How to Break a Promise

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!

Know someone who would love this article? Share it with them.