The trap of two-stage commitments

2 minute read (565 words)

When you know there is a future time at which you’ll have to “really commit” (e.g. sign something, put money down, put something in writing, commit publicly etc.) it’s easy to blasély commit without thinking too hard about how things might have changed by the time the more concrete commitment is needed, or perhaps if you even really mean it. This is a trap!

There is an unspoken mismatch in understanding of what was just casually agreed:

  • The person saying “yes” is often implicitly saying “assuming when actual commitment time comes this is still a valid choice”, (consciously or unconsciously thinking to themselves “I can review this nearer the time and change my mind if needs be”).
  • The person hearing “yes”, however carelessly given, is potentially hearing nothing but the “yes” and understandably thinks they can count on that regardless of further hurdles and levels of commitment.

The danger here is that even if you truly believed you could keep your word, circumstances can change, for example between verbal and written agreements, or between saying “I’ll visit” and actually booking flights. Money issues, health, behaviour of others and many other things out of your control can get in the way.

I like to think I stick to my word, and that if I say I’ll do something then I’ll do it. I make an effort to think through whether I would or wouldn’t do something before saying yes. What I have missed in my thinking sometimes is that things change, and I should be more reserved when answering the initial query. If circumstances don’t change there would be no issue, but if they do then one can be in hot water.

On the first commitment it all seems kind of vague and far off, but on the second one it’s very real, and you might realize you no longer want to honour your commitment for some reason, and now you are in a bad place of either breaking your commitment or violating your boundaries (if you can keep it at all).

The bias towards blindly saying yes and then regretting it all stems from being a “people pleaser” at heart, which probably goes back to ingrained behaviours learned in childhood. Wanting to give the “right” answer in the moment, even if the moment isn’t right.

The problem with being to quick with a “yes” to please someone is that by the time you have to “actually commit”, circumstances may have changed, and you may be looking for a way out.

There isn’t one answer to the challenge of two-stage commitments, but here are some ways to handle that initial commitment question:

  • Be more circumspect in initial response, e.g. “well maybe, let’s see how it looks when the paperwork arrives”
  • Buy time: “can I get back to you on that?
  • Defer: “interesting, let me know when you have something more concrete”
  • Say no - maybe it was never going to be right and you could have figured that out right away.
  • Say yes, but be damn sure you’re going to stick to it as if it was written in blood.

I hope reading this helps you. Writing it has helped me clarify my thinking around this tricky bit of human interaction.

If you have trouble with this kind of thing then definitely check out Untamed by Glennon Doyle, she has lots to say on setting boundaries.

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