One of my pet peeves is when people ask a favor or a commitment of some sort, but instead of leading with the request, they first ask if you’re available. It usually goes something like this:
Friend: “Hey! What are you doing Saturday?”
You [excited to finally have an open weekend]: “Oh, not much! Why?”
Friend: “Great! I’m actually moving and need help. Could you come? It should only take 4-5 hours.”
While you may have had an open Saturday, that doesn’t mean you were looking to fill it with an entire day of moving. But now you’re trapped—you just told your friend you had nothing going on, so you either have to change your story, or look like a jerk if you decline to help.
Or, for the ladies out there, perhaps the conversation looks something like this:
Guy [that you’re not interested in]: “Hey! What are you doing Friday night?”
You: “I don’t know, yet, why?”
Guy: “Great! Wanna go out?”
You [to yourself]: “Ah, crap.”
I call this approach to asking for help, asking someone out, etc. a “commitment trap,” and I’m not a fan. It’s not that I don’t believe in helping people, or spending time with people, but I don’t like feeling boxed in to a commitment, and this approach does just that.
To be fair, most people don’t do this intentionally or maliciously, they simply don’t think about it.
A Case for Candor
First and foremost, I’m a believer in honesty and candid communication. Even if you feel boxed into a commitment like the examples above, I do not believe you need an excuse to say no.
To your friend, you could simply say:
“I’d be happy to help for a couple of hours…”
(Limiting the time to a commitment you genuinely feel good about), or to the potential male suitor, you might say:
“Oh, I’m flattered you’d ask! Truthfully, I was looking forward to spending the evening relaxing this weekend. But I’d love to do something next week as friends, if you’d like?”
Both answers are kind, direct, and set clear boundaries. More on these types of conversations in a future post.
The Better Way
If you want to ask for a favor, or extend an invitation, lead with the critical details before you ask about availability.
“Hey! I’m moving on Saturday and am looking for a few people to help. Would you be available and willing to help out for a couple of hours?”
“A buddy and I are planning a group date this weekend—probably dinner and a bonfire up the canyon. I’d love for you to be my date if you’re up for it, and don’t already have plans?”
Simple enough, right? But it puts all your cards on the table and allows the other person enough space to respond without feeling pressured or backed into a corner.
How to Navigate the Commitment Trap
Okay, we now know the more respectful way to make a request, but the fact remains that most people don’t. Even if you are comfortable setting boundaries and letting people down easily, it’s still easier to simply avoid getting boxed into a commitment trap in the first place.
The trick? The next time someone asks about your plans or availability, respond with:
“Oh, I have a few things going on; why do you ask?”
This is not a lie—you always have a few things going on, even if it’s just eating a meal or catching up on a blog you follow—and it gets you more information on the request before committing to anything.
And seriously, it works like magic.
But here’s what’s cool about this response: it’s not a cop-out. It’s not something to only use when you’re avoiding someone. It’s a response that keeps an appropriate amount of privacy in your life and helps you collect all necessary info on something before making a decision. It actually makes it easier to be generous, helpful, social, etc. because you no longer feel pressured to say yes.
What’s more, this response can actually make it easier for you to accept invites you are excited about. I’ve had multiple experiences where someone asked what I was doing one evening, I told them my plans, and they said, “oh, okay, never mind.”
When I asked what the invite was for, it was for an event I really wanted to go to. But because I had already told them my plans, and they assumed they weren’t movable, the invite had already “expired” and I couldn’t think of a way of saying “I’ll drop everything to join you” without sounding desperate.
Simple Yet Powerful
Like most content on this blog, this is a simple tweak that makes a big difference. Investing time in honing your communication skills is invaluable, especially since we’re rarely taught these more effective ways of connecting and navigating life. We all face challenges in our lives, and, there are actually some pretty powerful tips, tricks, and insights that make navigating those far easier. My goal is to get those out into the world.
What Do You Think?
Do you agree or disagree with the thoughts above? Any other difficult social situations you find yourself in? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, below.