What to do when you stand someone up

It happens to the best of us.

Amiel looks at watch

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You make a commitment to meet someone. Then an interruption happens in your world–a lengthy meeting, calendar mishap, traffic, or a mental mistake–so you don’t make it. And–now here is the key point–you don’t or can’t contact them in advance to say that you won’t be there.

We call this “standing someone up.”

If people were dogs, the person stood up would wait a few minutes, then look for a new bone to chew. If people were turtles, they’d withdraw their neck back into the shell. If we were bonobos, they’d find some nearby genitals to rub.

But people are human beings.

So the person you stood up is likely to have a very human and very predictable response. They’ll feel surprised (unless you always do this to them, which is another story entirely) and upset (unless they didn’t want to see you right now, which is still another tale). Then, depending on how they tend to interpret their experiences–which differs by gender, cultural background, and Enneagram type– they will experience some combination of anger, frustration, and hurt.

In short, most people who get stood up are not happy campers.

Like all broken promises, this moment can go one of several ways. If you flub it, the relationship can take a dip south. If you handle it skillfully, you can maintain or even build trust.

So what do you do?

  1. Calm and center yourself. It happens rarely, but when I stand someone up, I tend to feel shame because keeping promises is very important to me. It’s an instantaneous and habitual reaction. So I’ve learned it’s important for me to calm and center myself before I do anything else. Two Feet, Five Breaths or a similar practice works well.
  2. Get clear on what happened. What is the true reason why you weren’t able to make it? What is the real story behind why you didn’t give them a heads up? Get clear on what kept you from keeping your promise, because you’ll need this in a moment.
  3. Decide how you will contact them. The classic advice is to pick up the phone because this makes it personal and live. So this is a good default. However, we now have many ways of contacting people, so ask yourself: what medium will this person most appreciate? Also, if the goal now is to mend the relationship, maybe it’s time to question the conventional wisdom of calling someone when they’re upset. Does this really serve them and the relationship? Only if you are capable of staying cool when they express their upset. Otherwise, a text, email, or handwritten note that you can drop off that day might produce better results. What if you get their voice mail? This can be a blessing because you can can be real and personal without the other person having to respond right away.
  4. Apologize. A short and direct apology often works better than a long and indirect one. Here’s why: the reason you stood them up is rarely complicated. And if it is, there should be a simple way to sum it up. The longer you blather on, the more likely the other person is to question whether you (a) understood what happened and (b) are taking responsibility for it.
  5. Listen and acknowledge. Mending a broken promise isn’t a one-way act. The goal isn’t to speak until you’ve dissolved your guilt and then move on. The goal is to mend the broken promise. So if the other person expresses upset or tells you the impact on them, acknowledge their words. For this, repeating the words “I’m sorry” is less important than paraphrasing what you hear and telling them it makes total sense. For example, two decades ago I was helping run a gubernatorial race in Michigan. One day the candidate cancelled a meet-and-greet with thirty sharp young lawyers, veritable rising stars, at the top two law firms in the state. I was able to reach the three organizers by phone so they could cancel an hour in advance. So it wasn’t a pure example of standing someone up. Still, when I met the organizers for tea, they were furious. One explained that she had carefully reached out one-on-one to a dozen colleagues from both political parties to get them to come. She also put her reputation on the line by saying, “This guy’s for real.” So, when she had to look each person in the eye and say, “The event is cancelled,” she felt embarrassed. So she really let me have it. (The fact that I was also angry at the candidate for cancelling was irrelevant, and I don’t believe I mentioned it). The others were less angry but equally vocal. I spent over an hour listening, paraphrasing what I heard, and acknowledging that their experience was totally understandable. Boy, was that a challenge for me! This was two years before I started meditating, so it took every ounce of patience to stay grounded and centered. And the upshot? I never heard from the most angry lawyer again. However, one of the others became a regular volunteer for the campaign and the third invited me to a couple social gatherings.
  6. Make a new offer. This step is really important. You’ve broken a commitment, so it’s important to make a new one. An offer is a commitment to bring about a particular result by a specific time frame if the other person accepts. The offer could be as simple as rescheduling to a different date. In some cases, this is enough. However, you may want to offer something extra to further acknowledge the impact you have caused and “make it up” to the other person. If the meeting you missed was at your office or a neutral location, offer to go to them. If you were going to each pay your own way, offer to treat them. Or think of something else you could offer that they would value. And if you don’t know, ask. In fact, regardless of what you offer, you will be asking if they’d like to accept it. (“Will this work for you” or “How about it?”) So you might as well include an extra phrase that lets them tell you what they would value most. You say, “Would this work for you, or is there a better way I can make this up to you?” You don’t have to accept their counteroffer, but it’s nice to invite it.
  7. Fulfill the new promise. Do what you say you are going to do. To ensure this happens, remind yourself of the conditions that caused you to break the original promise, and change the conditions.

That’s my take. Anything you want to add that has worked (or bombed) for you? Shoot me an email at amiel at amielhandelsman.com.