By Robert White
Recently I’ve created circumstances where I chose to break agreements with several close friends. It has been, as difficult choices often provide, a challenging learning experience for me and put some very important relationships at risk.
Over the years no subject in our public and corporate seminars seems to have gathered as much “heat” as the making, keeping and breaking of agreements.
How many people do you know who consistently show up late for lunch or a meeting or whatever? How often do you show up late, even by a few minutes? A simple meeting for coffee, and you're ten minutes late – as usual. You give your usual feeble and mostly phony excuses, blaming the traffic or a meeting you couldn’t get out of, while the person you kept waiting nods approvingly that it's OK.
Unfortunately, it's not OK—and deep down you both know it.
People sometimes follow the same pattern around work projects, family promises, marital vows and many, many other areas where we make agreements.
There are prices to pay for those broken agreements, prices paid by you and prices paid by others. Every time you break an agreement you lose self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence, and you lose at least some of other people's trust in you. Every time you keep an agreement you increase these same valuable assets accordingly. It is just the way things are.
Let’s review some prices and rewards for breaking and keeping agreements:
Prices for breaking agreements
Lose trust from others
Lower self confidence
Damage self esteem
Undermine self respect
Create confusion, loss of clarity
Lower energy level
Rewards for keeping agreements
Gain trust from others
Increase self confidence
Raise self esteem
Enhance self respect
More clarity, focus
Higher energy level
Are some agreements less important?
Contrary to what many people think, there is no such thing as an unimportant broken agreement. There may be bigger external consequences for breaking some agreements than others—but there are no broken agreements without a price.
If you break your agreement to drive at or below the speed limit, and you hit another car and kill someone, the external consequences will be big.
If you tell your daughter you’re coming to her soccer game and then don’t show up, even though there are no apparent external consequences, you still pay an automatic price. You’ve inevitably lost some of your daughter’s trust in you, you’ve damaged her self esteem and your own, you’ve undermined the respect she has for you as a parent, and your relationship is a little less close. Break your agreements with your daughter enough times and you’ll do serious damage to your relationship. Broken agreements and the resulting deterioration of trust destroy many marriages, friendships, and family ties.
Broken agreements always hurt other people. Every time you break an agreement with your children, there’s some pain created and usually suppressed. And what do you think your children then decide about themselves? The same thing you or I or anybody would decide: that they must not be worth very much if their own parent couldn't be bothered to keep their agreements. Self-worth suffers. Broken agreements are a lose/lose game. Nobody wins; everybody suffers.
Breaking agreements with others is bad enough. Breaking agreements with yourself can be even more damaging. Because agreements with yourself are often private promises that only you know about, they are that much easier to break. Hey, make an agreement with yourself to lose weight or stop smoking or get up early and exercise and you can break it any old time. Nobody knows. Well, not quite nobody. You know.
I keep all my agreements–so I’m in the clear here, right?
If you are an obsessive/compulsive agreement keeper, does that mean your life will work infinitely better? No, it won’t. What keeping your agreements can do is to clear the fog of confusion, and allow you to see more clearly what’s working in your life, and what is not.
Keeping your agreements with yourself and other people is a positive way to live. And remember: there is no universal law on agreement keeping – just consequences. So don’t get angry and upset and become a victim when you keep your agreements and other people didn’t keep theirs.
It simply works when you deliver work on the date you promised it. It works to keep your marriage or relationship agreements. It works to match your behavior to your promises.
My personal “take” from being exposed to these ideas for over thirty years is to make few agreements and keep the ones I make. Observing myself and others tells me that agreements are made too casually and usually for purposes like being liked or avoiding criticism or delaying a problem hoping there will be some miracle before the agreement falls due.
We all know people who never break agreements, create terrible results in life and make everyone around them crazy. We also know people who break lots of agreements and generate mistrust.
Are there circumstances when it alright to break agreements?
In the real world outside a seminar room or ashram, YES. Of course there are prices and rewards for broken agreements, just like there are for keeping them. However, the world and human existence are fluid, changing entities. That’s the world we live in and the world in which all accomplishment takes place.
Our Extraordinary Action steps will include my suggestions for those times when you need to break an agreement. Read on!
EXTRAORDINARY LIVING ACTION STEPS
A quick review on agreements:
Make fewer agreements and keep the ones you make!
When you must break an agreement ….
• communicate your decision to break the agreement clearly, specifically, and directly with anyone affected even indirectly by the decision.
• deliver the broken agreement communication without righteousness, defensiveness, shame or guilt. Adding your emotional charge tends to call forth an equally emotional response.
• know that you’re going to pay a price in terms of reduced trust and credibility – thus the needs for # 1 and # 2 being handled with the clear intention to take responsibility and “clean things up.”
• Commit to not repeating the practice. You’ll be watched with new awareness by all involved and judged purely on your results with keeping future agreements.
When you get right down to it, you word is all you've got. Beyond your word there is nothing; no basis for trust and no foundation for self-worth. Keep your word and you enjoy the trust and respect of others. And you'll find the automatic by-product is that you trust and respect yourself more and more every day.