Making structured formal commitments to other people can be a powerful tool for us to move our lives in a more intentional, healthy, and clear direction. Interpersonal accountability can motivate us to achieve successes we might not have on our own.
Some guidelines that I have found useful in making interpersonal commitments and in holding them for others:
● When made, an interpersonal commitment should languaged in clear, specific, measurable terms; in other words, the manner in which it is phrased will eventually make it obvious whether the person succeeded or not. It is easiest when the success criteria for a commitment are something that a video camera could take record of, and is not contingent on assessing inner feelings and states.
For example, “Be more loving” or “be more responsible” are not goals that can be measured or definitively filmed on video. The goals of “tell five people per day for a week that I love them” and “finish my last three years of taxes and mail them to the IRS by the tenth of the month” are, however, clear, observable, and measurable.
● When first making a commitment, it helps if the person explicitly expresses the context for why it is being made – to explain what they positively hope to accomplish through the action being committed to and why that matters to them.
For example, if your goal is to return phone calls of potential clients within twenty four hours, you may state that your motivation is to be of service to them, to keep your headspace clear, and to be attentive to your own financial security. You might take a deeper cut too, and express what achieving those goals is in service of (for example, to help create world full of happy people, to having time and space to pursue other goals, and/or to provide for your family).
Commitments are ideally made from consideration, intention, growth-mindedness, and commitment to higher ideals, rather than from emotional upset, fear, shame, and compensation.
● When making a commitment, a person, of course, actually intends to fulfill it. And one model of commitment is only making them when one is sure that one can and will succeed at them – a person making a commitment means that the goal is “as good as done” and that the person is thus “impeccable with their word”.
Another model however is to see commitments as a way to jump in and more fully play in the game of life, and not expect every game to end in victory. In this view, we can set goals that are in a sweet middle spot somewhere between automatically attainable and impossible. Here, goals are best when they will involve effort, feeling edgy and challenged, and stretching oneself out of one’s comfort zone, while also being realistic and actually attainable. When setting commitment goals like this, one can expect an 80-90% success rate, with the other outcomes being “learning opportunities”.
● Commitment goals usually work best when their success is something the committer can have a relative degree of control of, and does not depend on other people’s actions. “Get my sister to agree to sell me her half of the shared car” is, for example, a less useful goal than “Ask my sister to sell me her half of shared car”.
● It helps to have a time agreed upon by which the commitment will be completed, or at least checked in on.
● While the person is engaged with the action steps of the commitment, support from a coach, members of a team, or other friends is often helpful and effective. This support of course may take the form of phone calls, texts and emails, and in-person meetings. While in communication, the supporting people can check in about progress towards the goal, help keep the commitment in awareness, help problem-solve about obstacles that have emerged, and remind the committed person of their original inspirational motivation.
● At the end of the specified time frame, the person checks back in as to whether they completed their commitment or not.
If they completed it successfully, there may be a reward. If the person did not complete, there may be a consequence. These rewards and consequences seem to work best when they have been agreed upon beforehand.
We can see this not as moral punishment or reward – it’s not a statement that a person is not wrong or bad for failing to complete a commitment, or good for completing them. The reward or consequence waiting at the end of a commitment can more be seen as simple tools that help give a person motivation to give their best effort beforehand.
● If the person habitually fails at their committed goals, the group or individual holding the commitments for them may give them feedback about how they may approach that area of life in a different way. The person who has been failing at commitments ideally takes in the input, and agrees to actually do the difficult work of trying to look at things differently, or to try a different way of approaching things.
● When a person successfully fulfills their commitment (which, again, ideally happens with most of the ones that they make), there is ideally some time for integration. This takes the form of a conversation about what challenges did the person face, how did they overcome them, what did they learn in the process, how does the world seem different after having completed the committed action, and what does the next step seem to be. Hasta la victoria, siempre.