How to Properly Break a Promise

break a promise

Is there really a right way to break a promise? When we make a promise, we are committing ourselves to a profound act. When we break that promise, we risk an abrupt breakdown in trust. This breakdown in trust can lead to failed relationships – both professional and personal – that can sometimes carry reciprocal consequences. This week on Platinum Rules for Success, author Deb Calvert explains “How to Properly Break a Promise”. The main objective according to Deb is to “break the promise…without damaging your own credibility”. Read on for some very insightful suggestions to keep your relationships… and your integrity intact.

How to Properly Break a Promise
by Deb Calvert

G rowing up, the lesson was that we should never, ever break a promise. Never, not under any circumstances.

As adults, we hear messages that affirm that lesson – “you’re only as good as your word” and DWYSYWD (Do What You Say You Will Do). Of course, these are very good principles to abide by. But what about those times when it simply is not possible to keep a promise you have made? These absolute moral imperatives do not give us any latitude, nor any instruction, about how to handle situations when a promise made simply cannot be a promise kept.

It goes without saying that breaking a promise should be a rare exception. But it would be naïve to say that every single promise can be kept. The situation does not always allow for it, even when our best intentions are intact. When the time comes, we should be prepared to break a promise honorably.

The objective would be to break the promise without breaking the relationship, and, without damaging your own credibility. Can it be done? If so, how?

Making a promise is, indeed, a profound act. Within each promise is encapsulated the possibility of hope fulfilled and the vulnerability of broken trust. We must all take our promises seriously. But no one should be the prisoner of an impossible promise.

Circumstances change. Life alters our paths, and we sometimes are left with no other choice but to re-align our promise to match the current reality. It is not a lack of integrity, in those situations, to break a promise. Instead, integrity will be measured by what you say and do when you have no choice left and must break a promise.

In order to break a promise honorably, you need to be sure to do the following:

Acknowledge that you are breaking a promise. This is not something you can mask or hide. Do not wait too long to communicate about this either. If people notice you backing away gradually or denying that you will break the promise, they will remember those actions and realize when you do tell them that you have been holding out for a while.

Explain why you are breaking the promise, BUT, do not blame others. Ultimately, you are the one who made the promise and you are responsible for your part of that promise.

Apologize for breaking the promise. Being overly defensive or distancing yourself from the situation makes it sound like this type of promise-breaking could happen at any time because you are not in control. Instead, be accountable and reveal what you plan to do differently in the future.

Look for a way to honor the original intent of the promise even though you are unable to follow through on the original plan.

Understand that the people you made the promise to will be disappointed, hurt or angry. They were counting on something and are now forced to make an adjustment. You cannot expect them to immediately accept this and move forward.

When you make promise-breaking a very rare event, chances are that others will give you a little grace when you do need to break a promise you have made. When you do break a promise, doing it in the honorable ways listed here will also help others to see that you accept responsibility. Breaking a promise, in the right way, may even enhance trust and build your relationships.

break a promise
Follow Deb Calvert (@PeopleFirstPS)

Deb Calvert, President of People First Productivity Solutions, has worked as a Corporate Director in a Fortune 500 company and as a consultant, coach and trainer to over 400 businesses of all sizes and in all sectors. Deb is a certified executive coach, one of the “65 Most Influential Women in Business,” an instructor at UC-Berkeley, and a Top 50 Sales Influencer. She is Certified Master with The Leadership Challenge®, conducting workshops and coaching to help liberate the leader in everyone. Her first book DISCOVER Questions® Get You Connected has been named one of “The Top 20 Most Highly-Rated Sales Books of All Time” by HubSpot. Her second book, Stop Selling and Start Leading, is now available. You can learn more about Deb and PFPS at

When you’re ready to equip your supervisors and sellers with strong people skills, contact People First Productivity Solutions. We build organizational strength by putting PEOPLE first.
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