Promises, Promises, Promises

By Chris Chittenden

Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.”

… Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975) German-US political scientist

The capacity to make a promise is perhaps the key characteristic of human language. Making promises allows us to create a future beyond our immediate interactions. Throughout the ages, human beings have been able to create extremely complex societies based on our ability to make a commitment to something at a future date and then stick to it.

Think about your own world and all the promises that you make or that are made to you. If you take even a few minutes to examine this, you will undoubtedly find that you live within a vast web of commitments. If you work for someone, your employer promises to provide you with certain benefits in return for your commitment to deliver certain services. If you are in a relationship, then it is likely that at some point you and your partner made some sort of commitment to each other. Each day, we ask people to do something and they promise to do it and vice versa. When they make a promise to us, we then act as though the promised actions are going to occur. This is not a trivial matter. The promises in our lives are central to the way in which we achieve outcomes beyond our own actions and, as a result, establish the quality of our relationships with others.

Most people tend to utilise promises in relation to specific tasks they want others to do for them. Although this is a valuable aspect of the role of a promise, there is another area in which the role of a commitment is generally under-utilised. This is the area of future behaviour in terms of a relationship between two people. The most common approach people take to another person’s behaviour that they do not like is to tell them about it and hope they will get the message. This often leads to resentment when the message does not appear to be taken on board and the behaviour continues. An approach that is more likely to generate a change in behaviour is to make a request to the other person asking them to behave in a way that would be more appropriate. If the person accepts then it sets a context for future conversations about that behaviour. If they do not agree, it sets up a conversation for what might be mutually acceptable behaviour. Either way it creates greater clarity of expectation.

This is particularly relevant to those seeking cultural change. Through the creation of commitments with their team, organisational leaders can begin to establish a web of commitments to different behaviour rather just relying on expectation.

Although promises are not a gilt-edged guarantee that something will happen, they provide a strong possibility it will occur and set up a context for the future. By getting a commitment from another person to act differently in their relationship with us, we greatly enhance the possibility of change.

More articles on Relationships & Communication

© 2007 Chris Chittenden