This week is an ‘oucher’ for me. Making a promise and then not fulfilling it is a matter of personal responsibility. And what Joan says here is important: those of us guilty of such things often do it with the best intentions. But I learned that’s just not good enough after you've let someone down.
I think the major thing here is as much as you want to be helpful, if you can’t get there or do something, then say nothing, and certainly promise nothing.
Joan: How many times has someone told you that he or she was going to do something and then it never materialized? How many times have you promised something to another only to let that person down?
Promises are powerful. They are given to fulfill a need of another. When someone makes a promise, it is usually made with the best of intentions and in that moment, the person believes that he or she will be able to complete the offer. Then the person goes off like a busy little bee, involved in the tasks of daily life, and his or her words become a distant memory.
Q. Aside from the obvious, why are such unfulfilled promises so damaging?
Joan: The problem is that the recipient of a promise remembers every word said. Often, spoken words are a life jacket to a drowning person and that person clings to them for survival.
After my mother and sister passed away (my last two remaining nuclear family members) and my divorce became final, a few people told me that I would never be alone, that I was a member of their “family”; I was their sister. Surviving unimaginable grief, I clung to those words as a source of comfort. Then, as time passed, holidays came and went, special occasions were celebrated – graduations, birthdays – there was no offer of inclusion made.
My story is just one example of the many letdowns people experience. What about a child who is promised your attendance at a dance recital or sporting event? A boss that is guaranteed a completed task? A friend that is offered help with a problem?
Heartbreak and disappointment are the result of empty words and offers made in haste, even with the best of intentions.
Q. It’s hard to hear if you’ve been guilty of making such promises. What can a person do to stop making empty promises?
Joan: The next time you are about to make a promise think about what you are going to offer.
Take time to reflect before you state it. Weigh the pros and cons and examine your life situation to be sure you can fulfill your end of the deal. Think about the long-term ramifications.
Be honest about your capabilities. Stop being a “yes” person. You can’t please everyone and it’s much better to do nothing or say you can’t do something than offer an empty promise.
Q. A person can often get caught up in the moment, especially when there is grief involved and you want to be comforting. All of the sudden, the promise you made falls in the middle of your own complicated life. What do you do?
Joan: Examine your motivation for making the offer. Are you trying to make someone feel better for the moment? Do you want to be liked? Are you trying to gain something for yourself?
Remember that your words may only be words to you but to another, they can mean the world. If you’re not sure that you can fulfill a promise, then don’t say anything. Adopt the rule in life to say what you mean and mean what you say!