Ten years ago I read a book with a statement that struck me then, and has stayed with me to this day as I’ve interacted with people and evaluated people with whom I would like to work and be around. It was a sentence that spoke to a very revealing way to judge the character of a person.
That sentence was:
You can tell a lot about a man by the promises he keeps in small conversation.
Big Promises Are Easy
Keeping promises made in important, high-stakes conversations is fairly easy to do for the most part. If the promise is not kept, both parties know it and you will likely be held accountable to fulfilling that promise. If the person still doesn’t fulfill his promise, he will likely suffer consequences.
If an employer promises a $50,000 salary but only pays $40,000, that’s a promise that will not go unnoticed. If a friend promises to pick you up from the airport on Saturday evening and doesn’t show up, it will not go unnoticed; you will be stranded at the airport. If you are promised a big promotion if you achieve a certain goal, but then don’t receive the promotion when you achieve the goal, that is a big promise not kept that will NOT go unaddressed.
Small promises are different. Think about the types of small promises that are made every day in ordinary, day-to-day conversations.
- “I’ll let you know next time I’m in your area.”
- “Yes, absolutely, I’ll make sure to say hi to him for you.”
- “I’ll pray for you about that.”
- “I’ll check on that and let you know by Tuesday.”
- “Sorry I haven’t been able to respond to your email, I’ll get to that next week.”
- “I’ll be there at 4:00.”
There is seldom formal followup on these “small” promises. They are said with the best of intentions, but often are not followed through on. They are often forgotten by the person who makes them, and because the promise is relatively minor, the receiving party is not going to make a big scene and confront the person on not doing what they said (especially if the person who promised it is in a position of authority).
There are some people who make it a pattern to take advantage of the grace given to oversee small promises. Perhaps you know someone who is perpetually telling you he or she will do something, but never ends up doing it. Do you have someone in mind? What ends up happening is that you begin to not trust anything they say, or you’re left guessing, and can’t proceed with acting or planning on what they promised.
Respect, Character, and Confidence
On the flip side, can you think of someone in your life who makes seemingly small promises to you, perhaps ones you even forgot, but later on, they came through and did exactly what they said?
I was recently speaking with someone, and in the course of conversation, he mentioned a business near a certain area I was going to be. He couldn’t remember the name of it, but said he’d let me know later. The conversation continued and eventually ended. Two days later, I received an email with the name of the business, a link to their website, and a summary of what they do.
When a person does this for you, it communicates respect. It reveals his or her character. It also instills confidence in that person. It’s small-to-large reasoning: if the person is concerned enough to get back to me about this minor detail, then I can certainly trust him with the larger issues in his job responsibilities or in general daily life. If he is concerned about the “little,” he will excel at the “big.”
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond, that character—not wealth or power or position—is of supreme worth. (John D. Rockefeller)
Different Types of People
I realize there are different personality types out there. Some personalities are naturally drawn to details, facts, and specificity, while others are more concerned with the bigger picture and not specific details. With this in mind, I do believe there are some people out there who shoot out promises and commitments to people and have no awareness of what they are doing. In this case, clear, gentle, appropriate communication to clarify with them when they say these things may be necessary which may make them aware of it and have them think twice the next time they are talking with you.
Even though some people are less naturally prone to talk with specificity, remember details, and may not mean to be dishonest, it still is revealing about the type of person they are and how you need to relate to them, does it not? Their intentions may be pure, but their words and resulting actions are the same regardless of intent.
Commit to Following Through
I consciously never try to make promises I can’t keep, which is actually a very hard thing to do if you think about it (especially if you’re a “people-pleaser”). In the flow of conversation, the path of least resistance is to go ahead and promise a person what they want, what would please that person, and what would reflect positively on you.
“Oh, yeah…I can go back and dig up some resources for you on that issue. I’ll send that to you by email by the end of the day.”
The end of the day comes and goes. The next day passes. A week passes. You never send him the resources.
It’s frustrating to be on the other end of that promise.
There are times I do make promises in conversation (but make sure not to give an exact time frame for completion), and then keep having to push it off. I still intend to do it, but I just don’t have the time.
Finally, sometimes it gets to a point where the person probably has forgotten about it altogether, but I haven’t. At that point it’s very tempting to just delete that task from your to do list. Whenever I do this, I usually end up getting convicted about it and finally make myself get it done, keeping in mind that very quote, “You can tell a lot about a man by the promises he keeps in small conversation.”
I want my “yes” to be “yes” and my “no” to be “no.”
Make It Happen
Here are 4 practical keys to keeping all promises you make in small conversation.
1. Don’t promise what you don’t intend to do in the first place.
Think twice; speak once.
2. Write it down!
Immediately after a conversation, or even mid-conversation, make a note of what you promised, when you promised to complete it by, and make sure that makes its way into your established methods of organizing your work. No one has perfect a perfect memory.
3. Don’t Procrastinate.
The longer you wait to follow through, the less useful your follow through may be and the less dependable you may be perceived as being. Don’t put yourself in a position of having to apologize for “getting to this so late”; be the exception and just get to it, period.
4. Provide an Update
If you are truly unable to get to fulfilling the promise, send them a quick text, email, or tell them in person that you fully intend on doing something, but have gotten delayed.
By keeping all the promises you make to friends, colleagues, and family, you are not only serving others well, but establishing both character internally and a reputation externally of reliability, honesty, and diligence.
And good things tend to come with those with those traits.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.