exact job he would create for himself in a perfect world.
So we talked about how to break a promise. Without having to “weasel.”
Our first step was to clear his conscience. Could he honestly say that he was not angling to play one company against another? No – but he feared that it would LOOK that way. It was important to just be honest and stay grounded.
The second step was to look at what changed his mind. Was it cold feet? Nope. He was dealing with a completely different set of facts than the ones that drove him to seek the new job.
Then we looked at the scenarios. Yes, he could keep his word, move his family, start working with a new team and then what? How much would he wonder what could have been?
Or he could break his promise and stay with the newly created position. The decision was clear: he needed to break his promise, and it was very important to him that he not “weasel his way out” of it.
So we explored his approach. The first question: What could he do to minimize the damage done by him not fulfilling his promise? He came up with several thoughts on how he could leverage his network to help them fill the position.
With those questions completed, he was ready to have the conversation, with a clear conscience and a position of strength vs feeling like he was “weaseling”. He also was aware that he was not the first person ever on the planet to step away from a job acceptance.
The conversation went so much better than expected. The second employer was both gracious and committed to staying in touch with him.
And there was more. The second-choice candidate had REALLY wanted the job and was sorely disappointed in not being chosen.
This broken promise paved the way for two people’s dreams to be realized.
Sometimes promises must be broken. When the facts change, when the situation gets rearranged, when our capabilities change or sometimes, when our clear thinking finally comes on-line.
Breaking promises doesn’t make us a weasel – as long as we do our part to own the decision and ameliorate the damage.
And before we make that bold promise to do our friend or loved one a favor? Get more information on the request. It will save you countless hours of fulfilling the automatic yes!
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Virtually every time I facilitate a program, whether for team looking to improve their alignment and performance or a variety of leaders transforming their lives through self awareness, one word comes up almost every time. Communication. Lack of it has killed more deals and relationships than you can count. Too much of it…well, I’ve never actually seen that.
Even what we call “over-communication” barely gets the job done. It’s not that we are not trying. We just have learned indirect ways of talking to each other. Most of the time, our communication is muddled, unclear and confusing. Yes, we are using a lot of nice words – they just aren’t taking us anywhere.
We get somewhere by making and following through on promises. Not like politician promises – like real promises.
Promises are the kind of statements we make that say “I will.”
It’s actually quite difficult to evoke (and make) real promises. There is another level of commitment in a promise. Asking for that level of “yes” from myself or someone else gets into territory that gets very uncomfortable very fast.
So what do we do instead? We hint, assume or just make statements.
Statements that assume someone will take action are the death of clear communication. Here’s an example. I was having dinner with a client team and the guy in charge of everything turned to me and said “I’m going to have you come next month to work with our team to XYZ.” Before I started noticing this stuff called promises, I would have said to myself inside “Oh, goodie! I get more work!”
In this case, I noticed that he made a statement assuming that I would come do the work, that I was the right person to do this particular kind of work (I wasn’t) and that I would do it on his terms (I couldn’t travel there the next month.)
In the months leading up to this encounter, I had started paying attention to promises as a management practice.
Even just thinking about the question “where are the promises?” tuned me into seeing things a different way.
So in this encounter, my client failed to evoke a promise. We did end up talking through what he wanted and came to the conclusion I was not the right person for the work he wanted. It was a very different conversation backing him away from his unequivocal statement than it would have been had he started with a request.
What his statement revealed to me was this: many of the breakdowns we were working with on his team started with his communication strategy that skipped critical steps and most importantly, did not seem to include room for someone to say no to him.
Had I done a reflexive yes in response to his statement – and believe me, it was tempting – we would have both ended up disappointed.
The muddled communication that gets us in so much trouble is full of assumptions that don’t generate promises. “I’ll try” is not a promise. Maybe, ok, or just a nodding head are also not promises. It’s very hard to get a committed “yes!” unless we ask. And we often don’t ask directly because we don’t what to hear “no.”
When we don’t permit ourselves to say “no”, we will fill our lives with “fake yeses”. It creates a level of busy that no one can sustain.
Important work doesn’t get done because we are fulfilling obligations we agreed to.
Some obligations need to be done – and many, many more need to be declined or reworked. The magic is learning to distinguish between the two.
What do you do to evoke promises from others? Do you avoid situations where people might say no to you? Do you avoid saying no sometimes to prevent conflict? What are your best strategies for making sure people are truly committed to the work they are doing on your behalf?
As always, I would love to learn from you in the comments!
Photo Credit: Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_pistol7d'>pistol7d / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
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