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.
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?
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?
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:
- 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.
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.