What’s the best way to break a commitment?
Broken commitments are one of the great banes of human interaction. Few things are more annoying than people who act irresponsibly, don’t do what they say, and fail to honor their commitments. So, it’s important to acknowledge that breaking a promise or backing out of an obligation is treacherous territory.
One goal of good manners is to make the inexcusable forgivable. To do this you have to anticipate and empathize with the reaction of those you’re letting down. Show them that you understand the impact of your actions. This will maximize the chance that the relationship will endure. It’s when we minimize the consequences we’ve inflicted upon others that people get annoyed and trust comes under strain.
Of course, commitments get broken for many reasons in many ways along a continuum from zero to great culpability, discourtesy, and selfishness. For example, backing out of an engagement due to a death in the family is very different from doing so because you got a better offer. In general, when reneging on a commitment:
Let’s look more closely at each of these. If you anticipate having to back out, and provide as much notice as possible, you can reduce the negative consequences of your action. The goal is to be responsible about having to be irresponsible. Once you’ve explained the fact of having to break the commitment, you’ll need to apologize. Apologies are one of the most powerful tools in the etiquette arsenal, and so few people use them. Chastise yourself so others don’t have to. Let’s say you agreed to serve on the board of a friend’s organization and now need to back out. Say…
“I am soooo sorry. I know you were counting on me and I’m letting everyone down. You have every right to be angry. But I made a terrible mistake in taking too much on and now I am spread so thin I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. I just can’t give your board what it deserves. Can you ever forgive me?”
If you beat yourself up and say everything the other person is thinking, you take the wind out of her anger. It shifts the focus from your letting your friend down to the chasm of misery and self-loathing into which you’ve tumbled, and of course she’ll forgive you.
You can see how empathy goes hand in hand with the apology. Your apology contains recognition of your friend’s disappointment, irritation, and/or new burden. But, meaningful as apologies are, these are still just words. Try to turn the words into something of practical value by alleviating the consequences of your action. Provide your friend with names of people you know who would make excellent board members. Offer your help for a specific task you feel you could handle. If you can minimize the fallout, there won’t be a falling out.
And finally, try to avoid making commitments in the first place you're not sure you can keep. When people invite us to do things, or ask for our help, we usually want to say "yes." But "people pleasing" can lead to a lot of trouble if we make commitments casually. A former U.S. diplomat I know occupied a position that required a lot of high-level entertaining in his host country. Invitations to his parties and events were received with enthusiasm and appreciation. Virtually everyone committed to attend. Yet the diplomat soon discovered that a large proportion of the people who said they would come never showed up. Finally, he asked a local official about that. "Oh, sir," the official said, "it would be a great rudeness to decline your invitation!" Apparently, it was considered ruder to say you couldn't attend than to make a commitment and simply not show up. The reverse would be true in the United States: Far better to "say no" up front than to "say yes" and not follow through.