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How to Cope When You Fail to Honor a Commitment

How to Cope When You Fail to Honor a Commitment

There was a time when you had a pristine reputation. You delivered on everything that was expected of you, and you basked in the warm approval of all who knew you. And then it happened—you had a diaper blow-out all over Daddy. Commitment level: fail.

Even as a baby, you were making commitments and sometimes you just didn’t deliver. Back in the day, your sole commitment was to be cute and adorable, but sometimes you opted to be cranky and needy instead. Forgiving folks put up with it but their standards for your performance would not remain so low.

As you got older, you were introduced to promises. We all learned funny little rituals to validate a promise; stuff like “cross my heart and hope to die”. Even our rituals contained the seeds of disingenuous-ness: I doubt we really hoped to die if we failed to keep our promises.

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    The Real World: Adult Version

    As adults, commitments start to get more serious, and the failure to keep some promises comes with teeth or clauses to punish us or compensate the other party if we don’t make good on our word. In a litigious society, that same blaming and fault-finding attitude seems to apply even to more informal commitments. Punishment and consequences are a hard reality if we don’t deliver on our agreements.

    There are several  ways we can get caught over-promising: perhaps you didn’t think things through or you forgot about your preexisting commitments. It’s frustrating to find yourself over-committed, and the response is often to just try to power through, but that can leave us stressed and can make for a performance that doesn’t live up to anyone’s expectations, including our own.

    Another thing that can happen is you just screwed up—you made a commitment you had no business making—so again, you deliver some lousy outcome or you don’t deliver at all.

    Finally, there are times when, through no fault of your own, you just can’t do what you said you would do. There’s a traffic jam, the store was out of stock when you went, or someone else failed to deliver on a commitment to you that impacted your promises. So what can you do to avoid these situations?

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    Nothing. You can’t avoid these situations.

    Wait a minute, I thought this article was supposed to help me with this problem. Where is the sage advice I can apply so that I will never fail to honor a commitment again?

    Don’t worry, I will indeed tell you how to honor all of your commitments from this point forward. What I can’t stop you from doing is over-committing, screwing up, and being at the mercy of others. Those things will continue to happen. And yet, even with this landscape, you can still honor every commitment you ever make, including the ones you have already made that you are so hoping you can find a way to fulfill.

    Is Keeping My Word Enough?

    The key is in the word “honor”. There are commitments you are not going to keep no matter how hard you try, but even if you fail to keep them, you can still honor them. How do you do this?

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    The difference between “keeping” and “honoring” is key: keeping a promise is about the letter of the promise, while honoring a promise is about the spirit. It is even possible to keep a promise while not honoring it. People will forgive an honored but un-kept promise, but it takes a real saint to let go of an un-honored promise—kept or not.

    So what are the practical aspects of honoring a commitment? They are:

    • respect
    • communication
    • productive effort

    First, let’s consider respect. Respect for what? For the other person, for yourself, and for your word. It means doing what they expect, not just what you can get away with or argue is what you meant. It means not looking for shortcuts or half-measures to apply after the fact.

    Next, there is communication. It’s best if you do a good job with your communication up front to ensure that there are no misunderstandings, but even in a case where the commitment has already been made, communication will make all the difference. If you know you are not going to meet expectations, the time to say so is not after you fail but as soon as you know. It goes a long way to say, “I know I said I would be done by next Tuesday, but it looks like it will be more like Thursday at this point.” It may not be exactly what they want to hear but it shows you honor your commitment by giving voice to any approaching failure.

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    Finally, you have to give it your best shot, and if possible, that should be obvious to others. If you do this, it’s easier for everyone to accept if something goes awry.

    Time For Some Practical Application

    So let’s say you have done your best, you have respected everyone and everything, you have been open and transparent, and you have worked your heart out, but this time it isn’t going to happen—you just can’t keep your commitment. This is the moment of truth.

    You do not have to fail in honoring your commitment even now. To honor it you must take responsibility. Note I said take, not merely accept. Go first. Lay bare the unfinished business, and if it is now impossible to deliver, own that fact. If possibilities remain, recommit yourself to something you are prepared to keep, and then honor that new commitment.

    It’s uncomfortable to take responsibility, but discomfort is a lot easier to shoulder than disrespect or disappointment. Even if you failed to honor a commitment up until now, it is not too late: disrespect and disappointment can be rolled back or even erased in the face of genuine honor. Anyway, comfort isn’t truly all that comfortable in the face of disrespect; just ask any disrespected person—they can tell you as much. So, snatch honor from the jaws of failure. You can’t keep every commitment, you can but make sure you honor every single one.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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