The Rope Trick – How to avoid getting let down



I recommend you watch today’s RFL, which I shared on Maria Shriver’s website last week.*   I realize that many read RFL at work and may not be able to watch video, so below is a written piece which parallels the points in the video.  As always I’d love your comments.  

It’s a three-headed monster: a work-killer, relationship-killer and buzz-killer.  The “it” is the awful letdown that occurs when you think you can depend on someone and they leave you hanging.

It happens at work, in volunteering and at home.  Your business partner denies s/he was going to do something.  Or your spouse said s/he’d get home early so you could work late and then s/he doesn’t.  Or your teenager assures you s/he will help their little brother with homework . . . but it never happens.  In each case you get left with more work and more stress – and rotten feelings towards those you need and love.  So much of this is avoidable!

In the video above I share a simple technique that works like magic.  I have used it with – and taught it to – clients; I practice it with my wife; and I find it most valuable with my kids.  They don’t always like it, because I pin them down and I invite them to be responsible adults – and that’s not always easy (and yes, they do the rope trick on me, too).  Here’s how to prevent the big letdown:

1.  Make sure the other person has agreed.  Duh! You say.  But so often we think we have an agreement when we don’t.  It’s as if we are holding one end of a rope and think someone else is holding the other, but they’re really not.  So, when that person says, “I’ll try,” or “Sure, I think that’ll work,” those should be alarm bells that they really haven’t picked up the other end of the rope or sure aren’t holding it tightly.  Later, they may say to you “I didn’t know you were counting on me.  I said ‘I’d try.’”  Or they say, “Oh, I thought I’d be able to help, but I didn’t know you were relying on me.”  When an agreement is important, we don’t want a hope, a wish, or an “I’ll try,” we want a promise, a firm grip or a tight hold on that rope.  So, when you see or hear some wavering, equivocating, or half-focused in reply, make sure they really have the rope; for example, by asking, “do you think I can count on you?”

2.  Make sure there isn’t a lot of slack or knots in the rope.  If you want to depend on someone be clear about what, when, where, etc., you are depending on them for.  So, if you want something from a staff person by Monday, don’t ask for it — or let them tell you they’ll have it  — “next week.”  That’s just too much slack in the rope.  If you want homework done before video games, you better be clear that that includes weekends; take the slack out.  If you’d like your husband or wife to “do a little more around the house,” it would be best to hear them say exactly what they will do; take the knots out of the agreement; otherwise you will end up with unmeasurable results and immeasurable frustrations.  The best way to get out the knots and slack in agreements is to ask – without being patronizing – for them to tell you what they have agreed to – which you might well precede by saying exactly what you have agreed to!  These first two points have a technical quality, but they work best in this context:

3.  Whiff ‘em.  Or W.I.I.F.M, which stands for “what’s in it for me?”  Most of us, most of the time, will hold on to our end of the rope because we’ve all been taught to keep our promises. And the two points above are about elevating agreements to promises.  But nobody – but saints and madmen – continues to enter into deals where they get nothing out of it. So, keep in mind and keep explaining the Why of it all. “Why should I make this promise, Dad?” Or answer the implicit question from your spouse, “Why should I get home early and put your work in front of mine?”  Here’s where you have to lead, by sharing a vision with the other person:  of a great partnership of trust, a noble and dependable child, a worker whose trustworthiness on their promises will make them an employee with a great future.

Even with these three moves, there will still be breakdowns.  But promises, clarity and WIIFM will carry you a long way.  So, whaddya think about that?  Will it help you

Lead with your best self?


Maria continues to offer great content, including a marvelous graduation speech she gave at Southern Cal on the importance of hitting the pause button.

  • Dan,

    I like your 3 step rope technique and want to try it with family members who are stalled in taking any commiited action on their job search. Any further advice in this field? They never do as I suggest to read, prepare, reach out or engage in the job hunt. They procrastinate and never follow-up.

  • I shared today’s Reading for Leading with a leader this morning – it’s as if you knew I’d need this today! One addition I’d make is that staff can also use your model when talking with a manager. Depending on the manager the staff person might have to modify it a bit, but I suggest it works up the chain of command too.

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