Promises are the Gold Nuggets of Work

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=’‘>pistol7d / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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5/16/2017, 10:24:20 AMLynn I loved this communication blog. As a project manager, I rely on communication from many people to make a project successful. I have been labeled as an over communicator by my management team. What is interesting to me, is that even though I am labeled as an over communicator, it has been proven that they often “miss” my communications and then they are surprised when things don’t go well. Sometimes, I think I must speak a different language. I often have a conversation and back up conversations with emails to state the facts that were discussed. One important part of communication is finding a way to have the other party involved actually listen, acknowledge, and act. Like you state in your blog, commitments are difficult. But, without getting or making some level of commitment, its very difficult to move forward successfully. People are so busy, and then even busier in their minds, that many details of a conversation or email are overlooked. So, I am becoming an over communicator who is learning to sometimes let things happen to get the message across. Have you ever noticed that there may be a little smoke coming from a grill at a cookout and no one is concerned? But, when the smoke turns to a big blazing orange flame that has taken over to the point the food is no longer visible, then everyone is ready to take action! If someone had spoken up and checked on why there was smoke, and took the proper action they may not be ordering a pizza to be delivered!