The #1 trust buster

You and I make promises every day. “I’ll call you by 5 pm,” you say, or, “I’ll get you the info by Friday.” But then we get sidetracked.

That’s a broken promise.

I almost blew a major deal recently due to a broken promise.

We’d sold our house—the close was later that morning—and the buyers, a young couple, just needed to do their final inspection.

We’d already moved out, so I shouldn’t have even been there, but I had a few things to clean up, and a few things to give the buyers.

One was a long aluminum ladder, in perfect condition, except that every time I placed it against the house, or took it down, it tried to fall on my head. I hated the ladder.

There was also an extra refrigerator. I liked the frig, mainly because it never fell on my head.

And, dead or alive, the frig was worth at least $50. That’s what NSTAR, the electric company, pays you; then they haul it away for free.

I don’t know why they do that, but I also don’t understand electricity. Does electricity require vast quantities of broken refrigerators?

When the buyers showed up, I wished them well, and was headed to my car—suddenly, the husband came running out.

“Hey,” he said, “where’s the bookcase?”

We’d sold the buyers some furniture, including a $20 bookcase. We’d also donated some furniture to charity. I suddenly realized a bad thing: the charity had, accidentally, taken the bookcase.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and explained what had happened.


Then I made a mistake. “I wonder if we could just swap the bookcase for the refrigerator?” Seemed reasonable, $20 for $50.

“How do we even know the refrigerator works?” said the husband. You could feel the trust evaporating rapidly.

“Works fine,” I told him, “but even if it breaks, you’ll still get $50.” I explained NSTAR.

The husband looked incredulous, like I was making the whole thing up. “It’s obvious,” his look implied, “that you know nothing about electricity.”

“I really wanted that bookcase,” he said.

So I wrote a check for $20, then left.

“I can’t believe the husband did that,” said our real estate agent when I called her later. I agreed.

But I was wrong. I had promised the bookcase, then broken my promise. A promise isn’t rational (let’s trade $20 for $50). A promise is emotional.

It’s your word.

Tip: The fastest way to build trust is to make promises, then keep them. And the fastest way to destroy trust is to do the opposite.

© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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