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How Much Does Your Word Mean These Days?

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My recent series of articles on integrity and impeccability stirred quite a range of responses, ranging from the typical knee jerk dismissive stuff to the more mindful and engaged commentary from those more interested in dialogue than diatribe. One particular thread has stayed with me as I prepared to write this piece today.

Several readers commented in either the comments section or in personal email messages to me that they have found great personal awareness and strength in holding themselves to a higher standard of integrity when it comes to giving their word. I'd like to start exploring this a little bit with this article.

Having taught on the subject of personal response-ability for decades now, I was particularly struck by these readers who pointed out their own powerful lessons in integrity and impeccability when it comes to the simplest of daily interactions: giving and keeping your word.

For many people, the area of personal integrity has become more than blurred when considering what it means to make a commitment and give your word. Have you ever noticed how easily people can make a commitment and how much more easily they can go about breaking that commitment?

Have you ever told someone you would be there (appointment, teleconference, dinner, party, etc) and then come up with some lame excuse to beg out of the commitment? Not that I'm really proud of the fact, but I know I have. Perhaps your excuses weren't particularly lame as much as they were creative. The point is offering up some kind of reason or excuse for not following through on your agreement.

Sure, in the real world, there are things that come up unexpectedly, ranging from real illness in the family to your boss changed your plans for you. I'm not talking about these kinds of situations when circumstances change beyond your control. I'm talking about those times when you choose to do something other than what you agreed to simply because you "changed your mind."

Now, I know it wouldn't be terribly cool to call up someone and tell them, "I won't be at your party, dinner, meeting, etc. because something more interesting came up." Nor would it be fashionable to call the person and say something like, "I know I said I'd be there, and I don't really have anything else to do, it's just that I'd rather stay home by myself than go out of my way to be with you tonight."

Haven't you been there at one time or another? I know I have. What do you do when something like that shows up for you -- you just don't want to go for one reason or another, or, in fact, you did get a better offer?

Perhaps a more interesting question would be: "who the heck cares?"

The answer to the last question is: "you do." I'm not talking about the personality, the ego, or whomever you pretend to be when you aren't being your authentic self. I'm talking about who you really are inside. You know who I mean -- the person inside who actually pays attention to what you say and do.

If you're about to go off about this apparently odd or perhaps even trivial distinction, I encourage you to consider this for a moment: did you ever have a thought that you wished you weren't thinking? Did you ever have a feeling you wished you weren't feeling? Of course you have. The underlying question might be, "who noticed?" If some part of you is thinking the thought, or feeling the feeling, then who is that noticed and wished you weren't thinking or feeling what was present.

I'm suggesting that some part of who you are inside yourself actually notices what you say, what you do, and what you think. And, that part not only notices, it keeps score. And it learns. Or at least it allows.

I know, another "oh dear" moment. What on earth is he going on about now and how could it possibly matter? Well, it does matter and it is big. So let me offer an appetizer version of what this is and why it matters.

If you make an agreement with someone else, and then choose to break it, some part of you notices and keeps score. That goes something like: "agreement made, agreement broken." "Another agreement made, another agreement broken." And sooner or later this turns into, "even when I say I'm committed, it probably isn't real." And then you begin to lay the groundwork for "none of this is really matters anyway."

And that little slippery slope is one that begins to erode two rather important elements of who we are: our integrity and our sense of value or meaning in the world.

I know -- off the deep end again.

But stick with me for a moment or twelve (this idea will require more development for many, but it is a start): what if giving your word and then breaking it while offering some kind false excuse made it easier to give and break a commitment the next time? I'm not suggesting that one broken commitment damns you straight to some kind of hell; however, I am suggesting that one broken commitment paired with a false story just might make it easier to do a second time. Which makes it easier to do a third time.

I'm suggesting that loss of integrity rarely goes from the height of purity to the purgatory of sleaziness in fell swoop. I'm suggesting that you consider just how easy it might be to tell one "little white lie" today which then paves the way for another later on. Pretty soon, the person inside who notices and keeps score begins to say something akin to: "Breaking commitments? Speaking half truths? That's just who I am. But I am a good person. No, really, I am."

"I'm a truthful, upstanding, honest person of integrity and strong moral character. I just happen to lie from time to time." Hmmm. Could this be what you have to tell yourself in order to become a (politician, business person, etc) in today's world?

There's lots to this area and I'd love to know if you think this is worth exploring in future posts. So, tell me, what do you think?

Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email and let me know how this strikes you.

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Russell Bishop is an Educational Psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California. Watch for my new book coming out in January, 2011 Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Gets in Your Way at Work. You can find out more about Russell at http://www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell by email at: Russell (at) lessonsinthekeyoflife.com

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