How to break a promise.

Life and work would be so much easier if everyone kept their promises. But life doesn’t work that way. Life is full of uncertainty, and your well-crafted plan will encounter change soon enough.

It’s difficult enough to be on the receiving end of a broken promise, but what if you have to break a promise to someone else? Are you ready for it?

I’ve recently experienced a few broken promise situations in the past month, each from a different perspective.

What intrigued me was how each situation demonstrated the importance of trust, clarity, open communication, and self-compassion in making and breaking promises.


Having trusting relationships with those you make a promise to is critical. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing, however. You build trust over time by delivering on your promises. So to have a trusting relationship and then break a promise, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘did I just ruin this relationship?’


Before I decide to break a promise (usually a commitment to do something), I make sure to review the decision and consider that it was indeed what I wanted to do. I use the self-coaching technique of questioning: Why was I changing my commitment? Why did I commit to begin with? What has changed? Am I willing to accept the consequences?

Sometimes I need to have a sounding board to help gain clarity on these questions, and that role falls to my executive coach.


Once the decision is made, it’s time to have an awkward conversation. No sense in putting it off. Things will only get worse the longer you wait. Be open and honest about the reversal of your decision. If you have an established trust-based relationship, the other party will understand. If not, this is the first step in building trust – through honesty.

Continue to strengthen your relationship by helping close the gap you’ve just created. You’ve broken a promise. This leaves a hole of some sort. How can you help close the gap? If it’s a work commitment, can you find someone else to fill it? Can you reschedule something? Can you contribute in a different way to rebalance the workload?


You may not feel guilty about breaking the promise, but if you do try a little self-compassion. This is a moment of suffering. Life is full of these moments. What is it that you need right now to give yourself compassion? For me, it’s making sure I learn from the situation to avoid repeat performances.

Looking back at the original promise, was it the right thing to do at the time? Were there any signs that were missed at the onset? Could you have done something differently? The most important question: what would you do differently now, if approached to make the same promise?


No one wants to break a promise, but life is full of uncertainty, and it’s better to recognize it will happen and to be prepared.

It will also help you reserve judgment and build empathy when someone breaks a promise made to you.

We are only human, after all.