Here is why people hate you when you break a promise.
“Josh, would you like a coffee on the way home?”
Thanks, mom, that would be fantastic.
I heard a knock at the door. As I opened it, there was mom, her bag in one hand and mail in the other.
I did what any twenty-three-year-old man would do. I ran to my room and started crying. What, no coffee? Naturally, I was disappointed, but my goodness, it’s a coffee. Disappointment wasn’t my only feeling. There was another that had caught me off guard.
I was annoyed. I was genuinely annoyed that mom didn’t make an extra trip to get me—who was at home doing nothing—a coffee. As I watched how I felt, I learned a life-changing lesson. A lesson that bites me whenever I forget it.
Why a broken promise hurts
After stepping back, there was no rational explanation for why I felt annoyed. My only saving grace was that I knew it was irrational. That’s when I realized the power of a promise.
It wasn’t that mom didn’t get me a coffee that annoyed me. It was that she took one away from me. At least, that’s how our brains see it. After we’re promised something, it’s as if we own it. If someone breaks that promise, they’re not just breaking it, but now they’re also taking something away from us.
This is why we overreact to broken promises. We feel as if we have lost something; no different to a friend giving us a present only to snatch it back.
A broken promise kills
I was annoyed over a coffee, so imagine how much stronger these feelings would be over something important. I knew I was spitting my dummy when I felt annoyed. What If the broken promise had been something I was justified to be annoyed or angered by?
You might have heard of hollow point bullets. These bullets are designed to expand and fragment as they enter the body. If you were shot by one, you would look fine from the front. But the back? The pressure and exploding fragments would leave a gaping hole where the bullet exited.
A broken promise leaves the same wound. When we break a promise, we only see the small entry wound. Sure, we might have made a promise, but work came up. It wasn’t a definite thing; they would understand. If we only looked closely, we would see the real damage is where the bullet exits. For a broken promise, it’s the loss of something the other person thought was theirs that leaves a gaping wound. But all the promise maker can see is the front.
What to do when you break a promise
A broken promise isn’t the kind of injury that needs a band-aid. An offhand apology won’t cut it. When a patient has a stroke, there’s a phrase: Time is brain. After breaking a promise, time is trust. The quicker you act, the less your relationship is harmed, be it family, friends or colleagues.
Lean into it
When we say sorry, we have a habit of giving reasons for our actions. Resist this. Whether you’re justified or not, it doesn’t matter to that person. All that matters to them is how they feel. The more reasons you give, the more you deny their feelings. You might be justifying your behaviour, but all their brain hears is you saying they shouldn’t be feeling the way they do. Next thing you know, you’re in an argument.
A harmless explanation is usually the spark that ignites the situation. When you say sorry, say sorry. No matter how hard it is, bite your tongue. It will save you a bigger apology later.
Listen to understand
The other person feels wronged. Whether or not they were doesn’t matter. What matters is letting them feel heard and understood. Agree with their criticism. Acknowledge the pain they’re feeling. Tell them that you would be the same, if anything, even more upset in a similar situation.
Here is the power of leaning in…
My parents had a fight. My dad promised to come out with mom to an Easter party. Long story short, he didn’t go after making a promise.
“This always happens. You promised me. I’m going to be the only one going alone again. I’m sick of this, Ian.”
“I know I’m right; It keeps happening. Do you know how much it hurts to be alone there?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t imagine. Yes, this is the second time it’s happened. You have every right to feel how you do.”
“It’s just, I wanted you to be there. I don’t want to fight. I was excited for us both to go. I shouldn’t have gotten so upset.”
“No, you should get upset. I promised, and I broke it.
Always remember that the other person can only see your point of view after you have seen theirs.
Never make a promise you can’t keep
What people don’t know can’t hurt them. When someone asks you for a favour you don’t know you can deliver, say no. It will hurt you at the time. You’ll feel a tinge of guilt, but that’s it. As for the other person, they’ll be just fine. You haven’t taken anything from them. More than likely, you’ll find they respect you for this. But there’s one thing they won’t respect you for, and that’s going back on your word. There’s nothing wrong with no, so long as it doesn’t come after a yes.Published in