Empty Promises


Empty Promises

August 22, 2016

Does anyone listen to you as though your words could move worlds? In our lives, we use our language loosely. When you hear a friend suggest she will stop smoking, or a colleague say he wants to start exercising, or when you yourself mention undertaking a new project, how do you hear those pronouncements? Are they sweet nothings that tumble out and evaporate like soap blown through plastic rings into fragile, floating bubbles? Or are they near certain predictions because of the weight with which they are spoken and meant? We live in a culture of empty speech.  Our utterances are often no more deliberately meant or received than Pokemon images superimposed on the screens of our phones. Even in those few moments when we hope to change something significant, we are weak in bringing our words into reality – just 60 days after making a New Year’s resolution, 90% have both failed and are forgotten. And those are the things we really want to change and do.

loudspeakerThere is an alternative paradigm, one of profound integrity, where words create new realities. We don’t experience much of that. One place that we see it is at the altar on the day of marriage. As the officiant makes the final declaration, that the bride and groom ARE now husband and wife, they become so. In that instant, something fundamental shifts. I have interviewed a lot of married couples about that moment. They all report that they felt something change. It was as though their very molecules altered, and they experienced their partner differently and the bond between them differently. They became family. This is a legal reality, yes – but more importantly, it is an ontological reality; that is, it actually changes something about who they are. Pronouncements that change reality are expressions of profound integrity. “You are married” does not just describe something, it creates it.

This sounds heavy – and in a way it is. The idea of profound integrity has philosophical roots. Wittgenstein described his idea of language as being a one-to-one match between word and world, and went on to say that we create our very world with our words.  We do not relate to our words like they create a world. Instead, we speak mindlessly and meaninglessly. When words have their full complement of power, they don’t just describe, they invent and create. Think of President Kennedy speaking the reality of a man landing on the moon – not as a casual notion, but as the catalyst for a whole chain of events that would bring that to reality.

I am bringing this up because there is a deep cost to the lightness of our words. Think about the last time someone was late to meet you, or worse yet, simply didn’t show up. How did they explain the gap between what they said and what they did? In my experience, they typically apologize and give me the reasons they didn’t come. But they rarely treat the event as what it is – a broken promise. Consider your own words. How often do you say things without putting the full force of yourself behind them? Projects, plans, and hopes – even something as simple as losing weight, running an errand or expanding your business in a new direction.  The challenge is bi-directional. We speak lightly and we listen lightly. So when someone tells you they plan to attend an event, do you listen as though they have made you a promise? Or do you listen as though they are simply pondering aloud…and committing to nothing.

More importantly, when you say you will do something, do you say it as though you are giving your word? And does anyone listen to you that way? Or are you too committing to nothing. Committing to nothing is a generous way of describing the phenomenon. It’s generous because of what we lose by thinking of our words as empty, disposable and ineffectual. We institutionalize our powerlessness this way. If I say it, why isn’t it a promise? If it comes out of your mouth, why isn’t it as bankable as your mortgage?  Imagine how differently your business would operate if every time you said you would do something, you did it – and if everyone could count on it, including you. Imagine how different your collegial and personal relationships would be if every time someone told you they would do something, you could take that to the bank as their solemn word.

In my performance coaching practice, that is what I promise my clients. My promise is that I will listen to them as someone who ONLY says what they mean, and I will consider everything they say as a solemn promise. They gain power through my unwillingness to take them lightly and let them off the hook. When they fail to do as they promised, we deal with it as what it is, a broken promise that has real consequences. Who could you empower by refusing to let them off the hook? What in your life and business would alter and transform if you knew that you would ONLY say what you meant, and that if you said it, it would be? I suggest that enshrining that relationship to your words – both in your speaking and in how people listen to you — will transform you and your results beyond recognition.  By becoming someone whose words are solemn promises, you will stop committing to nothing. Your words will have weight, credibility and predictive power.

Start with yourself. Stop seeing yourself as a light weight whose words are empty or, at best, descriptive. When you begin to speak as though what you say causes something, you will cause things to happen. You will inspire, motivate and catalyze. You will become who you were meant to be: A force to be reckoned with.


Gain the power of someone who listens to you as a force to be reckoned with. Performance coaching can transform your business and that of your team. Contact me for a complimentary initial consultation.


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